Pride and Prejudice

Growing up in Manitoba, I had to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicein 12thgrade. I read it once because I had to; the second time to answer questions on exams; the third time because I loved the book.

What I got from it, besides the fact that it was good drama and good romance, was the importance of not being proud about my preconceptions, my prejudice. We all need prejudice. That is, we all need to make pre-judgments. The reason is that we often must make decisions without all the information we would like to have.

Take an example that has nothing do with race or political beliefs. It’s the kind of situation many drivers deal with a few times a month. You’ve come up to a 4-way stop and you have the right of way. A car is quickly approaching that 4-way stop perpendicularly and if he doesn’t stop and you claim your right of way, you could get T-boned. Is that car going to stop? Maybe, but it makes sense to prejudge. If you delay going into the intersection, you might upset him if he slows and has to wait for you, but that’s a small cost. If you head out into the intersection, on the other hand, and he doesn’t slow, the cost to both of you could be huge. What I do is hold off. I bet most of you do too. By the way, whichever choice you’ve made, you’ve prejudged. It’s just that one choice is much safer than the other.

So the key is not whether we are prejudiced. We are. The relevant questions to ask yourself, given that fact, are threefold: (1) Do I recognize that I am prejudiced? (2) Do I seek new information when I can do so at low cost and when an immediate judgment is not necessary? (3) Do I adjust my judgments once I have found new information if such information would lead to different judgments?

My answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes.


The Covington Catholic High School Incident

Consider the now-famous controversy involving the Covington Catholic High School boys, a small group called the Black Hebrew Israelites, and a 64-year-old native American drummer named Nathan Phillips. Early on Saturday morning, January 19, someone showed a short video on line in which it appeared that a young white male wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat was confronting Phillips. Many people on the left, a fair number of conservatives, and even a small number of libertarians immediately took sides—and it was the same side. The young man was being disrespectful, he was hateful, he was racist, or so their story went. And, oh yes, the young man was smirking. What was the basis for these quick judgments? A video not much longer than a minute. Notice what would have happened if these leftists, conservatives, and libertarians had asked themselves the first two questions above. (1) They would have had to recognize that they’re prejudiced. As I said, we all are. (2) Because of the answer to (1), they should have sought new information or at least refrained from judgment because there was no necessity to make a quick judgment.

Once new information came along in the form of a much-longer, more-complete video, it became clear that the Black Hebrew Israelites were making many racist comments and other nasty comments against the boys from the Catholic school. It also became fairly clear that a lot of the Catholic school boys’ chanting was in the form of school cheers, which were likely to have been simply morale boosters for some young kids who were under pretty heavy verbal abuse. It was also clear that Phillips approached the one Catholic boy, not the other way around.

Many of those who had made hasty judgments backed down. Some even apologized. In short, many did well on question (3). Not all, by the way, and that speaks very badly of them.

Now let’s consider an alternate scenario that could easily have happened. What if no one else had been there to film the scene? The odds are high that those people who strongly criticized the boys—the leftists, conservatives, and libertarians—would have stuck to their criticism. Question (3) would have been irrelevant because there was no new information. But they would have struck out on questions (1) and (2).

So notice what that means. People who backed down can congratulate themselves, rightly, for adjusting their views to new information. And some have said that they realize that they judged too quickly. If they really mean it, then that’s good. But time will tell.


Admirals’ Boot Camp

I’ve learned in my own life that I have to constantly remind myself not to make quick judgments when I don’t need to. I’ll give an example.

In 2010, I was invited to go back east to Maryland and give a talk on globalization at a one-week “boot camp” of 55 newly designated one-star Admirals and some newly designated members of the Senior Executive Service. I accepted. About a week or two before I left, and when I was starting to prepare my talk, I got an email from the retired Admiral who was president of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) telling me that he had just heard about it and wanted me to come by and chat.

I temporarily forgot the right answer to question (1). How dare the NPS president try to censor me when his job is to assure my academic freedom, I thought. I told my wife before going to the meeting that I was going to tell him in no uncertain terms that I was free to say whatever I wanted in the speech.

My wife seemed skeptical about the intensity of my reaction. Her view was that I had so little information about the president’s intent that I should simply go to the meeting and be open to listening to him. In other words, she got the answers to questions (1) and (2) right.

That was the right strategy. He didn’t come close to telling me what to say. He was relatively new to his position and we hadn’t met and so my guess is that he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of nut. We left on good terms.

An interesting postscript: After I told the 70 or so people in the room in Maryland that China’s government is not much of a threat to the United States, the two-star Admiral in charge of the event got up after my talk, when I was just another person in the audience without the floor, and told them all why I was wrong. When I got a chance to talk to the two-star one on one, it went better. A week or so later, I ran into the NPS president in the airport and told him that highlight. We both had a good chuckle. He said, “It sounds as if you got them thinking.”


ID Check

Back to prejudice. One of the things I noticed was that so many people were sure that they knew what the look on the key Catholic boy’s face meant. It was a smirk, they assured us, even though a minute before watching the video they didn’t know him from Adam. A number said that they had seen that smirk before. One, a professor, said that he had seen it countless times on the faces of people in his class.

Here’s a method that I use when I’m at the top of my game and, therefore, most aware of my prejudice: it’s called ID Check. I learned it in a class on something called Re-evaluation Counseling in late 1990. (By the way, if you look up Re-evaluation Counseling on line, you might get the idea that many of the people involved are leftists. You would be right. But I take insight wherever I can get it. I reject the chaff and take the wheat.)

Are you ready? Here it is.

When you find someone triggering you and you seem to have little basis for being triggered, ask yourself if the person reminds you of anyone in your past. Your first thought is usually the most accurate. When you think back to that person, you can remember whatever issue you had with him and get clear whether it has anything to do with this person. I’ve used that a number of times when I’ve had a reaction, usually negative, to someone who doesn’t seem to have done anything particularly wrong. I had a particularly acute reaction to someone in 2007 who was helping me deal with the horrible consequences of my office fire. He was helping me and I was hating him. What the hell? I did an ID check and, boom, I remember a horrible incident from 27 years earlier involving another man who had the same height (6 foot, 7 inches), the same build, the same good looks, and the same confident stride. Once I figured that out, I started liking the new guy. I still run into him on the street in Monterey and yell out, “Hi, Jerry.”

The case of the professor above is interesting in that it’s very different, in one important way, from my example with Jerry. In the case of the professor above, he hasdone an ID check. He knowsit’s a different person. He knowsthat that has triggered him. But he hasn’t learned the lesson: I can’t just assume, just because this person reminds me of past students, that this person is the same as those past students. I can’t assume that he’s smirking and, even more, I can’t assume that I know what’s going in this stranger’s head.



As you probably know if you’ve been on the web lately, a fair number of adults called for one or more of the Catholic school boys to be attacked; some even called for one or more of them to be murdered. One woman said that she would give a certain form of sex to anyone who punched the one boy who had the most prominent role. Even a friend of mine on Facebook, and not just a Facebook “friend,” but an actual friend, said he would like to punch that boy because of his smirk.

It seems obvious, but it’s important to say that this is wrong. And you don’t need all of the information about context to know that calling for violence against someone who has not been violent is simply wrong. It was great that many people who called for violence against the boy fessed up and said that they had prejudged. But the question many left unaddressed is whether it would have been OK to call for violence if their prejudgment had been correct. Again, maybe this seems obvious, but it was not obvious to many of them: they would have been just as wrong.