Some thoughts about prejudice (Vorurteil), Confederate statues and Hans-Georg Gadamer

A report on the history of Confederate statues by Jack Smith IV for the independent US online news channel called “Mic”  (Click on this link to see the report transcribed below)

[Have you noticed] the way this Confederate statue [in Durham, North Carolina] comes down with just a tiny tug and then crumbles up like a paper clip when it lands? Why does it fall apart so easily?

Because it was mass-produced—quickly, cheaply and, most importantly, for a very specific purpose. [When you take a] look at the time line of when Confederate monuments went up you’ll notice that the bulk of them didn’t go up during or even shortly after the Civil War, but during two specific periods. Stephanie McCurry (Professor of American History at Columbia University) tells us that
the first period:

“. . . came at the turn of the century when white southerners were attempting to disenfranchise black people. The second burst came in resistance to black civil rights and political rights in the 1960s. It’s very predictable.”

      Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a granite or marble statue, a business like Monumental Bronze could whip you up a Confederate monument for just a couple of hundred bucks. And if your little town couldn’t afford one? Well, then a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy would chip in, which is why you see their name on monuments everywhere. This is the same group that pushed for textbooks that excluded black history and promote the idea that the South actually went to war of states’ rights. All of this rewriting of history perpetuates an ideology called the “Lost Cause,” a mythos that says the Confederacy wasn’t so much about slavery, as it was defending a pastoral antebellum Southern identity. In the ”Lost Cause” myth, General Robert E. Lee wasn’t one of racisms greatest frontline warriors, but was somebody who was actually against slavery and was reluctantly pulled into the war for the greater good of defending the South. Never mind that Lee thought slavery made black people “immeasurably better off,” that he was a particularly cruel slave master who had waged war on the United States explicitly to defend slavery. The whitewashing of Lee and the true motives of the Confederacy has been happening for 150 years and is still perpetuated at the highest levels of our government and society. Stephanie McCurry says:

“I don’t care whether it’s Trump, or white supremacists or Southern heritage thinkers. The heritage of the Confederacy is that they made war on the United States because they felt that slavery was threatened and that the only way to protect it was to be a separate and
independent country.” 

Tearing down Confederate monuments isn’t about clearing history away. It’s about clearing away the fog of mass-produced propaganda that keeps us from seeing our history the way it truly, really happened, and the legacy of slavery that still lives on with us today. 

Hans-Georg Gadamer quoted in The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence by Jerome A. Stone (SUNY Press, 1992, p. 144)

The overcoming of all prejudices, this global demand of the enlightenment, will prove to be itself a prejudice, the removal of which opens the way to all appropriate understanding of our finitude.

It can be shown that the concept of prejudice did not originally have the meaning we have attached to it. Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word, constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. This formulation certainly does not mean that we are enclosed within a wall of prejudices and only let through the narrow portals those things that can produce a pass saying, “Nothing new will be said here.” Instead we welcome just that guest who promises something new to our curiosity. But how do we know the guest whom we admit is one who has something new to say to us? Is not our expectation and our readiness to hear the new also necessarily determined by the old that has already taken possession of us?

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Some thoughts about prejudice (Vorurteil), Confederate statues and Hans-Georg Gadamer 

Whilst I was away on vacation I was re-reading a very fine book by Jerome A. Stone (a religious naturalist who is also, a former minister and, not incidentally, a Unitarian). It is called “The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence” and in it there is a chapter in which he explores an important idea by the highly influential German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) concerning the meaning and use of the word “prejudice” (Vorurteil).

The day I started to re-read it I began to hear on the radio news about the “Unite the Right” rally organized in Charlottesville, Virginia by various far right — that is to say Nazi, fascist, white nationalist and racist — groups protesting against the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Most of you will be aware that during the rally a white nationalist deliberately drove his car onto the pavement killing a counter-protester and injuring a further nineteen. This, in turn triggered Donald Trump’s disturbing and far from Presidential response that made it even more abundantly clear than is usual that racist, white nationalism remains a powerfully real force in the life and politics of the USA.

