New Internationalist

Roots Of Discrimination

Issue 128

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MINORITY RIGHTS [image, unknown] A majority problem

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Roots of descrimination
It’s easy to understand why minorities feel insecure and defensive. But why do majorities act the playground bully with weaker and smaller groups? Anuradha Vittachi looks for the roots of discrimination in our own irrational fears.

[image, unknown] If you’re an up-and-coming young executive in London, there’s a good chance you’ll be tempted to read the Financial Times - not just to check how the stock market is doing, but to learn how to build up the right image for the lifestyle you aspire to. You’ll find out how your suit should be cut and which club you should take your clients to, Most of all, you’ll discover what your opinions should be: the FT tells you what you should think. Its slogan: ‘No FT. no comment’. It’s sobering that such a ploy can be used by a quality paper whose target audience is people aiming for positions of financial and political power. Is the nation’s power elite so insecure that it is not offended at blatantly being told what to think? And if it is so easily led, what could an unscrupulous leader not persuade it to do?

Ever since Hitler’s ascent to power, psychologists have been trying to fathom how groups of intelligent, ordinarily decent citizens could be persuaded to condone, and even carry out, acts of inhuman violence against other groups of people. Moral values seem to dissolve, And, weirdly, the dominant group justifies their subhuman acts towards the subordinate group in the name of their own supposed ‘superiority’: apparently it is the victims who are ‘subhuman’ in some way.

What the dominant group sees as objectionable in their victims can provide an interesting clue to what they fear in themselves - it’s a sort of distorted mirror-image of the rejected part of themselves. Until these suppressed, rejected parts are reclaimed, other people will continue to be blamed for them. And a group that gets away with blaming someone else will never face coming to terms with its own negative aspect - its ‘shadow’ - which may be precisely that aspect of its identity that it needs in order to feel complete and therefore more secure. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung presented the issue like this: ‘But what if I should discover that the very enemy himself is within me, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved - what then?’

In his analysis of Hitler, psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out that the Nazi leader’s hatred and contempt for powerless minorities should come as no surprise, given his own insecurity and fear of powerlessness. He often referred to himself in Mein Kampf as the ‘nobody’. In Fromm’s view, only if we embark on the process of integrating the warring parts of our personality will we find internal security and therefore be confident and secure enough to live and let live. If, instead, we remain deeply and unconsciously divided within ourselves, we are likely to try and escape our discomfort, usually by conforming to authoritarianism in one of the two classic guises. The first involves submission: we give over our will to a dominant group with reassuringly clear-cut, authoritarian values, where the group leader tells us what to do and all our peers rousingly agree. That’s how the Financial Times advertisement works and, on a more alarming level, how Hitler succeeded. He could have done nothing on his own. But the latent fears in the Germans around him were easy enough to pick up and magnify. As Jung put it, Hitler was the loudspeaker that made audible all the inaudible murmurings of the German soul’.

The second and still more sinister alternative is to assert our strength and feeling of ‘rightness’ by picking on someone weaker than ourselves to dominate. Domination of this kind doesn’t have to be openly destructive. But whether the relationship is overtly punitive or seemingly benevolent, the dominant individual’s need is to prop up his secretly-doubting ego by appearing to his subordinates as a heroic figure. In the simplest terms it’s the playground bully syndrome. The bully needs to show off how tough he is to hide his uncomfortable, hidden knowledge that he feels very vulnerable,

But the bully must disguise his ploy with some self-righteous rationale, Nationally or domestically, the wish to dominate is justified by abstract calls to ‘higher values’: to God, to patriotism, to ‘the way our family has always conducted itself - whatever the excuse, some unquestionable authority is called upon to uphold the views of the dominator (see box).

