The Guardian view on Al­bert Ein­stein: free think­ing and hide­bound at­ti­tudes

The Guardian Australia - - The Guardian View / Environment -

Al­bert Ein­stein’s hu­man­i­tar­ian rep­u­ta­tion al­most matches his sci­en­tific stature. From the 1930s on­wards he vig­or­ously de­nounced racism, “a dis­ease of white peo­ple”, once ob­serv­ing that “be­ing a Jew my­self, per­haps I can un­der­stand and em­pathise with how black peo­ple feel as vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion”. So it is es­pe­cially shock­ing to learn of racist and misog­y­nist com­ments that he made while trav­el­ling in Asia in the 1920s. In his newly pub­lished di­aries from the pe­riod, he de­scribes the Chi­nese as “in­dus­tri­ous, filthy, ob­tuse” and “a pe­cu­liar herd-like na­tion”. Though he praises their mod­esty and gen­tle­ness, he also echoes con­tem­po­rary warn­ings that they posed a de­mo­graphic threat: “It would be a pity if these Chi­nese sup­plant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is un­speak­ably dreary.”

How could a fig­ure renowned for his em­pa­thy and wis­dom have writ­ten such pas­sages? The an­swer “seems very rel­e­vant in to­day’s world, in which the ha­tred of the Other is so ram­pant in so many places … It seems even Ein­stein some­times had a very hard time recog­nis­ing him­self in the face of the other,” the amp;#xa0;di­aries’ editor notes.

Such views were preva­lent at the time – but far from uni­ver­sal. Those com­mon prej­u­dices clearly in­flu­enced Ein­stein. A per­sonal evo­lu­tion may have helped him es­cape them. But how strik­ing that he could see so lit­tle and ex­press such big­otry when he thought so freely in his work, and so en­er­get­i­cally chal­lenged prej­u­dice out­side it.

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