Prejudice can be difficult to witness or to experience. Its various forms — sexism, ageism, and racism, among others — can erode relationships and destroy communities. Prejudice helps to lay the foundation for religious intolerance and class envy. It colors discussions of politics, and often renders problematic the most well-intentioned attempts at conflict resolution. Even minor irritants like social snobbery and cliquish behavior evince prejudice.
I suppose all of us are prejudiced in one way or another, but in a wonderful bit of irony, none of us wishes to appear so. It’s simply who we are.
On the other hand, not every bit of prejudice is necessarily destructive. The world is filled with pre-judgments that serve as a kind of human shorthand, and they’re often quite amusing. American football fans think soccer is beneath contempt. Soccer afficionados contend American football is thuggish and unskilled. Sailors refer to powerboaters as “stink-potters,” while those making way with the help of engines indulge in disparaging remarks about “rag-haulers.”
Country folk regard city slickers with disdain. Mrs. McMansion feels scandalized by the cottage-dweller who refuses to tear down and rebuild. High-school dropouts make smart remarks about the highly-educated who “pile it higher and deeper,” while Ph.D.’s dismiss high-school graduates’ common sense as useless and irrelevant.
Fortunately, such stereotypes can be overcome by shared experience, new information, or personal encounters. Even so, lying beneath our snobbery and stereotypes, at the very bottom of prejudice’s heap, lies a response so unthinking, so immediate and pure, it seems instinctive: a primordial rejection of the unfamiliar or the new.
Take, for example, my first experience with the venerable Brussels sprout.
I wasn’t a fussy eater as a child, but I had my preferences, and I was willing to express them. When my mother showed up one night with a bowl of Brussels sprouts in hand and asked, “Would you like some?” I was polite. “No, thank you.” “Why not?” “I don’t like them.”
Perhaps because she knew the answer to her next question, she asked it anyway. “Have you ever tasted them?” “No.” “Then why don’t you try one?” “I don’t like them.” My mother was nothing, if not persistent. “You like cabbage, don’t you?” I agreed that I did. “Well,” she said, “don’t they look just like little cabbages? Aren’t they cute?” They did look like miniature cabbages, and they were cute. “Why don’t you try just one?” It didn’t happen.
Years later, I found Brussels sprouts at a friend’s house, grilled with lemon, butter and garlic. When they arrived at the table in their pretty yellow bowl, dressed with lemon wedges, I decided the time had come. I put three or four on my plate and tried one. In an instant, my childhood prejudice was confirmed; those sprouts were the worst veggie to come down the culinary pike since grass.
I’ve since learned to eat them, politely, but you’ll never find them in my shopping cart.
Over the years, I’ve been reminded of my response to Brussels sprouts in quite different circumstances.
When a friend suggested I ought to purchase a Kindle, the first word out of my mouth was, “No.” Curious, she asked about my objections. I had quite a list:
My books always are “on” — they’ve no need for batteries.
I can physically turn the pages.
No one will hack my bookshelf.
Books don’t break.
Books smell good; plastic doesn’t.
I can press flowers and leaves in a book.
I can turn down the corner of a page.
I can add comments in the margins.
When I stopped for breath, she said, “But you can put a thousand books on a Kindle.” I suggested I wouldn’t have time to read a thousand books before my death. She tried pointing out that I could make the text bigger, and I pointed to my reading glasses. She explained there were free books available, and I told her about a place called the library. “Well,” she said, “it’s easy to prop one up in front of a bowl of ice cream.”
That stopped me. Of all the advantages a Kindle might have, that one had possibilities. Still, it wasn’t enough.
“Listen,” I said. “Just tell me. What makes your Kindle better than a book?” “It’s not better,” she said. “It’s different. They’re great. Everyone loves them. I’ll loan you mine for a week. Don’t you want to try it?” While I appreciated her willingness to share her new toy, the answer still was “no.”
Over time, I began to understand the Kindle as a strange e-quivalent to the Brussels sprouts I refused as a child. While my objections sounded rational, my opposition was tinged with irrationality. In fact, I was prejudiced against e-readers in a way I wasn’t fully able to explain.
I suspect Victor Hugo would have understood my ambivalence, since he spent much of his life pondering the significance of an earlier technological revolution — the introduction of movable type — and its implications for human culture. Writing and publishing were his business and his passion, so he certainly didn’t reject books. Still, reflections embedded in his novel Notre-Dame de Paris make clear he could imagine the discomfort of living in a time marked by conflict between old ways and new.
Early in Notre-Dame de Paris, the antagonist, Claude Frollo, encourages two visitors to lift their gaze from a book lying on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame.”This [the printing press] will kill that [the cathedral],” he declares.
Frollo’s point of view is the conviction of Hugo: the history of architecture belongs to the history of writing. Before Gutenberg, culture was communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, from The Alhambra to the soaring grace of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, stories were preserved in “books of stone.” With the invention of the printing press, everything changed. In Book Five of his own grand story, Hugo dives directly into the depths of his argument.
Human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression… The book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable. Architecture was dethroned. The lead characters of Gutenberg succeeded the stone characters of Orpheus.
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, elusive, indestructible. It mingles with the air. In the days of architecture, thought had turned into a mountain and taken powerful hold of a century and of a place. Now it turned into a flock of birds and was scattered on the four winds, occupying every point of air and space simultaneously.
We repeat: who cannot see that in this guise it is far more indelible? Before, it was solid, now it is alive. It has passed from duration to immortality. You can demolish a great building, but how do you root out ubiquity?
Hugo never pretended architecture would disappear, or that it would cease to communicate in its own, particular way. He knew that, in the age of printing, the age of building would survive. But architecture no longer would be “the social art, the collective art, the dominating art. The grand poem, the grand edifice, the grand work of humanity will no longer be built: it will be printed.” It was to be a both/and world.
Today, even those who’ve become most enthusiastic about the transition to e-readers and tablets aren’t willing to argue that printed books, the heritage of Gutenberg, will disappear. But with a system to support them, with electrical grids, wireless networks, and computer chips to make them viable, e-readers have joined the printed page in keeping the richness of culture soaring above an ever-changing world: winged and full of life.
Watching the transition, I finally admitted the truth. While I like to declare myself a both/and kind of person, in the matter of digital vs. print, I had remained stubbornly either/or. In fact, I’ve been so adamantly either/or I didn’t need someone pointing to the hem of my mental skirt and saying, “Pardon me, Ma’am. Your prejudice is showing.” I could see it in the mirror.
Once we see something in life’s mirror that displeases us, there are three choices: we can change what we see, we can stop looking into the mirror, or we can break the mirror. This time, I opted for change, and ordered my Kindle.
Once it arrived, there was no question which book I’d download first. Not only is a little literature good for the soul, the thought of reading musings about new technology on an even newer technology amused me.
And who knows? With its nice, sturdy cover and its perfectly legible text, my new Kindle might prop up quite nicely in front of a bowl of Brussels sprouts.