On what it is to prove a prejudice

There are two senses of prejudice: one, non-value laden, that simply refers to a tendency, even the necessity, of pre-judging certain matters. This concept, for instance, has been ably addressed in the writings of, among others, Hans-Georg Gadamer. A more restricted sense refers to prejudice in the value-laden sense, i.e. a prejudice in the first sense that is, in addition, irrational or otherwise harmful. This post is about prejudice in this latter sense.

What is a prejudice? A habit: a tendency to judge before one has adequate evidence; a tendency to judge based on non-rational motives.

How is a prejudice proven? Strictly speaking, a prejudice can rarely be proven; it usually can only be indicated (the only exceptions to this case generally being outright admissions of prejudice by the accused party himself), because a prejudice is a habit, and habits are by definition not phenomena, but the sources thereof. In other words, I cannot see someone’s habitual dispositions, but infer them as the simplest explanation for said person’s behavior. To ask for demonstrative proof, then, is to trivialize the very notion of prejudice, such that the only people who can be brandished as such are outspoken bigots. Prejudices are usually more subtle than that.

Showing that a person has a strongly negative evaluation of an individual, or even a whole class of individuals, is not enough to show prejudice. One must further show that this evaluation is mistaken. A necessary condition for evincing this latter claim is that the investigator into the charge of prejudice be able to come to an independent evaluation of the work in question, or at the very least is able to come to an independent evaluation of the validity and pertinence of the accused’s critiques thereof. When remarks against a position or concept are gravely deficient, they point to a deficiency in the one who makes those remarks.   This deficiency can be either intellectual or volitional, or (as is perhaps more usually the case) a combination of both. If the deficiency is intellectual, the one who makes the remarks is thereby shown to lack the capacity to judge the thesis that he attacks; if the deficiency is volitional, then the capacity for right judgment is usually impeded by some emotional or non-rational pull in the opposite direction, by impatience, or by the intrusion of irrelevant cares that prevent the point being made from being adequately grasped. In all of these latter cases, the judgment consequent upon said intrusions is considered to be prejudiced because it is consequent upon a failure of understanding; in other words, prejudices intrude where and only where understanding fails: either when a) adequate understanding of the position under scrutiny is not reached, and one’s natural inclinations serve as a “fall-back” option in lieu of said understanding, or b) adequate understanding of the content of the position under scrutiny is reached, but the position itself is deemed unpalatable, or irrational motives overpower those consequent upon rational understanding.

This should prompt the question, ‘what exactly are we doing when, for instance, we institutionalize mechanisms for the detection of prejudice, e.g. in simple cases like formal complaints about a grade brought by a student’, wherein the obligation to come to an independent evaluation the act or work in question is forfeited from the start? I don’t think the immediate alternative (i.e. having colleagues breathing down each others necks to create a kind of forcedly homogenous grading system) is particularly good, but the present method is clearly and essentially deficient in achieving its end. I, for one, have been struck by how insulated I am by these mechanisms from genuine complaints having any impact on me. This is surely comfortable in a rather unsatisfactory immediate sense, but ultimately, I find it deeply unsettling. Thoughts?

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