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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