Combating prejudice is like the labors of Sisyphus. Scott McLemee interviews an author who keeps on pushing.
A documentary on prison gangs from a few years ago included an interview with a member of the Aryan Brotherhood about his beliefs, though one could easily guess at them at first sight. It is true that the swastika is an ancient symbol, appearing in a number of cultures, having various meanings. As a tattoo, however, it very rarely functions as a good-luck sign or evidence of Buddhist piety. (Well, not for the last 70 years anyway.)
But this Aryan Brotherhood spokesman wanted to make one thing clear: He was not a racist. He didn’t hate anybody! (Nobody who hadn’t earned his hate, anyway.) He simply believed in white separatism as a form of multicultural identity politics. I paraphrase somewhat, but that was the gist of it, and he seemed genuinely aggrieved that anyone could think otherwise. He was, to his own way of thinking, the victim of a hurtful stereotype. People hear “Aryan Brotherhood” and get all hung up on the first word, completely overlooking the “brotherhood” part.
The interviewer did not press the matter, which seemed wise, even with prison guards around. Arguing semantics in such cases accomplishes very little -- and as Stephen Eric Bronner argues in his new book, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press), the bigot is even more driven by self-pity and the need for self-exculpation than by hatred or fear.
“To elude his real condition,” writes Bronner, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, “to put his prejudices beyond criticism and change, is the purpose behind his presentation of self…. But he is always anxious. The bigot has the nagging intuition that he is not making sense, or, at least, that he cannot convince his critics that he is. And this leaves him prone to violence.”
Reminiscent of earlier studies of “the authoritarian personality” or “the true believer,” Bronner combines psychological and social perspectives on the bigot’s predicament: rage and contempt toward the “other” (those of a different ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc.) is the response of a rigid yet fragile ego to a world characterized not only by frenetic change but by the demands of the “other” for equality. Bronner is the author of a number of other books I've admired, including Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (originally published in 1994 and reissued by Routledge in 2002) and Blood in the Sand: Imperial Ambitions, Right-Wing Fantasies, and the Erosion of American Democracy (University Press of Kentucky, 2005), so I was glad to be able to pose a few questions to him about his new book by email. A transcript of the exchange follows.
Q: You've taught a course on bigotry for many years, and your book seems to be closely connected -- for example, the list of books and films you recommend in an appendix seem like something developed over many a syllabus. Was it? Is the book itself taken from your lectures?
A: The Bigot was inspired by the interests of my students and my courses on prejudice. Though it isn’t based on the lectures, I tried to organize it in a rigorous way. As Marx once put the matter; the argument rises “from the abstract to the concrete.”
The book starts with a phenomenological depiction of the bigot that highlights his fear of modernity and the rebellion of the Other against the traditional society in which his identity was affirmed and his material privileges were secured. I then discuss the (unconscious) psychological temptations offered by mythological thinking, conspiracy fetishism and fanaticism that secure his prejudices from criticism. Next I investigate the bigot’s presentation of self in everyday life as a true believer, an elitist, and a chauvinist.
All of these social roles fit into my political analysis of the bigot today who (even as a European neo-fascist or a member of the Tea Party) uses the language of liberty to pursue policies that disadvantage the targets of his hatred. The suggested readings in the appendix help frame the new forms of solidarity and resistance that I try to sketch.
Q: On the one hand there are various forms of bigotry, focused on hostility around race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. But you stress how they tend to overlap and combine. How important a difference is there between "targeted" prejudice and "superbigotry," so to speak.
A: Prejudice comes in what I call “clusters.” The bigot is usually not simply a racist but an anti-Semite and a sexist (unless he is a Jew or a woman) and generally he has much to say about immigrants, gays, and various ethnicities. But each prejudice identifies the Other with fixed and immutable traits.
Myths, stereotypes, and pre-reflective assumptions serve to justify the bigot’s assertions. Gays are sexually rapacious; Latinos are lazy; and women are hysterical – they are just like that and nothing can change them. But the intensity of the bigot’s prejudice can vary – with fanaticism always a real possibility. His fears and hatreds tend to worsen in worsening economic circumstances, his stereotypes can prove contradictory, and his targets are usually chosen depending upon the context.