But I don’t want to use this story merely to take a pop at the USA because different kinds of right-wing nationalist stances — also often centred on statues and other kinds of problematic/contested iconography — is present in many other countries around the world — including, of course, the UK. Instead, I want to use the report about the pulling down of Confederate statues you heard earlier alongside the aforementioned insight of the important German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) to help us begin to think properly about how best to address our own current, highly conflicted political and cultural situation in which the meaning of British identity and history is itself beginning to be contested on all sides.

So, let’s now turn directly to Gadamer. In the introduction to his key work, “Truth and Method” (published in 1975 and lightly revised in a 2nd ed. in 1989), Gadamer wrote that his “real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” (Truth and Method 2nd ed., Continuum, London 2011 p. xxv-xxvi). In other words he wanted to describe what we are always-already doing whether we know we are, or want to be, doing it. To help him do this he explored the idea of “prejudice” (Vorurteil).

But before we look at what Gadamer meant by the word it’s important to remind ourselves of how it is often  colloquially used. In relation to the pulling down of Confederate statues the word is often used by liberal anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, anti-nationalist, anti-racist movements as a term of even abuse that they can hurl — in print, on-line or in person — at Nazis, fascists, nationalists and racists.

Now it will come as no surprise to most of you here that I share the basic views held by most liberal anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, anti-nationalist, anti-racist movements — indeed over the years I’ve personally been involved in one way or another with all these movements — but what has always concerned me is the dangerous and very sloppy way the word “prejudice” is used by so many members of these groups.

My point is, of course, that these groups are (as I am myself)  strongly prejudiced against the beliefs and actions of Nazis, fascists, nationalists and racists and we (I) forget this at our (my) peril. It is vitally important to remember that our own liberal Enlightenment inspired culture developed early on a problematic, unhealthy and impossible to achieve obsession about the need to gain neutral, technical scientific, legal and philosophical viewpoints from which to judge all things and this is why Gadamer was able to criticize Enlightenment and Enlightenment inspired thinkers for holding a “prejudice against prejudices”. Do not forget that as a liberal church tradition we have inherited this “prejudice against prejudices” and this is why we are so often tempted to hurl the word as a term of criticism and abuse at our opponents — we like to think we’re free of prejudice. This is, of course, a total load of nonsense and Gadamer helped show us that everybody — without exception — has what he called an “historically-effected” consciousness and that we are all always-already deeply embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped us — with all its prejudices.

But Gadamer was also concerned to show that prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous and that neither do they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, to reiterate, without prejudices we have no way to access the world in the first place. As you heard in our reading Gadamer says that

“. . . prejudices, in the literal sense of the word, constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something — whereby what we encounter says something to us.”

I cannot overemphasize strongly enough Gadamer’s point here that “prejudices are biases of our openness to the world” and that this is as true for Nazis, fascists, nationalists and racists as it is for anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, anti-nationalist and anti-racist campaigners.

This means in the first instance that, although one sometimes has no choice but directly to face down Nazis, fascists, nationalists and racists in the streets — such as occurred in Charlottesville last month and, looking back at our own British history, in London during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 which finally saw off Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists — for most of the time it is going to do no good at all aggressively to hurl the word “prejudice” at one’s opponents. Of course they are — and so are we.

So one thing we on the liberal-left (which is the part of the political spectrum where our churches generally belong) need to be doing, over and over again, is to find ways in the public sphere to reveal and to acknowledge the inevitable and constant existence of prejudices in both ourselves and our opponents without which none of us can get access, for good or ill, to the world.

Once we can be rid of the dangerous and false idea that we can live in the world without prejudices then we need to explore ways by which we may use them to help us enter into the world such that we begin to develop prejudices that build-up and create a common good for our planet as a whole rather than prejudices which merely break-down, separate, abuse and destroy the same. We will, of course, never arrive at a situation where even our best current prejudices will ever be able to stand on a pedestal eternally uncriticised and without the need of constant review and modification, but what we can do is move a long way towards developing a hermeneutical process — that is to say a process or method of interpretation — that, to quote Gadamer once again, welcomes again and again “just that guest who promises something new to our curiosity” — that can help us change our mind and improve ourselves in some mutually beneficial way.

