With and without prejudice

"Context and balanced opinion tend to be first on the sacrificial altar in any echo chamber"

In an age in which we are constantly told to remember, maybe we should remember what we have forgotten. William Hazlitt, one of the greatest essayists and sharpest pens in English letters, is seldom read these days. Perhaps this is the fault of the essay—Montaigne’s bastard form of “grotesque bodies pieced together of different members”—which appears to have fallen out of favour.

The shortcomings of social media are obvious to anyone who has spent even five minutes on Twitter and Facebook. Context and balanced opinion tend to be first on the sacrificial altar in any echo chamber, whilst the personalised curation of news and commentary can lead to judgments being formed before the fact. Moreover, everyone who has access to the internet has become a self-appointed critic.

These shortcuts to some vague truth may well have helped establish a binary culture in which prejudice—and this despite the current quest for social equality—seems to obtain. In the light of this, Hazlitt’s 1830 essay on the subject is worth quoting:

Prejudice, in its ordinary and literal sense, is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice, or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary . . . Prejudice is the child of ignorance: for as our actual knowledge falls short of our desire to know, or curiosity and interest in the world about us, so must we be tempted to decide upon a greater number of things at a venture; and having no check from reason or inquiry, we shall grow more obstinate and bigoted in our conclusions, according as we have been rash and presumptuous.

The current fashion for living in the nominative case and optative mood, in which the self is all-important, means that dispassionate discourse has become increasingly unlikely. “Lived experience” (can there be any other?), that great recourse when rigorous thought might be required, tends to be at the mercy of solipsism. This in itself may seem prejudicial—Hazlitt tells us “it is not an easy matter to distinguish between true and false prejudice”—but recognition of it may be a good place to start. Standpoint continues to stand for freedom of expression (and not solely the right expression), the open forum rather than a narrow furrow. Moreover, the magazine continues to make the case to retain those tenets of Western civilisation that may yet come under threat. Kenneth Clark may have called himself a “stick-in-the-mud” but his beliefs are worth repeating: order over chaos, creation over destruction, gentleness over violence and, above all, forgiveness. Even a cursory knowledge of the Classics will show that human nature hasn’t changed in over two thousand years. But as Clark says, “History is ourselves.”

In this issue we focus on the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, a human tragedy that symbolically resonated around the world. Not that racial discrimination and police brutality are either new or limited to the United States, but as we know timing is everything. Madeleine Kearns offers the view from Washington and looks at the impact race relations will have on the November elections. Remi Adekoya considers majority-minority tensions in society both in the UK and abroad; while Inaya Folarin Iman explores the fight for racial justice that has become a struggle for societal racialisation.

As lockdown continues to linger, and the warning of a second wave takes on the spectre of an existential threat, Matthew Sweet addresses the enemy without: why crises provide the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories to flourish.

Over-caution and a safety first culture have become the driving force of most politicians and the central tenets of political culture. Robert Crowcroft’s incisive essay analyses the disparity between democratic expectation and what politicians can actually deliver. Closer to home, Dominic Sandbrook assesses whether Sir Keir Starmer has what it takes to make Labour electable. Whilst the reason for Nicola Sturgeon’s political form is considered by Alex Bell. Courtiers have a long tradition in British politics. Andrew Blick offers historical context for a current favourite, Dominic Cummings.

The pandemic may have temporarily restored the BBC to its treasured status. Nevertheless, Tim Luckhurst looks at whether Rupert Murdoch’s newly-launched Times Radio can pose a threat to Radio 4. The BBC’s More or Less comes under scrutiny from Noel Malcolm, who asks the salient question: who will check the checkers?

Friedrich Schiller may have been overshadowed by Goethe’s genius, but Ritchie Robertson makes a case for why the German dramatist and upholder of the Enlightenment still matters today. John Lippitt gives us Søren Kierkegaard’s reflections for the pandemic: an admixture of anxiety, dread and time.

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