When Intellectuals Are Prejudiced

I first encountered Guillaume de Machaut’s name while reading René Girard’s 1982 book The Scapegoat. Machaut was a fourteenth-century French lyric poet and composer. During the past few months, my medieval lit professor has frequently cited Machaut.

However, Girard cited Guillaume de Machaut as a medieval anti-Semite. Machaut, the brilliant lyric poet, believed that the Jews were responsible for the outbreak of the Bubonic plague and for the poisoning of wells. While prejudice is often associated with ignorance, Girard was fascinated with Machaut’s anti-Semitism because he was highly educated. In fact, many vocal anti-Semites throughout history have been intellectuals teaching at universities. Guillaume’s scholastic contemporaries wrote political treatises in which they accused the Jews of sorcery. How could otherwise intelligent people be so prejudiced?

These intelligent people of the late Middle Ages were often the same people who praised dispassionate Reason. The Scholastics were very concerned about the reasonableness of their beliefs, even their religious beliefs. Reason was based on observation and was seen to be in conflict with the passions. If prejudice derives from an irrational and a passion-driven response to personal crisis, we should least expect prejudice in “reasonable” people. But there were many German professors and doctors in the 1930s who belonged to the Nazi party.

Gerard’s introduction challenges a common assumption in developed nations that education necessarily leads to tolerance. I find his observation particularly disturbing because I value higher education and usually consider liberal arts education to be in conflict with fear-mongering ideologies. But Guillaume de Machaut was both highly educated and a rabid anti-Semite.

Although I never finished The Scapegoat, I did finish Girard’s analysis of Guillaume de Machaut’s anti-Semitism. Girard argued that prejudice seems rational to the prejudiced. In the minds of the prejudiced, one person is perceived as representing an entire group of people. That, of course, is the definition of prejudice, but Girard moves from this obvious definition to the following point: The association of one person with an entire group appears reasonable to the prejudiced. The reasonable appearance of this association merely reinforces lifelong prejudices.

If a society already has a fear of Muslims or black men, or Mexican workers, only one person of each group needs to behave badly to convince those in power that entire groups cannot be trusted. The prejudiced think that the laws they are passing are reasonable because they are very loosely based on observation. How many data points are necessary to condemn or exonerate an entire group?

Education has the potential to challenge our preconceived notions or to reinforce them. Prejudice is reinforced when data is misinterpreted. If someone is already prejudiced, that person is looking for data that can reinforce his/her views. If one black man rapes a white woman, lifelong racists will point to that one rape case in defense of discrimination against black man everywhere. They think their conclusions are reasonable because they’re based on observation, but they never take a critical look at their assumptions.

This, I believe, is the number one reason why we need to have diversity in higher education. When material is consistently taught from only one perspective, we risk reinforcing prejudices in our students. Guillaume de Machaut was surrounded by other intelligent Christians who defended anti-Semitism on rational grounds. It was one giant echo chamber, and the Jews didn’t have a voice. Jewish intellectuals did not share educational spaces with Christian intellectuals. Prejudiced people have to learn to challenge the assumptions that lead to their faulty conclusions, but that is nearly impossible in an homogeneous environment where assumptions are interpreted as fact. Besides, prejudiced people (most of us, unfortunately) are keen to find information that seem to support deeply held views.

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