Prejudicial Listening

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anglo-Irish author Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) made a hobby of observing people in taverns, coffee houses and other public gathering spots. One such occasion is recorded in his celebrated essay “National Prejudices” (1760), which describes a boisterous “pseudo-patriot” pontificating on the character of European nations to a group of like-minded men. He calls the Dutch “avaricious wretches,” the French “flattering sycophants,” Germans “beastly gluttons,” Spaniards “surly tyrants.” The speaker has only pleasant things to say of the English, the people to which he belongs. In his not-so-humble estimation, they excel all the world in “bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue.”

Not wanting to be dragged into the hysterics, Goldsmith strikes a ruminative pose and pretends to think about something else. But the speaker, betraying the insecurity typical of the assertive dogmatist, insists that he collect everyone’s approval, even Goldsmith’s. After some prodding, Goldsmith reluctantly drops the observer’s cloak and assumes the role of participant. With calm voice and careful words, he explains that he cannot make broad statements about any population. He then artfully demonstrates how negative portrayals can be spun into compliments: the Dutch are “frugal and industrious,” the French “temperate and polite,” Germans “hardy,” Spaniards “staid.” As for the English, they can just as easily be called “rash, headstrong, and impetuous.” The essay concludes with a question that gets to the heart of the matter: “Is it not very possible that I may love my own country, without hating the natives of other countries?”

Prejudice derived from self-love is something most of us are guilty of. True, citizens of the contemporary West are, for the most part, less ardently nationalistic than the inhabitants of eighteenth-century Europe. But the larger point still resonates. Despite our increasing individualism, rising global awareness and the triumphs of multiculturalism, we have not outgrown the false premise that in order to applaud ourselves, we must also put down others.

For most of us, this impulse has migrated away from chauvinistic nationalism and into other facets of life. Its presence is obvious in historically contentious areas like religion, politics, ethnicity and class. But it also thrives in less severe, but no less sensitive, areas such as food, automobiles, clothing, sports, television and music. We are quick to attack the character of a blouse or sedan that is not our own, and freely exaggerate the virtues of things we possess or to which we are attracted.

Building up and tearing down are prevalent in musical discussions. It is not enough to simply enjoy or feel a connection to this song or that performer. It must also be better than the rest. No musical creation or creator can stand alone or be appreciated by itself. Comparisons have to be made. A recording cannot simply draw us in or escape our interest. It must be awesome or awful.

This impulse is present among professional critics and regular folks alike. Peruse any music-related online message board and discover droves of passionate fans making points and counterpoints, striking and counterstriking, defending and counter-defending. Jimi Hendrix versus Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell versus Nina Simone, Richard Tucker versus Jan Peerce, the London Symphony Orchestra versus the Berlin Philharmonic. Bring up two names and watch the heated exchange unfold. Neither side is willing to concede that its evaluation is clouded in personal ties and tastes, or accept that there is something for everyone in the vast world of music. If your opinions clash with mine, yours must be certifiably inferior. And let me count the ways.

Returning to Goldsmith’s essay, loves and hatreds surrounding nationalism and musical preferences seem to have common roots. In both cases, feelings are hyper-charged because they are part and parcel of self-identity. Elevating one’s national affiliation or musical tastes is an act of self-elevation, as is the companion instinct to degrade the nationality and musical affinities of others.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the insecurity underlying these twin inclinations. The rhetoric intensifies as confidence decreases. If a person is self-assured and comfortable with his or her place in the world, then there is less need to boast or put down. What Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about fanatic religiosity applies to national and musical prejudices as well: “[It] is never rooted in faith but in doubt; it is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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