In his book Blaming the Victim, sociologist William Ryan shows how white Americans treat black Americans as second-class citizens, providing them with inferior education, inferior housing, inferior jobs - and then point to the result, the semi-skilled black living in a ghetto, as proof that the black American is ‘inherently’ incapable of coming up to white standards. ‘We’ve given them every chance,’ they seem to imply, ‘but the blacks just can’t make it.’ It’s the call to an unquestionable authority again - genes, this time, And the white Americans’ unjust behaviour, which caused the problem of inequality, has been redefined as a problem originating within the black skin.

It’s a trick that’s played even more obviously in South Africa, this time by a white minority against a black majority. The key to dominance does not lie in numbers, but in the amount of power a group has. One group wants enough power to dominate another group and to keep it subordinate. Equality cannot be allowed, or the whole point of massaging the dominant ego through the pretence of ‘superiority’ will be lost.

The view that the problem of the powerless is actually rooted in the neuroses of the powerful is not dismissible as a left-wing smoke screen put up by progressive sociologists.

In the mid-60s US President Lyndon Johnson (hardly a radical) set up a high-level Commission to investigate the causes of US civil rights conflicts. The Commission was composed entirely of white moderates - even a black as respected as Martin Luther King wasn’t included. Despite this the Commission’s verdict was unambiguous: the so-called ‘Negro problem’ was actually a white problem, In the words of Judge Otto Kerner, who headed the now famous Commission:

‘What white Americans have never fully understood - but what the Negro can never forget - is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it’.

That powerless minorities should feel vulnerable and behave defensively is logical enough. As Gandhi once said, it’s meaningless to expect a mouse to be tolerant towards a cat. But communal suspicion becomes a dangerous problem when the majority, which could respond to the minority’s fears with protective reassurance, replies instead with symptoms of its own insecurity. A vicious circle is then set in motion, which easily spirals downward into tragedy, with the dominant group crushing the subordinate group out of existence.

There seems to be only one way out - however idealistic it may seem. The powerless group must continue to claim its share of power, and the dominant group must be seen to be assisting willingly in that process - for example by encouraging positive discrimination in favour of minorities, The alternative, of ever-escalating tension and aggression, cannot be other than disastrous for the well-being of both parties.

For God and Country

Muhammed-Husayn and his wife Shikkar-Nisa had just returned home after a hard day’s work in the fields. He went out to tend the animals in the stable and his wife was drinking a cup of tea when armed men burst into the house. They ties up Shikkar-Nisa with ropes, poured kerosene over her and set her on fire. The intense heat burned through the ropes and she stumbled outside to find her husband, burned to death, lying in a ditch. A few minutes later she also died of her burns.

That was three years ago. The murdered couple were Bahais, members of the world-wide religious faith now persecuted in its country of origin, Iran. Over the past five years the Iranian government has waged an onslaught against the 300,000 Bahai population, the largest religious minority in the predominately Islamic country. Bahai holy places have been destroyed, many Bahais executed, others imprisoned without trial, dozens of cemeteries desecrated private property looted and burned, and the life savings of many thousands of Bahai families confiscated. The entire Bahai community in Iran has been subjected to ruthless discrimination, humiliation, violence and murder.

False charges against the Bahais include being supporter of the ex-Shah, opponents of Islam, enemies of the Iranian government and people, and moral degenerates. (Shikkar-Nisa, a devoted mother and wife, was regarded as a prostitute and her children as illegitimate because Islamic law does not recognise Bahai marriages.)

Why does the Iranian government see the Bahai community, who proclaim the earth as, ‘but one country and mankind its citizens’, as a threat? Closer examination suggests that what Bahais threaten is not the Islamic state – as the government claims – but the self-image of the fanatical Iranian Moslems who now rule the country. Like all witch-hunts, the persecution of Bahais in Iran holds up a mirror in which they chose to look.

Iran’s current leaders seem to need an enemy to hate, a scapegoat for their uncertainty about their own national and religious identities. If the persecutors stopped focussing on the pretended enemies and tried to examine their own reality instead, what would they find? Unfortunately, the unshakable conviction that one is doing God’s will by persecuting a harmless religious minority allows no room for such self-questioning.

Viva Tomlin


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