Bigotry in all of its forms is a psychological pattern with characteristics and origins. Whether bigotry takes the form of racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, militarism, homophobia, xenophobia, prejudice against people with disabilities, people who are from different religions, and more, if we understand its causes, we can better protect ourselves from its effects in society, and even prevent it.
A standard definition of bigotry reads like this: “The word ‘bigot’ refers to a person whose habitual state of mind includes an obstinate, irrational, or unfair intolerance of ideas, opinions, ethnicities, or beliefs that differ from their own, and intolerance of the people who hold them.”
Like with similar destructive states of mind like narcissism, addiction, and psychopathy, it is important to know the inner side of the habitual state of mind of bigotry, and its origins. It’s important for those who want to understand and influence those possessing bigotry. It’s important for those who want to prevent bigotry by reducing the factors in society that cause it. And it’s important for bigots who want to confront their own bigotry and become healthier, happier, more prosocial human beings.
A recent example of bigotry came from a campaign speech by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who mocked the disabilities of a disabled reporter by mimicking his body movements and physical characteristics. (See the included video of this incident accompanying this article.) Such bigotry is as common in the United States, as it is dangerous.
What are the inner qualities of the “habitual state of mind” of bigotry?
The inner state of mind of bigotry includes a generalized, free-floating desire for vengeance towards targeted individuals and groups. It possesses a persistent need to categorize others as “negative others.” And it creates a positive self through comparison in contrast to the negative others who are seen and felt as inferior.
What are the origins of bigotry?
Psychiatrist Alice Miller popularized a psychological view of the origins of bigotry. She made the argument that violence towards children results in bigotry and other negative states of mind in adults when those children grow up. She wrote:
“The persistent argument was that physical force should not be prohibited because it prepares children for life’s dangers and thus helps them learn to protect themselves. … But beaten children are not learning how to defend themselves against criminals. They are learning to fear their parents, to play down their own pain, and to feel guilty. Being subjected to physical attacks that they are unable to fend off merely instills in children a gut feeling that they do not deserve protection or respect. This perniciously false message is stored in their bodies and will influence their view of the world and their attitude toward their own children. They will be unable to defend their claim to human dignity, unable to recognize physical pain as a danger signal and act accordingly. Their immune systems may even be affected. In the absence of other persons on whom to model their behavior, these children will see the language of violence and hypocrisy as the only effective means of communication. Naturally, they will avail themselves of that language when they grow up because adults normally suppress feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. This is the real reason why so many defend the old system of parenting and schooling.”
The feeling of desiring vengeance through violence, if it cannot be directed towards the perpetrators of beatings, seeks another, easier target. That is often someone different, who is also weak. A negative other.
When children are beaten physically and abused verbally, the most natural thing for them to feel is rage towards the person abusing him or her and a desire for vengeance. But they value survival and they know their parents have too much power to confront. This power imbalance is made clear when parents say “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it just as easily.” Many children are told this—are threatened with murder, to heighten fear.
Bill Cosby the comedian and accused serial rapist repeats this line in some of his not-so-funny humor skits about child abuse. He said, “My father established our relationship when I was seven years old. He looked at me and said, “You know, I brought you in this world, and I can take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, I’ll make another one look just like you.” This “joke” proved to be prophetic, and a classic fulfillment of Alice Miller’s hypothesis, in that Mr. Cosby now stands accused of using drugs to rape or molest 51 women.
So children who are mistreated, verbally abused and physically assaulted often direct their negativity in two places: towards themselves first of all. They feel bad, unworthy, powerless. Then they walk around with a generalized, free-floating desire for vengeance against a negative other. To qualify to be a suitable target for bigoted verbal or physical violence, all one needs to be is (a) different, and (b) weak.
These children start off as young bullies and, absent healing, grow up to be authoritarian conservatives and often continue the cycle and the conservative worldview as parents—with the belt, the whip, and the paddle, along with “tongue-lashings.”
This is amplified by society in countless ways:
- Through competitive sports in schools and throughout popular culture. There is always an enemy, a negative other, with competitive sports. And always a positive self in the form of your team.
- Through the example of the national government which overthrows other governments, decade after decade, along with invasions, occupations, drone strikes against peoples in nations which are different and weaker.
- Through political campaigns such as the current 2016 presidential contest where Republicans often spew forth hate speech against select groups and individuals who are different and weak in some way.
- And in many other ways.
How is this pattern of bigotry expressed on a larger scale, between nations?
An article by James Carroll explains how the need for a “negative other” manifests in foreign policies towards the Mideast by the United States, and other western nations. He wrote:
“What we call ‘the West’ was born in the clash of civilizations that climaxed in the Crusades, with Muslims assigned the role of the external ‘negative other’ against which Christendom defined itself positively (The internal ‘negative other’ were the Jews).”
“Among Europeans, and then Americans, that intellectual polarity was sublimated over the centuries, but its insult remained current among Muslims, and was powerfully resuscitated by the assault of colonialism.”
Whether the manifestation of bigotry is experienced in our daily lives, within our own nation, or experienced from one nation to another, its effects are harmful on huge scales, in our world with its imbalances of power and wealth. The bigotry state of mind needs to be taken on by understanding its underlying structure and origins.
How do people take on and effectively oppose this pattern of bigotry by understanding its underlying structure and origins?
- Recognize bigotry. Confront it wherever it shows its ugly face. We can see this recently in the Republican Party presidential primary campaign through an ad John Kasich published. It confronts Donald Trump using a paraphrase of a well-known quote by Pastor Martin Niemöller, aimed at Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. We can also see this confrontation in journalism. For example, the New York Times did an analysis of Donald Trumps language—95,000 words in total. They concluded that Trump repeatedly refers to negative others in his speeches. The article stated, “The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican. He has a particular habit of saying ‘you’ and ‘we’ as he inveighs against a dangerous ‘them’ or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (‘they’re pouring in’), Syrian migrants (‘young, strong men’) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.”
- Advocate laws which protect adults from bigotry, and isolate adults who express it with illegal violence and abuse. While 31 states in the U.S. have banned corporal punishment, 19 states still allow this practice of assault and battery against children.
- Advocate laws which protect children from verbal and physical violence in any form, in any place, for any reason.
This latter idea—the protection of children from assault and battery—is especially important, for it deals with how to prevent the primary cause of the state of mind of bigotry—the free-floating, generalized need for vengeance.
The website by Jordan Riak called Nospank is one such effort to encourage legislation to protect children, especially those in the 19 states which still engage in assault and battery (corporal punishment) in public and private schools. Another such effort is global, through the Convention of the Rights of the Child, supported by the United Nations and many nations. For those in the United States, urge state and national legislators, and schools, to adopt it. It hasn’t been ratified in the U.S.
For students and children—young people of any kind—who need to protect themselves, the author published this letter publicly to the Nospank website for a student who sought help. It has a few tactics for self-protection, and can be found here.