Never Again! Spotlighting the Path to Never - Blog#10 - 16 March 2019
Click any of the above key words to read more about the topics discussed today.
A picture tells a thousand words, in this case, six million and counting. The horror it evokes stems from our shame as a species, that we are capable of such an atrocity. We are so loving and clever at our best, and prefer this image, though we can be so cruel and moronic at our worst. How many Christchurchs will we endure before we see the oven in the mirror? How do we manufacture such ovens?
My first crossing of the intersection of politics and religion was at age 10, in 1960. As a young Catholic boy, I was very excited that Jack Kennedy was running for president. Then I discovered that both of my parents were voting for Richard Nixon. I had not yet developed the antipathy toward The Dick that moved me in college, but Jack versus Dick was a no-brainer, and the prospect of the first Catholic president was just the right chaser to the catechismic Kool-Aid I’d been drinking. What was wrong with my parents?
Fast-forward eight years. Entering college in 1968 was an exciting but mixed blessing. I was at the front lines of a cultural revolution, confronted with issues of war and peace, and love versus prejudice. The early 1968 wounds of the Tet Offensive, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were still bleeding. Adolescents are quick to smell hypocrisy, and I carried a bagful of question marks. If the religious message was “Love thy brothers and sisters,” why did Blacks and gays have to fight so hard for their rights? Why were we poisoning the homestead God had bequeathed us? Why were so many religious leaders supporting the war in Viet Nam? What was wrong with my priests? And if I couldn’t rely on my parents’ or priests’ judgment, where was I to turn?
Like many late adolescents, I learned to look within. And I began to research prejudice, which led me to my own research project: anthropocentrism. Understanding prejudice seemed like a moral imperative after World War II. As a species, we could not let the Nazi slaughter of the Jews pass us by without understanding it, and preventing a recurrence. It was all too easy to blame the inhuman Germans, the Nazi enemy, the despicable “other.” But was there something in the general human condition that fermented this atrocity?
The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al.) captured my interest. They spoke of ingroup/outgroup relations, and the ethnocentrists’ need to value and protect the ingroup, while segregating, scapegoating, and minimizing the influence of outgroups. Imagining my post-caveman roots, this made sense. Small marauding bands of hunter-gatherers had to protect themselves while competing with other groups for food and other scarce resources. But in a few short millennia, our weapons have graduated from clubs to guns to nukes. When everyone has the power to destroy each other and our common home, does it still make sense to glorify our ingroups and vilify our outgroups?
Ingroup/outgroup thinking imposes dichotomies upon diversity, reducing the broader multicolored palette of humanity into a two-category subject/object split, to some narrower version of “us,” pitted against “them.” At the racial level, outgroups include all races other than your own. At an international level, the outgroups involve the evil empires opposed by our own political club. On a domestic political level, the outgroup is the opposing political party. Never mind the fact that each party has half the loaf of wisdom, but we create gridlock by arguing over which half-loaf is true. On a religious level, the outgroups are the infidels, the imposters, the enemies of the one true faith. At an environmental level, the ingroup is our own species, while the outgroup is the rest of the environment, which can then be exploited to meet the needs of the human ingroup.
Adorno at al. described ethnocentrism as a broader term than prejudice, a frame of mind toward “aliens” in general, noting, “A primary characteristic of ethnocentric ideology is the generality of outgroup rejection… if he cannot identify, he must oppose; if a group is not ‘acceptable,’ it is ‘alien.’“ More recently, Adams (1994) has framed this issue as “a discourse of otherness” that has been “used to maintain dominance.” Discussing the politics of otherness, she noted, “Otherness unites those with power who can declare their similarities to be decisive” (p. 72), while devaluing other groups, thereby justifying discrimination, domination, and exploitation.
Digressing briefly into my own research, otherness and prejudice operate at the species level as well. Even the broad category, humanity, can be contrasted with a suitable outgroup. Anthropocentrism (man-centeredness) views mankind as the most important entity in the universe, with the exception of God, who we created in the first place to cement our grandiose pose at the center of the universe. God over man over animal; the “Chosen” over the “other.” Devaluation justifies exploitation and persecution, of animals, slaves, infidels, etc. Thus, anthropocentrism fuels theism, and is a form of prejudice at the species level, valuing humans over other life forms, which justifies exploitation, in this case, of the environment. But God created and favors us, and will certainly protect all of us, or at least most of us, and our planet from demise. Not to worry; He’ll bail us out. Values are subjective – we get to choose – but often, might makes right, and the most powerful ingroup rules.
