Burke & prejudice

At some point over the past week, this poster appeared in the stairwell I use every MWF:

“All that it takes for prejudice to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”  As you can see in this detail, this is an homage to Edmund Burke, who famously said “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

I can’t figure out whether the poster invites us to reflect on the irony of having Edmund Burke, the famous defender of prejudice (albeit in a different sense), repurposed in this way, or whether the designer simply didn’t know much about Burke beyond the famous quotation.

If it’s the first, then the poster could be read either as a tweak at Burke, or, contrarily, as a jab at the heavyhandedness of current disputes over diversity in higher education.  After all, Burke’s idea that prejudice can represent a kind of practical wisdom, and must be preferred over abstract ideas until experience dictates otherwise, doesn’t sit well with contemporary conversations about diversity.

Such readings probably assume greater knowledge of Edmund Burke than I fear is current, which suggests that the designer found an interesting quotation and adapted it.  (There might be a question as to how, if that’s the case, the poster got picked for public distribution, but we’ll leave that alone.)

I’m always happy to see people using Burke, who is the starting point for my Brit Lit II classes.  (And I  think that the reflexive habit of labeling him the forefather of modern conservatism doesn’t do Burke any favors, because then people assume there’s some connection between Burkean thought and, say, Rove/Cheney/FoxNews-style political practice.)

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3 Responses to Burke & prejudice

  1. Could you be more specific about Burke’s defense of prejudice? I’m not an expert on his writings, but my understanding of his place in Anglo-American history is that for his times, he was comparatively liberal — e.g. he supported American independence and tried to alleviate anti-Catholic oppression in Ireland.

  2. J. says:

    Here’s what Edmund Burke had to say about it, I thought this was ironic. Happy reading:

    We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.–Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.

  3. jbj says:

    The passage J’s provided is pretty typical of Burke’s argument. In the _Reflections_, Burke recoils in horror from the Revolution’s implied claim that we can wholly remake society, arguing that such a perspective will lead inevitably to wanton bloodshed. (This was before the Reign of Terror, so the book reads as oddly prophetic.)

    That’s actually related to his support for American independence: From Burke’s point of view, the American colonists were simply claiming their traditional rights as Englishmen, which the crown had betrayed them.

    When he talks about prejudice, he’s not talking about racial prejudice in the sense in which we use that phrase.

    David Bromwich has an interesting book on higher education, called _Politics by Other Means_, which tries to sketch the ways thinking about prejudice from Burke’s point of view can be stimulating.

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