June 12, 2014

Someone to Hate

A couple of days after the 9/11 attacks, I overheard two coworkers talking.  One said to the other “…you know all those people in Afghanistan hate Americans.”  It was the kind of blind, unsupportable statement that makes my stomach tighten.  I said and did nothing.  Sometimes I am a coward.  I have interrupted the conversation a hundred times in fantasy, however:

     “So you’ve traveled in Afghanistan?” I ask.
     “No…” comes the sheepish reply.
     “Well, then you know alot of Afghans?  You see them hanging out downtown at the sports bar?”
     “No, not actually.”
     “Then how do you know that all – mind you, ALL – every last grandmother, every last child – in Afghanistan hates Americans?  Do they get up in the morning feeling this hate?  Do they stop at midday, kneeling down beside their flocks and in their fields, and pray fervently for our demise – every last one of them?  Why on earth would the average Afghan even think about us?  Haven’t they got their own troubles, their own domestic concerns, their own particular breed of human challenges to contend with?”

At this point in my fantasy, my interlocutor shrinks in shame while I stand in glorious triumph, having won another victory for humanity.  It is all pure nonsense – an absolute waste of mental activity on my part.  Stripped of his circumlocution – and my moral indignation – this is what my coworker’s statement actually meant:

     I publically affirm that I consider Afghans non-persons.

That’s all.  Clean and simple.  This is a different kind of statement altogether.  I may be as disgusted and self-righteous as I like, but I cannot argue with something that is not really an argument.  If I had spoken up, the conversation would probably have gone more like this:

     “So you’ve traveled in Afghanistan?”
     “No.  What difference does that make?  Whose side are you on?”

A few concepts

Sociologists call statements in the form “People in group x are all alike” expressions of a belief in outgroup homogeneity.  I’m not sure that the technical term does much real work, except to make the idea discussable as a neutral abstraction.  Saying “Those people are all alike” is functionally equivalent to saying “Those people are not individuals with unique views and feelings like ourselves; they are just instances of a certain type – interchangeable non-persons.”  We all think this way to some extent, whether we like to admit it or not.  It is an extension of the very useful human tendency to generalize.  We do it because, at a very deep level, our brains are attempting to model the world in a way that helps us cope, and keeping a completely open mind about every person that we meet is exhausting, inefficient and occasionally even dangerous.

Consider what I hope will be a non-controversial example for the generally liberal audience I am no doubt biased to assume I am addressing.  Image you’re a native American practically anywhere at almost any time during the 19th century.  Having the narrow and quite bigoted view that any white person you encounter is likely to be a source of trouble is probably going to serve you better than having the enlightened view that every person in the world is an individual and should be given the benefit of the doubt.  Prejudice, in this example, would have been a good survival trait.  For our hypothetical native American, adopting a hostile posture might occasionally have been unfair, might have hurt some innocent person’s feelings (or worse) but, on balance, it would still have been a pretty serviceable heuristic.  The world might be a much nicer place if people’s brains didn’t work this way, but as long as some people’s do, everybody else has reason to approach the odd stranger with at least some measure of caution.  To extend the example above, if the majority of native Americans actually were prudently unsympathetic toward whites, then, conversely, it would have been irrational for whites to show much sympathy toward native Americans.  Hostility is a thing best shared.  Arguments about priority (i.e. They started it!) do not seem especially helpful or enlightening.  To consider prejudice a kind of personal sin is to believe that people do not live within a powerfully influential social context, and that cultures are something we participate in only for the sake of tasty ethnic food.

