The cholera epidemics of 19th century London inflamed prejudice in the city. Cholera kills indiscriminately—all things held equal, people of all races, genders, or social classes are equally likely to die of the disease. However, due to the squalid conditions of Victorian London, the working classes were far more likely to contract cholera and die than were upper-class Londoners, who lived in more spacious neighborhoods where diseases spread more slowly, had access to cleaner water, and received better medical care. As a result, there were many who were willing to believe that London’s working-classes had somehow earned their deaths, either because the poor were inherently weaker than the rich, or because poor people’s wicked, immoral behavior had led them to contract cholera.
Johnson shows how class prejudices served an important psychological purpose for 19th century London’s elite. To begin with, these prejudices reflected all Londoners’ fear of cholera—at the time a hideous, effectively incurable disease. Prejudice was a kind of coping mechanism for the elite: by accusing the working classes of weakness (or poor “internal constitution,” as it was euphemistically put), the upper classes assured themselves that they would survive the next outbreak. But class prejudice didn’t just help London’s elites cope with fear; it also helped them rationalize their own indifference to other people’s suffering. By blaming the victims—in other words, attributing cholera victims’ deaths to some vague, sinful behavior—the rich and powerful convinced themselves that they were morally justified in doing nothing to help their social inferiors. There were almost no welfare programs in London at the time, and many people took seriously the offensive myth that poor people “deserved” their suffering (still apparent in contemporary debates about welfare in America). There were certainly some powerful people who used their influence to help the poor (even if their attempts, like those of Edwin Chadwick, sometimes harmed the poor even further), but many elites were content to fall back on class prejudices as a means of reassuring themselves and justifying their own indifference.
Perhaps Johnson’s most important point about class prejudices in the 19th century is that these forms of prejudice infiltrated almost all sectors of Victorian London, even the scientific community. Some of the most popular scientific theories about cholera reflected class prejudice: the miasma theory, for instance, hinged upon the point that some people’s “internal constitutions” were weaker than others. Johnson argues that many proponents of miasma theory—including some of the supposedly neutral scientists who developed it—believed that miasma justified class prejudice: i.e., the poor contracted cholera more often than the wealthy because the poor were weaker than the wealthy. It’s important to recognize that most of the class prejudice in 19th century science—and, perhaps, most prejudice in general—was unconscious. Few if any Victorian doctors would have admitted to favoring miasma theory because it upheld their beliefs about the inferiority of the poor; however, taken holistically, the influence of class prejudice on science is impossible to ignore. By the same token, John Snow’s heroic efforts to understand cholera epidemics may have had a socioeconomic motive, too: on some level, Johnson suggests, Snow (the son of working-class parents) may have been trying to refute, once and for all, the myth of working-class inferiority.
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Class and Prejudice Quotes in The Ghost Map
This social topography would play a pivotal role in the events that unfolded in the late summer of 1854, when a terrible scourge struck Soho but left the surrounding neighborhoods utterly unharmed. That selective attack appeared to confirm every elitist cliché in the book: the plague attacking the debauched and the destitute, while passing over the better sort that lived only blocks away. Of course the plague had devastated the "meaner houses" and "bad streets"; anyone who had visited those squalid blocks would have seen it coming.
Fear might not have been a contributing factor in the spread of disease, but it had long been a defining emotion of urban life. Cities often began as an attempt to ward off outside threats—fortified by walls, protected by guards—but as they grew in size, they developed their own, internal dangers: disease, crime, fire, along with the "soft" dangers of moral decline, as many believed. Death was omnipresent, particularly for the working class.
Some of those forces were ideological in nature, matters of social prejudice and convention. Some revolved around conceptual limitations, failures of imagination and analysis. Some involve the basic wiring of the human brain itself. Each on its own might not have been strong enough to persuade an entire public-health system to empty raw sewage into the Thames. But together they created a kind of perfect storm of error.
The global challenges that we face are not necessarily an apocalyptic crisis of capitalism or mankind’s hubris finally clashing with the balanced spirit of Gaia. We have confronted equally appalling crises before. The only question is whether we can steer around these crises without killing ten million people, or more. So let’s get on with it.