The Roots of Prejudice

The scarier prejudices are those that don’t recognize themselves, followed closely by those that don’t apologize. The second category, if it is malleable, calls for individuals to see reason, be open to contrary experience, which is difficult enough; that is, hard work for anyone. But challenging such a blockade is still easier than calling out the prejudice that isn’t even understood as one.

There are plenty of words representing ideas that are invoked to protect prejudice. Take the word trauma for example. There’s a word which is used on a regular basis to explain reactions to a past event, or set of events. Look up the diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the DSM (diagnostic standards manual of the American Psychiatric Association) and you’ll find reference to numerous symptoms, falling under three sub-headings: re-experience, avoidance, and increased arousal. When an individual is faced with a stressor, he or she experiences flashbacks, bad dreams, the desire to avoid certain places, people; hypervigilance and agitation in stressful situations. When the trigger is the pace of traffic for a car accident survivor, or the turmoil of a returning soldier, then the assessment of trauma seems appropriate, the prescription of avoidance seems natural, even common sense.

But what happens when fear of a stressful event is conflated with fear of the events’ principal figures, especially if those figures represent distinct social groups? Currently, I observe a disturbing trend in my work, as well as in my community: the prerogative to disparage police, lawyers; representatives of “broken” systems, medical and administrative. I notice that when threatened, individuals launch into fierce diatribes, reducing people in these professions to caricatures, while paying thin lip service to the possibility of error (“I know there are some good cops”, said a man I listened to recently). You might think this constitutes that small space for understanding, as I suggested earlier. But I don’t think so. At least, when there is such awareness, it seems fleeting, and more importantly, outwardly-directed—the worry about what others might think, but not so much an integration of feedback.

A broader understanding of trauma, or its cousin prejudice, lies beyond the medical dimension, within the theoretical realm of the unconscious. In asserting this, I am aware of leapfrogging the conscious derivatives of prejudice, that which is attributed to socialization over time. While I don’t dispute the impact of calculated teaching, or “modeling” as it is also dubbed, I rather think that the roots of prejudice lie in a capacity for splitting, as Melanie Klein first conceived (building upon the writings of Freud) in the 20s and 30s, and in the strange vicissitudes of psychic energy, which call for binding. Splitting is a primitive defense: a habitual impulse towards segregating love and hate that is innate, thus creating a template for good and bad, which provides humankind with both a moral lens, but also a harsh, distorting, discriminating eye. Latterly, modern theorists like Masterson devised maps of intrapsychic structure, which delineate the pathways taken as a result of splitting. Within such maps individuals can potentially see who is who (in terms of what is experienced affectively) in the equations of relationships, and begin to question a presumed reality.

Present-day mental health services addresses social prejudice in an oblique way: by urging separation, boundaries; “tools” for people to use, to enable calming, the quickest paths to safety. Ironically, the oblique path is more accessible for the average sufferer; the methods of choice are more utilitarian. They speak past the core traumas, prejudices, leaving well enough alone lest its practitioners offend those who have already fixated on truth. Therein lies some kind of cycle, I think, which is difficult to interrupt. That’s scary also.

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