What Prejudice Is

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The letter from Jake DeSantis in the NYT today is a very powerful reminder that bankers have human rights too. We are very used to understanding the idea that judging a person on the basis of unjust and untrue generalizations about the color of their skin is wrong. We call that racism. But when we make broad-brush accusations against all bankers, or even all bankers at a particular company, no such ethical restraint is required. Of course, this is not entirely nuts. The experience of bankers in human history is a little less oppressed, to put it mildly, than most African-Americans. But the core moral point is the same: we should always try to judge the individual, not the group.

The relatively privileged are often excused from this rule. And maybe this is fine most of the time, given their wealth and power. But it remains true that the individual obliterated by his fellows in this way is as human as anyone else. He or she is not worth less than someone in far less comfy circumstances. If we prick them, do they not bleed?

I remember very vividly an occasion at Oxford, where I was engaging in a bit of unreflective class warfare against Etonians, those very privileged members of British society who went to one of the best private schools in the world.

Later, a friend of mine who was an Etonian took me aside and let me know that he was aware of how privileged he was, but equally he felt that the Etonian label, used to marginalize him and sum his entire life up, was unfair. He deserved to be seen as a human being first.

Hatred of those with more perceived power than you is still hatred. It is different than the contempt of the strong for those they they view as weak. In its structure, anti-Semitism is constructed differently than racism in the human psyche. But hatred out of envy is no less wounding or dangerous than hatred out of contempt - as we've seen with the horrifying consequences of anti-Semitism in recent history. And when it is wielded by mobs and ginned up by elites, it can be very dangerous.

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