The political right wing and the religious right are bedfellows, just as the bedroom next door is shared by political and religious lefties. One difference between the two is that the righties are quicker to emphasize ingroup/outgroup distinctions. On the left, there is more emphasis on our similarities than our differences, more tolerance of “otherness,” more embracing diversity, more identification with larger, more inclusive groups, such as humanity or life. On the negative side of the ledger, the left is prone to confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, inviting excessive socialist redistribution, which negates incentives for initiative and responsibility (dooming Marxist economies). But the right tends to ignore the stultifying impact of poverty and prejudice, as if everyone starts on an equal playing field. It’s the old philosophical argument between free will (on the right) and determinism (on the left), acted out comically by Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. Again, it’s half loaves. In our darker moments, the left blows the budget and rewards laziness, while the right fans the flames of prejudice and pursues outgroups via militarism.
As Jonathan Haidt explained so well in his The Righteous Mind, liberals prioritize care/harm and fairness, over additional values that are more likely to attract conservatives, such as loyalty, authority, and sanctity. So we end up with the left protecting the individual rights of members of outgroups, and espousing a broader human consciousness, while the right protects the purity and safety of the ingroup. In our country, the entrenched ingroup is white, Christian, heterosexual, and largely male. Now that ingroups and outgroups of many political/religious persuasions have learned how to manufacture nuclear weapons, our planet has become a tinderbox. Have we not outgrown our need for the ingroup/outgroup focus that protected us in the days of old?
On a political level, a coup by the far right has recently overrun the sensibilities of the Republican Party, fueling a revival of prejudice. The same process has occurred in the Muslim world, where Whabbists have outmaneuvered moderate Muslims, fanning the flames leading to 9/11 and its variants. While they are religious enemies, the Christian far right and the Muslim far right are remarkably similar psychologically. Outgroups are vilified as threats, enemies, and immoral heathens, who are invading and polluting the homeland. For them, America is the Great Satan. Our own list of enemy outgroups is lengthy, recently targeting Muslims, Mexicans, queers, liberals, and atheists, with Jews and blacks slipping down the list, but still firmly anchored there. The far right is nazifying America, at least one-quarter of us, and the world as well. Just this week, Muslims were massacred in the sacred confines of their own mosques in Christchurch. We are seeing an echo of the Crusades, using terrorists rather than Holy armies.
What justifies comparisons to the swastika? After all, we are not sending outgroups to the ovens. But we are witnessing repeated massacres, whose intent is terror and promotion of white supremacy. And there are abundant lesser injustices perpetrated against outgroups. Increasing vilification of “them” and their “otherness” is tacitly encouraged by passivity, denial, covert approval and even outright racism at the top of our political chain. An emphasis on ingroups versus outgroups sets the stage for prejudice, which in turn sets the stage for persecution and terrorism against outgroups. We are far from the abhorrent “Final Solution,” but the foundation that led to it is being rebuilt before our eyes, while our melting pot suffers. We have seen this before. The defeat of Germany in World War I was a narcissistic injury that escalated into fascism and ingroup retaliation promoted by a narcissistic leader in the 1930’s. Here at home, 9/11 has had a similar impact, though we’d like to think that our institutions are strong enough to hold the fort.
On the religious far right, hypocrisy operates in plain sight, though its practitioners are blinded by a selective interpretation of the Bible (e.g., gays are immoral, Muslims are infidels). Are mere beliefs sustenance enough? Do we not have to practice them in our behavior? “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is an attractive sounding moral value, until it morphs into “Love thy ingroup.” It can easily devolve further, into “Destroy your enemy.” Some of our outgroups do the same thing, putting us on a war footing, which is increasingly dangerous as the nuclear club grows. At this rate, somebody (most likely with God on their side) is going to become sufficiently dogmatic or impulsive to invite the dawn of nuclear winter. Instead of a single-minded focus on keeping nukes out of the hands of the infidels, we might want to put more energy into not just tolerating, but embracing diversity. We all bleed, and we all love our children. Our similarities dwarf our differences, and our differences can be viewed as charming variations of a central theme: humanity. We must respect “otherness.” Look in the mirror, where the conclusion is obvious. The enemy is us.
Read more about prejudice, morality, politico-religious values, and anthropocentrism in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available now on Amazon (www.amazon.com/author/edwardchandler -link to the book and Ed’s author page where The Blog’s also now are being posted). And if you care to participate in this provocative subject, give us your take on morality, politics and religion in the comments section below.
Adorno, Theodor, Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D., & Sanford, N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Adams, Carol. (1994). Neither man nor beast: Feminism and the defense of animals. New York, NY: Continuum.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Random House.
Share this Blog and earlier Blogs with your friends …