Simmering anti-immigrant sentiments exploded in the United States after the financial collapse of 2007-8; Anti-Semites condemned Jews as both capitalists and revolutionaries, super-intelligent yet culturally inferior; cultish yet cosmopolitan; and now Arabs have supplanted Jews as targets for contemporary neo-fascists in Europe. The point ultimately is that bigotry is about the bigot, not the target of his hatred
Q: You've written a lot about the Frankfurt School, whose analyses of authoritarianism in Germany and the U.S. have clearly influenced your thinking. You also draw on Jean-Paul Sartre's writings on anti-Semitism and, in his book on Jean Genet, homophobia. Most of that work was published at least 60 years ago. Is there anything significantly different about more recent manifestations of prejudice that earlier approaches didn't address? Or does continuity prevail?
A: Aside from their extraordinary erudition, what I prize in the Frankfurt School and figures like Sartre or Foucault is their intellectual rigor and their unrelenting critical reflexivity. I developed my framework through blending the insights of idealism, existentialism, Marxism, and the Frankfurt School. Other thinkers came into play for me as well. In general, however, I like to think that I too proceeded in relatively rigorous and critical fashion.
In keeping with poststructuralist fashions, and preoccupations with ever more specific understandings of identity, there has been a tendency to highlight what is unique and about particular forms of prejudice predicated on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and the like. The Bigot offers a different approach, but then, most writers are prisoners of their traditions — though, insofar as they maintain their critical intellect, they rattle the cages.
Q: Much of the public understands “bigot” or "racist" mainly as insults, so that the most improbable folks get offended at being so labeled. People hold up pictures of Obama as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose, yet insist that he's the one who's a racist. Sometimes it's just hypocrisy, pure and simple, but could there be more to it than that? How do you understand all of this?
A: Using the language of liberty to justify policies that disadvantage woman, gays, and people of color cynically enables him to fit into a changed cultural and political climate. It is also not merely a matter of the bigot demeaning the target of his prejudice but in presenting himself as the aggrieved party. That purpose is helped by (often unconscious) psychological projection of the bigot’s desires, hatreds, and activities upon the Other.
The persecuted is thereby turned into the oppressor and the oppressor into the persecuted. The bigot’s self-image is mired in such projection. "Birth of a Nation" (1915) -- the classic film directed by D.W. Griffith that celebrates the rise of the KKK -- obsesses over visions of freed black slaves raping white women, even though it was actually white slave owners and their henchmen who were engaged in raping black slave women.
In Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, similarly, anti-Semitic fascists accused Jews of engaging in murder and conspiracy even while their own conspiratorial organizations like the Thule Society in Germany and the Cagoulards in France were, in fact, inciting violence and planning assassinations. Such projection alleviates whatever guilt the bigot might feel and justifies him in performing actions that he merely assumes are being performed by his avowed enemy. Perceiving the threat posed by the Other, and acting accordingly, the bigot thereby becomes the hero of his own drama.
Q: Is there any reason to think prejudice can be "cured" while still at the stage of a delimited and targeted sort of hostility, rather than a full-blown worldview?
A: Fighting the bigot is a labor of Sisyphus. No political or economic reform is secure and no cultural advance is safe from the bigot, who is always fighting on many fronts at once: the anthropological, the psychological, the social, and the political. The bigot appears in one arena only to disappear and then reappear in another.
He remains steadfast in defending the good old days that never were quite so good – especially for the victims of his prejudice. Old wounds continue to fester, old memories continue to haunt the present, and old rumors will be carried into the future. New forms of bigotry will also become evident as new victims currently without a voice make their presence felt.
Prejudice can be tempered (or intensified) through education coupled with policies that further public participation and socioeconomic equality. But it can’t be “cured.” The struggle against bigotry, no less than the struggle for freedom, has no fixed end; it is not identifiable with any institution, movement, or program. Resistance is an ongoing process built upon the guiding vision of a society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
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