Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

In order for us to understand Arendt’s “prejudice against charity” properly, we must evaluate her idiosyncratic understanding of prejudice. Prejudice has few defenders in the 20th Century, when it became synonymous with ignorance and intolerance, but Arendt used a version of Edmund Burke’s defense of tradition as the latent wisdom of the past judgments to do just that.

Both a systematic defense of prejudice and a more detailed account of her attack on Christian charity can be found in an unpublished text where she articulates the theoretic foundation of much of the rest of her work. This text, “Introduction into Politics”, was meant to serve as a “large, systematic political work” divided into two volumes, the first of which eventually became her book On Revolution, while the second “introductory” text would have been “concerned exclusively with action and thought.” (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, xvii)

“Introduction into Politics” begins with the claim that there is a longstanding prejudice against politics, but that prejudice, itself, need not be bad. Rather than decry the superstition and ignorance of a life lived dependent on these prejudices, Arendt celebrates the simplicity they create. In fact, she argues that we need the relative stability of a world that mostly matches our expectations in order to function at all: “Man cannot live without prejudices.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 99) 

Arendt paints judgments with broad strokes as heuristic instruments for living in a world whose every relevant detail cannot be fully known in advance. On this account, we move through the world with shorthand judgments at the ready, using our just-so stories and stereotypes to approximate deliberate, sound judgments when there is not enough time to do otherwise.  We experience novelty and surprise against a backdrop of static and predictable phenomena. Prejudices are crystallized judgments, “anchored in the past,” and their anchoring in some original judgment is what gives them their power. The judgments we crystallize are memories of the past that promise to be applicable to the future, but they need not be our own memories. Prejudices can be the product of our own experience, but they can also be the vestige of a traditional set of beliefs.

Though prejudices are useful when they help us navigate in a world that is mostly unsurprising, they can also hamper our understanding of the novel and unforeseeable events that occasionally puncture the predictable tedium of human affairs. For Arendt, the act of thinking withdraws from appearances to consider the invisible patterns these appearances take. As she explains it in the context of prejudice, the act of judging preserves the visible as an example for future comparison with new appearances.  Interestingly, this account of judging suggests that original judgments are like acts: their novelty disrupts the foreseeable order of cause and effect, of public rules predictably applied to foreseeable cases.

Prejudices can be necessary to function in the social world, where we expect others to share our reactions to events, our values, and our priorities without deliberation or disagreement. The expectation of shared judgments thus suppresses pluralism, because they elicit “the ready assent of others, without ever making an effort to convince them.” In this sense, judgments of this sort are pre-political: they are private and either offer or refuse us entrance to a world where politics is possible.

We can clarify Arendt’s account of prejudices using the distinction in scientific instrumentation between precision and accuracy: a good prejudice delivers precise results, which is to say that they are predictably repeatable. Yet precise results may still be inaccurate: deviating from the true measure by some quantity that is not necessarily known in advance. In this, they are like Kant’s account of determinative judgments, which simply apply rules or standards to an individual case. Such dependence on a traditional standard is prejudice par excellence, but it need not trouble us that we spend much of our social lives measuring events against the yardsticks supplied by memory and tradition. In this, our social lives show us thinking as calculation, applying rules to cases mechanically and with varying degrees of precision, but with little concern for accuracy since the rules themselves are not under consideration.

Contrast this understanding with our use of ‘stereotypes’: originally derived from a printer’s term for the duplicate plate used to print common templates or images to avoid damaging the original, it came to mean an ‘image perpetuated without change.’ Since Walter Lippmann’s 1922 work on propaganda Public Opinion, the term ‘stereotype’ has been used to refer to the simplified prejudices (the ‘pictures in our heads’) available for manipulation to those ‘manufacturers of consent’ who, on Lippmann’s account, must convince the public to allow elites to do what they know to be best. In later analyses of public opinion, ‘stereotype’ is often used alongside ‘prejudice’ to refer to the bigoted or intolerant opinions of those who make important judgments based on those pictures despite the complications reality usually presents.

The stereotype is a prejudice without an accompanying judgment, a judgment of “the they,” das Mann. A stereotype may be accurate or inaccurate, relevant or outdated, but what makes it unique is that it crowds out our own judgments. The stereotype of the greedy Jew or the violent black man comes as an example prior to our experience, a feature in our world that needs no confirmation and against which we compare our own experiences and find the experiences wanting. . Unlike prejudices, stereotypes tend to designate the crystallization of false or inaccurate judgments, judgments disseminated to deliberately deceive and oppress. Arendt in these passages expresses concern with the way that racial and religious stereotypes suppress freedom by preventing some from entering the public sphere as potentially singular actors. Instead of a potential ‘who,’ an actor frozen by false crystallized judgments appears only as a ‘what.’ Because free acts require both an agent and space open to the actor’s transgression, stereotypes foreclose the plurality needed for publicity. The individuals who differ from that stereotype serve as exceptions that prove the rule, and their distinctness is submerged into that identity.

Arendt held that we ought to be most concerned when we become dependent on these false standards and import our prejudices into the political realm. There judgments as such are possible, and accuracy becomes paramount, if we are to “suffer and condemn” the unforeseeable events that trespass on the space of appearance. In a claim that appears at odds with her general reflections on politics, Arendt declares that the principle “task of politics” is to “shed light on and dispel prejudices.” (Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” 99) Stereotypes cannot survive in the realm of unforeseeable appearances, where every true act offers a surprise capable of shattering some previously firm judgment. In public life, prejudices hamper our freedom to act and respond.

Arendt’s attempts to connect this defense of prejudice to the development of Christianity and privacy of faith make it clear that there is more to her ‘prejudice against Christian charity’ than a throw-away line in a letter to a famous fan. The development of Christian social forms is closely tied to the development of modern politics and the eventual downfall of publicity and action. Her early attempts to account for this intricate history form a genealogical critique of our prejudice against prejudice, our unwillingness to discriminate or choose without full deliberation.

This helps to explain why Arendt would celebrate her own crystallized judgments of charity without shame. Having written her dissertation on Augustine, the conception of charity as a trump to politics was far from new or novel to her. Her criticisms of charity were at the heart of her concerns about the rise of private life in the modern era, the growth of which she laid at the feet of Plato and Christianity. Auden’s reflections on charity in the Christian tradition had offered nothing to shatter her previously held views.  His attempt to preserve a space of Christian agape demonstrated that he had not understood her account of the role of the perversion of the private sphere in the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Second Opinions