The Mystery of Bigotry

There are some behaviors I have never been able to really understand—things I just can’t get my head around, as my students might put it. 

There are some behaviors I have never been able to really understand—things I just can’t get my head around, as my students might put it. Vandalism is one of them. I can “get” why someone would steal; you’ve got something, the thief wants it. Theft is wrong, certainly, and should not be tolerated, but we can at least understand the impulse. Destruction of property for the sake of destruction, on the other hand, I find mystifying; I cannot for the life of me “get” what that’s all about.


Similarly, I certainly understand disliking someone. (Want to see me fume? Let’s talk about George W. Bush.) But I don’t “get” disliking categories of people, unless you consider “jerks” a category. It is hard for me to understand what that is all about.


I revisited that mystery recently, when I was doing some research that required me to re-read Gordon Allport’s classic book, first published thirty years ago, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport was one of the first social psychologists, and his insights into the nature of bigotry remain seminal. Although the focus of Allport’s study was prejudice against Jews and Blacks, the relevance to homophobia in contemporary society is quite clear.


Allport acknowledges that a fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility makes a certain amount of what we might call “identity-based one-upsmanship” inevitable, but he provides evidence that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change. As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport puts it, “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.” In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone, or something, we can identify—we channel our aggressions against an outsider, an “other.”


Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one? And why do our targets for hatred or disapproval change over time?  Allport notes that the nearest thing to an “all-purpose” scapegoat is a group that has permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn’t any basis for a good, persistent mythology about Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable. Jews, blacks and gays, however, have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, they’ll continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.


So why, we might ask, if permanence is important in the choice of target, has bias against Jews—and to a lesser but still considerable extent, blacks and even gays—abated over the past few decades? It certainly isn’t because the pace of social change has slowed—quite the contrary. The answer lies in Allport’s most important contribution to our understanding of prejudice: that there are two different kinds, and one is treatable.  


Treatable bias comes from conformity to general social attitudes—free-floating, “everyone knows” beliefs that “Jews are sharp businesspeople” “blacks are lazy” “gays are perverts.” When such views are widespread and not contested, many people adopt them unthinkingly. They become part of their mental furniture. But that furniture can be rearranged by education and by life-experiences that bring them into contact with real Jews, blacks or gays.


The intractable bigots, on the other hand, are those whose personalities are invested in their beliefs. Usually, such people are deeply frightened by forces they cannot identify or control. They feel powerless. They need an outlet, someone to blame. (Psychiatrists call this “displacement.”) Allport suggests that such people “got a bad start in early life.” If they didn’t have someone to hate, they’d disintegrate. That’s why, as the general culture becomes more tolerant, these haters become more hysterical.


The good news is that the “cultural” bigots are much more numerous—and the culture is changing. That’s why the landscape for gays and lesbians will continue to improve—despite the vitriol of the culture warriors.