In 1993, we took our summer holiday in September. It was much cheaper and the roads were much quieter.
We meandered down through the middle of France, staying in the Auvergne, before heading down to Argeles on the Mediterranean coast near the French-Spanish border.
Because it was such a lengthy trek, it is hard to remember precisely the details of the towns on the way. But there was one small town where we stopped for a picnic lunch. The place was quiet, the local children having all returned to school. Our son, Michael was just short of his third birthday and spied swings and a seesaw on an open patch of green near to where we were parked. He and I made for the swings.
We were there for about five minutes when a local man appeared from among the houses and started to remonstrate with us in fast, provincial French. The gist of what he seemed to be saying was that the swings were reserved for the use of the children of the town.
I did my best to apologize for my transgression at which point he exclaimed that as we were not Parisians, we were welcome to use the swings – and he turned on his heel and returned to his house.
It was an astonishing piece of prejudice; a middle-aged man coming to object to a three year old being on a swing because he thought that we might have come from Paris. To have robustly disagreed with the man who did not like Parisians would have been perceived by the man as what he would expect from outsiders – it would have confirmed him in his position.
The man came to mind during one of those silly arguments that come around too often, where one argues a case one doesn’t believe because the other person has taken such an extreme position. The other person sought to defend a journalist who in the past had labelled a community in Ireland as ‘animals’. The position seemed indefensible, but instead of discussing whether it was acceptable to call people animals, the ground of the argument was shifted to attempting to justify the frequently anti-social behaviour of the community. Once the positions had shifted, the battle became unwinnable.
The discussion raised questions about what constituted legitimate opinion and what constituted prejudice. Had battle not been joined, the other person would have contended that while the label was unacceptable, the opinion reflected real and substantial grievances. He might have argued that robust opinion and prejudice are very different things, and, had we not disagreed on the matter of labelling people, his approach might have seemed reasonable.
The line between robust opinions and plain prejudice can be a thin one. Opinions should be formed on the basis of facts. There would always be disagreement as to which facts are admissible. Sometimes, though, prejudice is so blatant that it needs no facts at all; it is sufficient just to think something. Challenging prejudice needs to take account of the sometimes irrational roots of thinking; otherwise one ends with a last state that is worse than the first, and those who protect their swings against foreign children believe they were right after all.