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December 27, 2006

Being practical about prejudice

I'd like to think that I take a practical view of prejudice and bigotry: We can reduce it but never quite do away with it. We are, after all, men and not angels.

It is practical to try to reduce the number of bigoted people and to minimize the degree of prejudice in each of us. It is utopian, however, to try to eliminate it. The best we can realistically achieve is to encourage -- in some cases require -- people to treat each other respectfully, civilly, politely, fairly, even if, deep down, they still harbor prejudices. In other words, let's judge how people act, now how they think.

I was pleased to see that the New York Times, of all places, ran an op-ed yesterday on this same subject by Orlando Patterson, a black sociology professor at some passé institution in Massachusetts. (The article is behind the Times Select firewall, so most of you will have to be content with my description and excerpts. We don't pay for it; it's a benny of paying for a home subscription, which Mrs. Attila, who avoids the Times's political nonsense as much as she can, enjoys quite a lot.)

Patterson argues that the quest for authenticity, a term from Lionel Trilling that he defines as "finding and expressing the true inner self and judging all relationships in terms of it," has caused many problems. Patterson believes it has led to our election of people like Clinton and Bush, but he says that it is in dealing with prejudice that authenticity had been especially troublesome: "Social scientists and pollsters routinely belittle results showing growing tolerance; they argue that Americans have simply learned how to conceal their deeply ingrained prejudices." Patterson's response is:

I couldn't care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?
To this, I say, "Bravo!" We've always learned that actions speak louder than words. It surely follows that actions speak louder than thoughts. I don't care what your thoughts are if you don't act upon them, if you treat others with the respect they deserve as human beings and members of our society.

Patterson concludes with this:
Sincerity rests in reconciling our performance of tolerance with the people we become. And what it means for us today is that the best way of living in our diverse and contentiously free society is neither to obsess about the hidden depths of our prejudices nor to deny them, but to behave as if we had none.
To behave as if we have no prejudices, while recognizing that we do, is a challenge, but it seems plainly the right way to go.