Sheila S. Kennedy

Mystery of Bigotry

Filed By Sheila S. Kennedy | March 17, 2007 7:10 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: African-American, bigotry, Gordon Allport, Jewish, LGBT community

There are some behaviors I have never been able to really understand--things I just can't get my head around, as my students might put it. Vandalism is one of them. I can "get" why someone would steal; you've got something, the thief wants it. Theft is wrong, certainly, and should not be tolerated, but we can at least understand the impulse. Destruction of property for the sake of destruction, on the other hand, I find mystifying; I cannot for the life of me "get" what that's all about.

Similarly, I certainly understand disliking someone. (Want to see me go nuclear? Let's talk about George W. Bush.) But I don't "get" disliking categories of people, unless you consider "jerks" a category.

I revisited that mystery recently, when I was doing some research that required me to re-read Gordon Allport's classic book, first published thirty years ago, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport was one of the first social psychologists, and his insights into the nature of bigotry remain seminal. Although the focus of Allport's study was prejudice against Jews and Blacks, the relevance of his findings to homophobia is very clear.

Allport says that the fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility makes a certain amount of what we might call "identity-based one-upsmanship" inevitable, but he also provides evidence that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change. As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport puts it, "whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats." In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone, or something, we can identify--so we channel our aggressions against an outsider, someone we can consider an "other."

Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one? And why do our targets for hatred or disapproval change over time? Allport notes that the nearest thing to an "all-purpose" scapegoat is a group that has permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn't any basis for a good, persistent demonization of Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable. Jews, blacks and gays, however, have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, they'll continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.

So why, we might ask, if permanence is important in the choice of target, has bias against Jews--and to a lesser but still considerable extent, blacks and even gays--abated over the past few decades? It certainly isn't because the pace of social change has slowed--quite the contrary. The answer lies in Allport's most important contribution to our understanding of prejudice: that there are two different kinds, and one is treatable.

Treatable bias comes from conformity to general social attitudes--free-floating, "everyone knows" beliefs that "Jews are sharp businesspeople" "blacks are lazy" "gays are promiscuous." When such views are widespread and not contested, many people adopt them unthinkingly. They become part of their mental furniture. But that furniture can be rearranged by education and by life-experiences that bring them into contact with real Jews, blacks or gays.

The intractable bigots, on the other hand, are those whose personalities are invested in their beliefs--people who are deeply frightened by forces they cannot identify or control. They feel powerless. They need an outlet, someone to blame. (Psychiatrists call this "displacement.") Allport suggests that such people "got a bad start in early life." If they didn't have someone to hate, they'd disintegrate. That's why, as the general culture becomes more tolerant, these haters become more hysterical.

The good news is that the "cultural" bigots are much more numerous--and the culture is changing. That's why the landscape for gays and lesbians will continue to improve. Despite the vitriol of the culture warriors, and their efforts to disenfranchise gays and lesbians with hateful legislation, they are doomed to fail.

We need to remember that as we fight SJ 7.


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This theory makes sense to me. I've often wondered why it is that certain minority groups are regularly singled out for prejudice while others come and go.

I have seen this "treatable bias" in action recently. I work in a very conservative private Christian school part-time. I am not out at work (thoughts on this are for another post) for the most part. However, I did recently come out to someone I've become pretty close with at work.

We had had conversations about gays and lesbians prior to my coming out. My friend was very much a victim of this cultural bias. We're slowly working through some of her preconceptions and misunderstandings. I always enjoy watching people put these things together in their mind and figure out that they are being unfair/misguided/biased/whatever.

This hasn't been my first experience of changing someone's inherent bias toward gays, but it is my first time coming at it from the closet. It's a very different experience because she got to know me assuming I was a straight married man.

I actually plan to write up a post about my experiences with my coworker sometime in the future. I'd like to see how things play out first.

This post brought home for me the importance of continuing the cultural education of these folks and engaging them rather than turning our backs to them.

Really good post, Sheila. What you're saying is incredibly important and it's necessary for us to keep in mind. The only way to win over bigotry and prejudice is to slowly work to change minds and hearts. It's a slow and tedious process, but an invaluable one.

Marla R. Stevens | March 19, 2007 3:27 AM

Martin Luther King, Jr. identified civil rights legislation itself as for those intractables you identify at the end of your article whereas the process of achieving it was for those whose minds were capable of change -- which is why one should not backdoor civil rights legislation but should take it through the full process, no matter how difficult to achieve or how long it might take -- even if that extra length prolonged the suffering of those lacking legal recourse in the meantime.

Maslov also discussed the intractables' as developmentally challenged, talking about a dividing line between those who could tolerate the gray areas of life and those who had a visceral need for hard-edged, 'black and white' morality all neatly packaged for them so that they did not have to situationally figure things out for themselves.

Religious fundamentalism fits into the latter category. In Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, it is complicated further by a house of cards inerrancy problem whereby the truth of the entirety is destroyed by proving any part of it false which, in practice, leads the adherents to defend tooth and nail even the long-proven indefensible -- typical of many of their beliefs about gay people.

Thank you Sheila. It all makes much sense to me. I always thought that true bigots are exceptionally fearful people who can't see beyond their own neatly packaged little worlds. It's sad, in a way. They are missing out on all the wonderful flavors of life.

Great post Sheila. I do somehow feel better after reading it. Somewhat of a roller coaster ride, but all in all, the message is encouraging.
Thanks.