Friday, June 03, 2011

Dynamics of Prejudice (3 of 3): no easy solutions

Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, Dynamics of Prejudice: A Psychological and Sociological Study of Veterans (1950)

Bettelheim and Janowitz acknowledge that they did not attempt to independently verify reports of their subjects about their experience of hardship in the military or their personal experiences during the prewar period. And their justification makes sense up to a point: they were focused on the perceptions of their subjects toward those experiences. And the in-depth interviews did allow them some ways to test the consistency of their stories.

Still, it's difficult for the reader to know what to make of a statement like this veteran's description of his experiences during the Depression without some verification of its plausibility. “Polack” is a disparaging term for ethnic Poles that seems to have pretty much become obsolete now:

Well, my old man worked until 1930. I was about ten or eleven when things got really bad, and the humiliations and insults are hard to take. I've seen so many of these relief workers they make you antisocial. This one bitch, a Polack, wanted to slap me on W.P.A. I got fired for nonsupport, so I got a private job at $15.00 a week and that was pretty good. My family had to send me to live with another family because they couldn't afford to have me live with them. (p. 84)
The statement as it's quoted also doesn’t make entire sense on its own terms. Did he actually take the WPA job? What does “nonsupport” mean? Maybe in 1950 when the book was published it would have been more obvious to the expected reader what it might have meant in the WPA context; but as quoted it’s not even clear if it was a WPA job being referenced. The reference to being sent to live with another family is also puzzling. How old was he? And if he were working, how was it better for the family if he lived somewhere else, where presumably he would have to pay rent or other kinds of costs that otherwise might have helped support his family.

Although the quotes from the veterans’ interviews are quite interesting, the lack of specific context and verification of factual claims makes their usefulness problematic, as in the case just quoted.

Their concluding chapter on “Reflections, and Applications for Social Action” also contains some head-scratchers. In an historical sketch about anti-Semitism in Europe, they raise some interesting questions about the degree to which concern about the fate of people’s immortal souls may have affected ego formation. But they make what seems to be a fairly superficial assumption that religious-based motivations of prejudice are far less common today. After the experience in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s of seeing Europeans have deadly conflicts among Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, it’s a little hard to imagine why they were so quick to dismiss that as a persisting factor in 1945.

It becomes more puzzling when one sees that they took careful account of religious affiliation in their evaluation of anti-Semitism and white racism against blacks among their veterans. They found that Christian denominational affiliation had no significant correlation with either anti-Semitism or anti-black prejudice, although here the narrowness of their sample urges caution about generalizing from that. What they did find is that stability of a person’s Christian religious beliefs over time were associated with higher tolerance toward Jews. But not toward blacks. And they provide a plausible psychoanalytic explanation for that discrepancy in the case of anti-black racism. Their discussion of this was a useful application of their Freudian framework of analysis to a phenomenon they observed:

In present-day U. S. society, inacceptable id tendencies are mainly displaced onto Negroes (sex libertinism, dirtiness, laziness). Therefore, the superego can lend full support to their discrimination, since these are tendencies against which it fights continuously. Religion, the representation of superego demands, is thus much weaker as a mitigating influence on intolerance of the Negro than on intolerance of the Jew. This may explain why stability of religious convictions was so markedly associated with tolerance toward the Jew but failed to be associated with tolerance toward the Negro. [my emphasis] (p. 158)
It’s notable here, however, that such an explanation can be derived only from using knowledge about the social context of race outside the immediate empirical findings of the survey. It also is an explanation of how religion can and apparently does contribute in a significant way to social prejudices in the time period of their study.

This historical passage was particularly puzzling:

The example of the Marannos (Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism) shows that these accusations reflected a very probable origin of anti-Semitism at that time, namely the Christian's fear of being a bad Catholic (more so, at least, than modern accusations indicate the real reasons for modern anti-Semitism). These Spanish Jews were notoriously wealthy as well as culturally and politically influential, and aside from religious accusations, their wealth, too, was held against them. Still a change of religion put an end to their persecution, provided they really meant it. As soon as Spanish Jews became Catholics, they were not only permitted to retain status and wealth, but were frequently known to increase in both. ...

Religious conversion which protected Spanish Jews [in the 15th and 16th centuries] was ultimately of little help to Jews in Germany [under the Third Reich]. (pp. 165-6)
In fact, when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the converted Jews who remained were considered Conversos (converts) for generations. And far from putting an end to persecutions, the first wave of state terrorism represented by the Spanish Inquisition was directed precisely at Conversos. The Conversos were also considered inferior in the Spanish concepts of limpieza, or purity, that began to attach a pseudo-biological justification for social hierarchies. It’s true that some Coversos prospered in the decades after 1492. Many of them continued to handle financial exchange business which had traditionally been a specialty of Jews because of Catholic strictures against Christians loaning money at interest. And the flow of gold from Spain’s New World colonies provided a substantial amount of financial business to be handled. But did it “put an end to their persecution”? Even with the dubious qualifier “provided they really meant” their conversion, that’s quite a misleading description of the position of the post-1492 Conversos in Spain.

But their concluding chapter is also notable in addressing frankly their conclusions in the same manner was their analysis in that they don’t offer simplistic solutions. They suggest that simple “tolerance propaganda” will be of limited effectiveness. And that the most fruitful period in directing the child in ways that will minimize irrational intolerance is the first six years of life, which simultaneously suggests the difficulty of reducing intolerance among those over six years of age.

They suggest that given the importance of personal fears of downward mobility in promoting intolerance according to their findings in this study, economic stability and social policies that minimize the effect of economic downturns on individuals could be useful in reducing intolerance. They discuss the problem of providing alternative avenues for discharge of aggressive impulses that are currently channeled into ethic/religious hostility. Motility – physical activity – is one particularly useful avenue. Another is satisfying sexual activity. But they also caution that the role of competition in American society is a problem when it comes to providing alternative avenues for discharge of aggression and hostility:

Present-day society, and particularly the mores of the group studied, approves in the main of only one such outlet: successful competition. The less likely the chances grow for success, the more this once possible outlet turns into a source of additional tension. ... Unfortunately, even in sports, where the only purpose should be discharge of tension through motility, competition creeps in, which brings additional tensions to all but the winners. (p. 182)
Just as they didn’t hide the contradictory and uncertainty of some of their results, so in their recommendations for actions they do not neglect the difficulties of the most promising approaches. And they make clear that a combination of personal and political/social solutions are required.

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