Prejudice in any form shames us

June 18, 2006

I was on a committee where one of our members (‘Jake’) destabilised the chairman by plotting to replace him. Anyone who wouldn’t support Jake’s ambition to become chairman was savagely attacked and denigrated. When Jake eventually got his way, he spread false rumours about the previous chairman, suggesting he had been replaced because of sexual misbehaviour (which, as far as I know, wasn’t true and would in any case have been irrelevant). Several members of the committee were outraged by all this, but when they criticised Jake’s behaviour, he accused them of anti-Semitism. Isn’t that just a form of reverse prejudice?”

MY correspondent, who doesn’t want to be identified even by initials, is spot on. Anyone remotely tuned in to the idea of fairness would resist prejudice in any form, but there is something equally offensive about those who try to defend their own bad behaviour by accusing their critics of prejudice.

The moral objection to prejudice is easy to describe. It is unacceptable to criticise another person on the grounds that they belong to any particular group or category, whether religious, ethnic, cultural or generational, because that prejudges them in terms of a stereotype and fails to acknowledge their individuality. Treating people as if they represent a “category” is always unfair.

Sometimes indulging our prejudices can be harmless. Plenty of Irish people are happy to be the butt of Irish jokes (and no one tells an Irish joke better than the Irish).

But assuming someone is incompetent because they are “too old” (or “too young”, come to that) is far from harmless. Assuming someone is stupid because they are poor is the kind of prejudice that can limit our capacity for compassion. Racial and religious prejudice is often the worst of all: assuming that someone is likely to be violent because they happen to be of Arabic extraction, for instance, or assuming that every Muslim is plotting to undermine our way of life is unfair, unkind and damages our social fabric.

The kind of “reverse prejudice” described by that disgruntled committee member is equally unfair and is in some ways even more insidious and destructive. Anyone who behaves badly deserves criticism and perhaps even censure. Attempting to deflect such criticism by suggesting it springs only from prejudice is dishonest, and exploits the decency of people who naturally abhor prejudice.

If a person behaves badly, the bad behaviour should be criticised, not the ethnicity or other characteristics of the person concerned. But the perpetrators of bad behaviour, whether in the street or the boardroom, play a cowardly game when they try to discredit legitimate attacks on them as being solely or even partly the product of prejudice.

You’re only picking on me because I’m Lebanese – or Jewish, or Muslim, or female, or because of my nose-ring, Afro hair or pinstriped suit” is a reasonable complaint when it’s true But when it isn’t true, it is an even uglier form of prejudice than the one it purports to attack.

Criticising a Jew for behaving badly is not anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism involves criticising a Jew for being a Jew.