Try the following enjoyable experiment: think about some group of people you dislike.  Unless you are the Dalai Lama you can probably summon up some group almost immediately – the rich, the poor, blacks, whites, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, liberals, conservatives, gays – any group of people that you feel are making the world a more disagreeable place than it really needs to be.  Now ask yourself – “How many people in that group do I personally know?”  I don’t mean “have seen” or “have met once” or, worse still, “have read about on my favorite blog.”  By “know” I mean “have sat down and had a long, informal conversation with.”  “Have lived among.”  That sort of thing.  If the answer is “none” or “not many” – you’re prejudiced.  Sorry.  If it helps to make you feel better, when I’m not being consciously philosophical I am pretty sure I’m prejudiced too.  Personally, I find that people who claim to be free from prejudice are either lying or are living unusually insular lives.  If you live in an elite bubble or a gated community it is at least a theoretical possibility to be sublimely and completely tolerant.  You probably won’t be, but it’s possible.  I don’t live in such a bubble, but I can still feel any way I want to about Afghans – if only due to the accidental circumstance that I don’t know any.  It is important to consider that the person I cited at the beginning of this essay, who probably didn’t know any Afghans either, found it genuinely advantageous – in September, 2001 – to deciding to declare them non-persons.  Before 9/11, I doubt he had any opinion of Afghans at all.  Why would he have?  After 9/11, his prejudice gave him a sense of solidarity with those around him – a social benefit he would not have attained by expressing the opinion, at that time, that most Afghans might be ok people as far as he knew.  Dark and cynical as this may sound, echoing the prejudices of your particular group is a great way to make friends.  Some of us dehumanize more of the world than others – but we all agree on one thing: we only hate the people who deserve it.  Or, to put it another way, we tend to believe that the prejudices of our peers and our own subculture aren’t prejudices at all – but plain, self-evident truths.  We take the word of people that we know when it comes to our assessment, good or bad, of people that we don’t.1

No discussion of prejudice would be complete without at least a nod to another great sociological concept – the fundamental attribution error.  This is the human tendency to attribute the bad behaviors of other people to their basic natures, while attributing our own acknowledged bad behaviors to unavoidable circumstances.2  Fetching up our 19th century native American example once again, it would be easy for him to think that whites were simply antagonistic by nature, and that he himself was only antagonistic because he had no choice.  From the opposite side, the converse would also be an easy assumption.  The fundamental attribution error does not so much create prejudice as it offers a mental strategy for defending it where it already exists.  It can be seen as a fancy scientific term for nothing more sophisticated than a simple double standard.

A distinction should be drawn between prejudice and hate, which up to this point I have bandied about rather indiscriminately.  Prejudices are sometimes serviceable heuristics, and they are not always negative.  An automatic sympathy for members of a certain group is no less a prejudice than an automatic dislike for them.  Hate, on the other hand, is not a heuristic.  Hate is an emotion.  Prejudices are features of one’s intellectual architecture.  You could describe a prejudice as a series of assertions.  Even the fundamental attribution error is intellectual in character – it is the brain’s attempt, however imperfect, to make a certain sense of its social environment.  Hate asserts nothing.  It doesn’t even originate in the parts of the brain where assertions live.  Hate has causes, but no reasons innate to itself.

To understand that prejudice and hatred are not synonymous, one has only to consider that there are plenty of prejudices that don’t entail any emotions on the part of their bearers.  Suppose I have the belief that people in group x are generally handicapped at complex problem solving.  It does not follow from that assumption that I hate them.  I might pity them, or even be completely indifferent.  In general, we hate that which we perceive as a threat – just as any other animal does.  It is the object of prejudice (and here I mean – of clearly negative prejudice) who, simply by being depersonalized, feels threatened – and thus has cause for hate.  Being hated is, of course, another cause for hate – and this almost always makes hatred reciprocal.  “Hating the hater” is no less hating – no less indulging in an intellectually debilitating emotion.  Hatred, too, engenders prejudice since it is practically impossible to hate someone without the brain eventually getting around to constructing some sort of architecture of justifying reasons, perhaps legitimate or perhaps merely expedient.  Simply put, you can be prejudicial without hating but you probably cannot engage in hatred without becoming prejudicial.

Race and culture 3

Let’s begin with an unproven but supportable assumption.  Race – a set of heritable and outwardly observable physical characteristics – is not a consequential desideratum of either intellectual capacity or behavior.  In simpler English, if you take a baby of any race and raise it as a fully accepted member of a particular culture it will very likely display the values, abilities and behaviors consistent with that culture.  Genes matter, and may greatly affect the capacities and behaviors of individuals – but there are probably no smart races, no violent races, no dishonest races, etc.  I can’t prove this, but it seems to fit an honest assessment of daily experience.  Racism, per se, has little if any empirical support.

Culture is an entirely different matter.  To be a member of a culture is to exhibit certain behaviors and to shun others.  It is to generally adhere to a certain set of values and beliefs.  Behaviors and beliefs have outcomes in the real world, and it is utter non-sense to say that all behaviors or belief patterns are meaningfully equivalent.  If you are a dedicated relativist, I suggest you invite a few neo-Nazis to your next gathering and see how well they fit into your paradigm.  Or, if you’re a ultra-tolerant Unitarian, try inviting a few Satanists to your next vague celebration of the goodness of your amorphous deity.  Relativism is a philosophy for people who live carefully protected lives.