Of course, this is a hard and difficult process to develop well and consistently because as Gadamer realised:

“. . . how do we know the guest whom we admit is one who has something new to say to us? Is not our expectation and our readiness to hear the new also necessarily determined by the old that has already taken possession of us?”

Well, we can never know for sure because we will always be judging this and that on the basis of some prejudice or another. But we can adopt a method of constantly critiquing and challenging our own prejudices so that we may better and more confidently challenge and critique other people’s prejudices. 

In a nutshell, this is why I was very impressed by the tight, brief piece of reportage by Jack Smith IV on the history of Confederate statues for the independent online news channel Mic because in his piece he never hurls the word “prejudice” at the Nazis, fascists, white nationalists and racists who gathered at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville but, instead, he carefully and concisely shows how those statues were raised up as part of the conscious creation and promulgation of a post-Civil War about the “The Lost Cause” — a myth which was concerned to promote the idea that the Civil War (1861-1865) was somehow an honourable struggle to maintain a uniquely distinctive and idyllic antebellum (i.e. pre-war) Southern way of life, all the while deliberately minimizing, or even completely denying, the central role of slavery in that same life. Smith’s tone of reporting quietly allows (in a totally unpatronizing way) that if a person’s own “historically-effected” consciousness was created in a “Lost Cause” environment then the pulling down of statues of Confederate soldiers and generals is, naturally, going to create in you great confusion, anger and hurt.

But one cannot stop merely at understanding this hurt felt by those who have been decisively shaped by the “Lost Cause” myth and to conclude my address properly I need to add two further thoughts.

The first thought is that in saying we are all prejudiced I am not thereby suggesting we fall into a thoughtless relativism where every view is believed to be somehow equal to every other view — where the Nazi has their view (prejudices) and the anti-Nazi has their view (prejudices) and so let’s merely agree to disagree. My liberal-left prejudices run deep but because I publicly acknowledge them and belong to a tradition which tries constantly to critique them I find I (and Jack Smith IV) can be clear and confident (enough) that there is no assumption of equality being made between Nazis, fascists, nationalists and racists on the one hand and liberal anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, anti-nationalist, anti-racist movements on the other. What I’m suggesting involves (as the contemporary British philosopher Michael McGhee puts it in a different context):

“. . . an unequal relationship, one between a teacher and a pupil, in which the teacher by various means seeks to dislodge the pupil from a condition that obscures their view of reality or of how things really are. But the inequality does not derive from the fact that one person formally holds the role of teacher and the other the role of pupil. Rather it is determined precisely by a more adequate awareness of how things are, by who has something to teach and who something to learn. The premise . . . is that one person can see the obscuring mechanisms and the other cannot.”

Jack Smith IV and I, thanks to our (hopefully) constantly critiqued prejudices can see certain important obscuring mechanisms that Nazis, fascists, nationalists and racists cannot and this means we can say with confidence, as Smith powerfully and appropriately puts it, that

“Tearing down Confederate monuments isn’t about clearing history away. It’s about clearing away the fog of mass-produced propaganda that keeps us from seeing our history the way it truly, really happened, and the legacy of slavery that still lives on with us today.”  

The second thing is to note, therefore, that it is vitally important to realize that when employing this method of proceeding we are not, in the first instance, concerned to change another person’s beliefs (prejudices), rather we are concerned to get a person thinking critically so that they themselves can begin to see the obscuring mechanisms we have seen and so begin a journey, we hope, that will eventually cause them to change their own minds, drop their old set of prejudices and adopt a new set instead (which includes, as I hope you now realize, a powerful prejudice in favour of constantly seeking out and critiquing one's own prejudices).

I hope you can also see that prejudices are not the problem for, when looked at aright, they turn out to be the very gateway to being able to articulating genuine, shared answers about how we might best deal with our complex human, all too human, situation.
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