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Hercules Killing the Lernean Hydra, Cornelis Cort [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hercules Killing the Lernean Hydra, Cornelis Cort [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice

A friend of mine, a lifelong Democrat, lives in a retirement home in one of the most liberal cities in California. One day at lunch he decided to sit at a table of residents he didn’t know. He soon realized that they were all Trump voters, enthusiastically expressing their pleasure with the election. “Finally, we won’t have to look at that nigger in the White House any more,” said one woman. My friend was stunned. “Look,” he said, “it’s OK for us to have political disagreements, but I’m deeply uncomfortable with your using that ugly word.” “Too bad,” she said. “We can say whatever we really feel now. To hell with your political correctness.”

I’ve long been annoyed by, and written critically about, the language police on many college campuses, where well-intentioned efforts to ban “offensive” words and deeds frequently lurches into preposterous and sometimes funny extremes. In the prologue to the latest edition of his best-selling sex-information book, The Guide to Getting It On, Paul Joannides writes:

I’ve given up trying to please people who insist that every word of every sentence must not offend a single person on the entire planet. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say “a woman’s clitoris” because it might offend people who are transgender. So instead of using words like “woman” or “man,” I’m supposed to say “a person with a clitoris and vagina” or “a person with a penis.”1

So let’s stipulate that none of us likes being told we can’t say what we think, and that we shouldn’t think what we feel. But the kind of political correctness that Joannides laments at least has the benefit of trying to make people aware of the uses and consequences of language, as adding “or she” did to the former norm of using the generic universal male to encompass women. It pales next to what the Trump voter meant by the phrase. For her, and others like her, being “politically correct” means that somehow they have been forced to … suppress their racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic feelings. (Suppressed? Have they never been online?)

As studies from social, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology demonstrate, prejudice is a Hydra: cut off one of its nine heads, and another emerges.

Across the country, those feelings are erupting like mushrooms after rain. African-American freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania were spammed with threats about lynching black people. Vandals in upstate New York painted swastikas on a building with the scrawl “Make America White Again.” The lid is off the cauldron, revealing how much rage and prejudice had been bubbling below. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the racism that Barack Obama’s presidency released, starting with the birther movement that questioned his very legitimacy. Marilyn Davenport, a member of the Orange County Republican Party Central Committee, sent out an email depicting Obama and his parents as chimpanzees, and was surprised by the outcry. “Oh, come on! Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist,” she said by way of apology. “It was a joke. I have friends who are black.” (Or did.) I guess her having to apologize is the kind of political correctness her supporters object to.

This election vividly reminded me of a classic study in social psychology, conducted in the early 1980s when many Americans were optimistic about the gains of the civil-rights movement. In a study that student subjects were led to believe was about biofeedback, Ronald Rogers and Steven Prentice-Dunn asked white students to administer an electric shock to either African-American or white confederates of the experimenter. (They weren’t actually shocked.) In the experimental condition, participants overheard the biofeedback “victim” saying derogatory things about them. In the control condition, participants overheard no such nasty remarks. Then all the participants had another opportunity to shock the victims; their degree of aggression was defined as the amount of shock they administered. At the beginning, white students showed less aggression toward blacks than toward whites. But as soon as the white students were angered by overhearing derogatory remarks about themselves, they showed more aggression toward blacks than toward whites.2 The findings were subsequently replicated in studies of how English-speaking Canadians behave toward French-speaking Canadians, straights toward gays, non-Jewish students toward Jews, and men toward women. In all of these conditions, members of the majority were willing to control their negative feelings toward the minority at first. But as soon as they became angry or got a jolt to their self-esteem, their unexpressed prejudice revealed itself—aggressively.

An equally powerful predictor of the eruption of prejudice is economic: competition, real or perceived, for jobs and security. When two groups are worried about their livelihoods, prejudice between them increases—and prejudice in turn justifies anything each side says or does to diminish or dehumanize the other. My friend and colleague Elliot Aronson tells this story in his classic social- psychology text, The Social Animal, describing how white attitudes toward Chinese immigrants in the United States fluctuated during the 19th century. When the Chinese were working in the gold mines and potentially taking jobs from white laborers, the white-run newspapers described them as depraved, vicious, and bloodthirsty. Just a decade later, when the Chinese began working on the transcontinental railroad, doing difficult and dangerous jobs that few white men wanted, prejudice against them declined. Whites described them as hardworking, industrious, and lawabiding. Then, after the railroad was finished and the Chinese had to compete with Civil War veterans for scarce jobs, white attitudes changed again. Whites now thought the Chinese were “criminal,” “crafty,” “conniving,” and “stupid.”3

Notice any relevance to the 2016 election? Today’s Chinese are Mexican, particularly the migrant workers whose labor is needed but who are perceived as costing Americans their jobs. Starting in the late 2000s, as the American economy worsened, violence against Latinos rose more than 40 percent, and Mexicans became the main focus of white anger about illegal immigration.