I would not propose ranking cultures (which would include what we usually call “subcultures”) into some great hierarchy from best to worst.  It is not that simple.  What I am saying is that for any given criteria one chooses – social cohesion, long-term survivability, adaptability, placidity, might, intellectual freedom, etc. – some cultures will generally produce better outcomes in terms of that criteria than others.  Further, it is hardly surprising that we are more likely to be tolerant of alien cultures that are most harmonious with the values of our own.  We are social beings.  In striving to adapt successfully to our environments, our brains put a high value on adapting to whatever cultural body we happen to inhabit.  Thus, even a culture that is ill-adapted to present conditions still presents a strong attraction to its members.  We cling hard to what we know, usually until circumstances render such an attachment impossible or at least deeply miserable.  Better the devil you know – the saying goes.  On the other hand, we tend to oppose cultures that we believe are at odds with our values and out interests – whether our beliefs happen to be accurate or not.  In other words, cultural prejudice is often entirely justifiable.  To use the example above – you really don’t need to feel you’ve committed a moral breach by not inviting the town Satanist group to your open-minded solstice celebrations.  Your prejudice, it that case, is probably quite prudent.  If they invite themselves and try to make an animal sacrifice of your dog – perhaps even a little hatred would be useful, giving you the courage to evict them.

Race, while not a true determinant of behavior in a biological sense, is often the identifier of default for members of a particular culture.  To return to an earlier example, the native American I envisioned need not have been explicitly racist to notice that all the people overrunning his land had a common set of physical characteristics.  If I tend to assume that most of the Asians I meet (apart from those working in restaurants) are college educated – am I being racist or merely being demographically observant?  Race, within the context of a particular society, functions more-or-less like mode of dress.  I might or might not be biased against men in suits – but I can assume, with considerable confidence, that they aren’t going to mug me.  It is always possible that a particular man in a suit happens to be a mugger fresh from a court appearance (taking full advantage of the suit-wearing heuristic, by the way) – but it is unlikely.  So long as a given group of people are associated with a certain set of characteristics, members of that group that do not share those characteristics are likely to suffer or benefit unfairly.  Again, although our innate social predispositions may not always be very admirable, imagine a world completely devoid of such tendencies.  How would we function if, on encountering another person, we could not make any prior assumptions based on dress, deportment, gender, sexual orientation, race, age, ethnicity or physical condition?  We would essentially live like robots in a world of identical mannequins.  Flawed as our assumptions may sometimes be, it is only the ability to make assumptions that makes the social world navigable.


The real menace to human harmony is probably not prejudice – but intractability.  We all have prejudices – beliefs – we have acquired in the course of our particular lives.  The problem comes when one decides, perhaps unconsciously, that one’s beliefs no longer require the occasional reexamination.  How often have we heard somebody proudly declare “I have known ____ since I was sixteen,” or “I’m a lifelong member of ____.”  Isn’t that sort of statement just a way of making close-mindedness a virtue?  Isn’t it usually the same as saying “on that subject I am done with thinking and happy with the social benefits of pleasing my current set of friends”?  Introspection and reexamination are dangerous undertakings for the individual, but without them we are bound to certain views dogmatically -- the price of membership in whatever groups circumstances steer us into.  As human beings, we have the capacity to learn and adapt, to be conscious, and to undertake the plans our brains set out – but we also have the capacity to ossify, to live reflexively, and to undertake the plans we acquiesce to.

1 As I write, I’m am visited by the miserable suspicion that some reader will get too this point of my essay and think – “That’s it exactly – the author has those people pegged!”  If that person happens to you, put down your coffee and start over at the beginning.  Repeat as necessary.  On no account write and tell me how I have described to a tee what’s wrong with the rich, the poor, blacks, whites, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, liberals, conservatives, gays or anybody else.  That is yet another fantasy conversation I do not care to realize.

2 Interestingly, the fundamental attribution error always runs contrary to the common belief that humans have free will.  Regarding outsiders, it endows them with nearly immutable predispositions – presumably genetic ones.  With regard to ourselves, it freely surrenders the notion of freedom to the vicissitudes of external circumstances.  While I don’t believe we have free will, the fundamental attribution error is obviously no defense of that position.  Even for the bigot, it is irrational to say the universe itself manipulates other people with one set of forces but manipulates oneself with another.

3 We live in an age in which even discussing race hatred scares me.  I have long had the conviction, though, that that which cannot be discussed cannot be understood.

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