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Well-Intentioned but Wrong

Well-Intentioned but Wrong published on 2 Comments on Well-Intentioned but Wrong

Despite good intentions, people’s prescriptions on how not to be prejudiced can often be misfires.

If someone were to ask me what actions or expressions would qualify a person as prejudiced – being guilty of sexism, for example – I would respond saying that statements such as ‘all X are filthy and immoral’ and actions such as not hiring people of X despite their being disposed to a job are examples of prejudice. I am inclined to give a general rule, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t.

However, some groups, notably those who claim to represent and advocate for ‘the oppressed’ are arguing for a far more inclusive and more easily achievable definitions for what is racist and sexist, etcetera. Such new definitions often exclude the possibility of much open discussion and opinion without the possibility of one being defined as prejudiced. This is a pattern which has been followed in other areas of society – notably the war on drugs – wherein politicians and activists feel as though they are fighting the good fight by enacting restrictive measures when, in fact, such actions usually result in rules and definitions which are meaningless, or even destructive.

The following is from a list of general actions and statements which are defined as prejudiced, they can be found on crooksandliars.com. Most of the items represent genuine instances of prejudice, though far too many items classify open discussion as a form of prejudice. I include only the offending items:–

4 – Refusing to hire, associate with or otherwise interact with members of the group, including segregating the group in society

I often wonder whether this is just a case of poor wording – which would be forgiveable but disappointing. Any person with the ability to hire new employees will have to refuse to hire an individual who is a member of a particular ethnic group, for example, if there were better-qualified person outside the group – it would be racist were the person in charge of personnel to refuse to hire them solely because of their ethnicity and to hire someone with inferior qualifications.

A reader might chastise me, saying that this is clearly what the writer, Kenneth Quinnell, meant. That may well be true, but the next worse thing to a bad rule is an unclear one, and such unclear expression is easy to correct yet remains uncorrected. I would not be so motivated to address this item were it not for the fact that some organisations actually use this list as a basis for their policy on prejudice.

5 – Opposing government programs that disproportionately help a group that faces a history or present marked by discrimination or mistreatment

Who decides which programmes are helping and which are hindering? Here, a libertarian who sees welfare as a curse is defined as prejudiced because they have a differing outlook. Rather than having an officially determined definition of help, with those who opposite it being defined as racist, for example, what is necessary is an open discussion on the best course of action.

Were I to agree, for the sake of argument, that such programmes do help, how much help should we give? Am I prejudiced if, in a discussion, I oppose a programme which disproportionately helps a disadvantaged group, but advocate one which helps them to a lesser extent or in a different way?

8 – Saying you know better than the group does what is happening to them or what is best for them

I can understand how a smug claim to superior knowledge, especially concerning one’s own situation, can be quite abrasive; it is hardly prejudiced, however. There are, necessarily, cases in which someone who is a member of a disadvantaged group will have less knowledge of the overall situation and the best way in which to proceed than an outsider.

This reminds of a tendency which I notice in a certain flavour of those who consider themselves representatives of underdogs – a thoughtless and aggressive attitude to the advantaged, the educated and the successful.

Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience, that has decided it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it. – Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

Honestly, before I read that paragraph as a teenager I used to share something of this aggression, before I realised that in the case of non-victims or WASPs, while they are not necessarily right all the time, they are not necessarily wrong all the time, either. It is unavoidable in any significant conversation with a disadvantaged individual to say, or to imply, that one knows better.

9 – Denying real-life experiences or statistically-proven challenges that the group disproportionately faces

This is another example of one for which it is hard to discern the point. I don’t think anyone would actually deny someone’s account of their own experiences, short of accusing them of lying; such an accusation is not prejudiced in itself. I think, however, that Quinnell is referring to when people deny that anecdotes reflect a general condition within society – they don’t, of course; personal accounts can be enlightening, but for one anecdote one can always find a contradictory one – thus, only hard and universal facts should be used to make policy. Dear reader, you may have noticed how quack treatment/remedy sellers only publish personal testimonials, never hard research, on their products. Anyone can abuse anecdotal evidence.

Statistically proven? Quinnell must be aware that our understanding of the facts changes, people who gather and interpret statistics can be mistaken (or even malicious), and their methods can be fallacious and are often improved. To choose a topical example, the statistics on false rape allegations range from 1.5% to 45% – is it possible that some of these studies have fallacious methods? I’m sure that my reader will be familiar with questions which, asked in a certain way, can condition for a certain response.