Censoring prejudiced language doesn’t touch the prejudice, any more than cutting the tops off weeds causes them to die.

As studies from social, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology demonstrate, prejudice is a Hydra: cut off one of its nine heads, and another emerges. Prejudice subsides in good times; in bad times it reemerges, with new targets. It survives because it accomplishes so many things for the people who embrace it. It wards off feelings of doubt, fear, and insecurity. It allows people to create scapegoats on whom they can displace anger and cope with feelings of powerlessness. It binds people to their own cultural, ethnic, or national group and its ways; by disliking “them,” we feel closer to “us.” It justifies a group’s dominance, status, or greater wealth: across the globe, wherever a majority group systematically discriminates against a minority to preserve its power—whether the majority is white, black, Muslim, Hindu, Japanese, Chinese, Hutu, Christian, or Jewish—they will claim that their actions are legitimate because the minority is so obviously inferior, stupid, and dangerous. Finally, prejudice is the ultimate tonic for low self-esteem: No matter how bad off I am, those people are inferior. As the historian Ian Buruma recently observed, the election of Obama was a shock to those “white Americans, [who,] however impoverished and undereducated, had the comforting sense that there was always a group beneath them, who did not share their entitlement, or claim to greatness, a class of people with a darker skin. With a Harvard-educated black president, this fiction became increasingly difficult to sustain.”4

Anyone who wants to understand prejudice, therefore, has a daunting task. Not only do we have to peel apart the functions a prejudice has for any given individual or group; we also have to distinguish explicit attitudes (such as the unapologetic racism and anti-Semitism of white supremacists) from unconscious ones (the “implicit bias” that many people hold in associating a group with various negative traits); active hostility toward another group from simple unfamiliarity and thus discomfort with that group; what people say from what they feel; and what people feel from how they behave. Did the woman at the lunch table insult Obama in order to momentarily feel superior? To let her friends know she’s one of them? Or to ventilate anger that her white middle-aged husband is out of work, drinking too much, and suicidal, and how come the country is paying more attention to “them” than to him?

Skeptic 22.1 (cover)

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.1 (2017).
Buy this issue

I don’t care about her reasons on a personal level, which is why I commend what my friend did at that lunch. He didn’t shout, or call the woman a racist, or storm away from the table; he raised a clear but civil objection, knowing that otherwise his silence would convey approval. But I do care about her reasons on a societal level, for that affects our thinking about what it will take to find true antidotes for the prejudices that are revealed in ugly language. Censoring that language doesn’t touch the prejudice, any more than cutting the tops off weeds causes them to die. One powerful antidote is, simply, making connections. We all feel better in “safe spaces,” hanging out with others who think as we do and share our experiences, but one of the factors most strongly related to the reduction of prejudice is contact with those who are different from us. Remarkably, contact actually works best for the most intolerant and rigid people, apparently because it reduces their feelings of threat and anxiety and increases feelings of empathy and trust.5

As we go forward into the known and unknown brambles of Trumpland, we will face many personal decisions: speak up or shut up? Shout down the opposition or try to hear them? Retreat to safe spaces or seek common ground? END

About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). She writes “The Gadfly” column quarterly in Skeptic magazine.

  1. Paul Joannides. 2017. The Guide to Getting It On, 9th edition. Goofy Foot Press.
  2. Rogers, Ronald W., & Prentice-Dunn, Steven. 1981. “Deindividuation and Anger-mediated Interracial Aggression: Unmasking regressive racism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 41, 63–73.
  3. Aronson, Elliot. 2012. The Social Animal, 11th ed. New York: Worth.
  4. Buruma, Ian. 2016 (November 29). “The End of the Anglo-American Order.” New York Times Magazine.
  5. Hodson, Gordon. 2011. “Do Ideologically Intolerant People Benefit from Intergroup Contact?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 20, 154–159.

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