If I don’t accept a given set of statistics which indicate disadvantage, am I prejudiced? No – statistics require constant challenge and conversation, one cannot simply accept a certain piece of research as revealed truth and define anyone who disagrees as prejudiced. Our understanding changes constantly and we require an open and flexible discussion which reflects such dynamism.

11 – Ignorance of the history, challenges, language and culture that causes the group problems

12 – Being blind to the differences between the group and other groups

Everyone is, thus, prejudiced with respect to at least one group; I won’t tolerate hatred and hasty judgements, but I respect anyone’s choice to choose their own research topics.

13 – Stating that your group faces the same problems as a group that statistically faces more of the problem or more intense versions of the problem

I have never actually heard an example of this. To choose another current example, I have heard men claim that they suffer domestic violence too, usually quoting a proportion of around 40% though I’ve never heard them say that such conditions are ‘the same’.

Once more: Whose statistics? Are there reasons to think that they’re false? We always have cause to challenge them.

If there were people who wrongly claim that their group faces ‘the same’ problems as another, this can only be a case of misinformation or stupidity – it is hardly malice.

14 – Telling members of the group that they shouldn’t be “sensitive” about problems that they face

This, of course, depends on the definition of sensitive and, once more, it’s difficult to tell what he means. I think it might be best to respond with a personal example – do comment or contact me if I have totally misunderstood this.

In one discussion, a member of a disadvantaged group directed some personal comments to me, I responded cordially, saying that their behaviour was undesirable; their response was to say that they are, as a member of a disadvantaged group, entitled to such behaviour because of their experiences. This is backward – the same standard, politeness and good form should be expected of everyone; I understand, if someone has had a difficult experience, that they might get upset during a discussion and I’m very willing to forgive them if they apologise. It is my prerogative, as the person who was insulted, to forgive; rather, they didn’t apologise and forgave themselves.

I think that my actions are what Quinnell is addressing. I understand that people might often be sensitive, but a system which entitles a section of people to speak as they please while others can’t, while being unfair, can only to more aggression, profanity and personal attacks.

15 – Using the term “politically correct” (or some variation) to dismiss complaints from the group about discrimination or prejudice directed at them

Politically Correct: demonstrating progressive ideals, esp by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, esp concerning race and gender – World English Dictionary

It always amuses me when concepts like this and Health and Safety, usually with the obligatory ‘gone mad’, are transformed from well-intentioned policies into insults. If one defines ‘politically correct’ to mean, colloquially, the over-bearing or irrelevant application of the original definition, then I hope, dear reader, you have already thought of some redolent examples.

In 1999, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Mayor of Washington D.C.,  accepted the resignation of David Howard for the offence of using the word ‘niggardly’, due, apparently, to its containing the same phonemes as a certain racist epithet. Williams later re-hired Howard. Nonetheless, is this not an example of political correctness in the derogatory sense, maybe even ‘gone mad’?

I have learned that the person who brought the complaint against Howard was Marshall Brown, but I haven’t been able to learn his race. Race doesn’t matter to me, statements and actions stand on their own. But, if I were to find that he is African-American, would his claims about ‘niggardly’ be valid? and invalid if he is white? Quinnell’s point would imply that this is the case.

Unfortunately, sometimes people’s well-intentioned claims, whether they are or are not a member of the group in question, can be misfires. As a society we must discuss such cases, to determine their validity, it is not enough to simply accept one testimony and define disagreement as prejudice. Society needs people who call out statements that are well-intentioned but wrong for what they are.

To conclude, rules such as these appear to be well-intentioned, but this doesn’t proof them against being wrong and ultimately destructive. I hope to always be wary of edicts which assume knowledge which is unchallengeable, and ones which prescribe double standards. On a similar note to one I mentioned earlier: underdogs are not necessarily wrong all the time, but they are not necessarily right all the time, either. Everything must be challenged.

2 Comments

I liked your blog-post today, but I must say I disagree with this idea that the PC brigade are somehow “well-intentioned”.
I think the intention comes from a bitter, venomous urging to muzzle, a fanatical desire to set-up a restrictive paradigm that everyone must conform to.
As I think I said before, the left have become marginalized by this issue of minority rights; they’ve ditched all other concerns (anti-capitalism, restructuring of institutions along more egalitarian lines etc) and have latched onto this last totem poll of genuine socialist sentiment, and have taken it far beyond the realm of rational discourse.

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