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I SKIPPED “MONSTER TALK” with Blake Smith as he prepared for CryptidCon in the latest Skeptic newsletter. The question “What does science have to tell us about monsters” didn’t attract my interest. Nor did common misconceptions about the origins and development of identical and fraternal twins. But I did eye the key article by Carol Tavris.
I knew Tavris’s work and have been recommending her book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for years. Written with fellow social psychologist Elliot Aronson, it deals with cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, both apparently permanently a part of the human condition.
Tavris’s Skeptic article was titled “The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice” and addressed prejudice, bigotry, and hatred in current events. It opens with an anecdote that is becoming all too familiar:
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 have been pressing people to read Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for years, if only for the chapter on law. It addresses hundreds of cases where a convicted man was exonerated by DNA but the cases were not reopened because the prosecutors believe that their opinion of the man’s guilt is more important than the DNA! So the real perpetrators of these heinous crimes are free and will remain free, probably forever. 1
Prejudice is a Hydra
While Tavris’s article focuses somewhat on two groups who suffer by the systemic racism of America—blacks and Hispanics—the thrust of the article is about prejudice itself. The targets of prejudice vary with each culture (although dark-skinned people, homosexuals, and Jews seem to have suffered more than other groups, regardless of time and place) and often varies over time in those cultures. Tavris continues:
“Prejudice is a Hydra: cut off one of its nine heads, and another emerges. Prejudice subsides in good times; in bad times it re-emerges, 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.” 2
Cartoon by .
Our work is cut out for us
And how do we as a culture—or at least we of our culture who were blessed/cursed with “liberalness”—address this situation? According to Tavris:
“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?
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?”
From this labyrinthine, hydra-like entanglement of emotional and cognitive disorder, I draw one simple conclusion for those of us who tend towards bleeding heart liberalness:
Our work is cut out for us, and we are not going to be seeing any major changes for the good any time soon! 3
Several generations of Americans were raised seeing advertisements like this one for Aunt Jemima products, never realizing the inherent condescension in them. How? Why? because the effects of systemic racism are insidious and difficult to shake loose—even for bleeding heart liberals.
Whose a snowflake?
While this speaks for itself and should be an enticement to read the rest of Tavris’s piece, I want to make a few observations:
1. The fact that callous, bigoted, hate-filled people exist should surprise no one. The ascendancy of groups like the “christian” right, the Tea Party, and the so-called “alt-right.” 4
2. What the racist woman in Tavris’s anecdote refers to as “political correctness” used to be called polite manners. There are good reasons for social restraints on individual passions and opinions (aside from not provoking physical confrontations): if a person practices almost anything long enough, that anything could become a part of the person.
3. As awful as it sounds, there may be an upside to this: it is easier to identify and therefore possibly deal with these people when they manifest their true feelings than if those feelings remain latent. That is, it’s hard to cure a cancer if you don’t know you’ve got cancer.
Even real snowflakes aren’t unique!
Us old folks out and about
Not only do we have to deal with bigots who feel empowered by Tump to “say whatever we really feel now,” but we are living in the Era of the Snowflake. I only recently learned the definition of snowflake: originally, righties used “snowflake” derogatorily to refer to a person who has an inflated sense of their own uniqueness, or is easily offended and unable to deal with opposing opinions.
But lately it’s been turned around, as those same righties seem to take easy offense at anything that isn’t an obvious compliment—which covers far more righties like Trump followers than any librulls I know.
But of course that’s grist for another mill another time . . .
FEATURED IMAGE: The fantastic painting of the multi-headed Hydra at the top of this page is by an artist who signs his work Velinov. In Greek legend, the Hydra was a monster that dwelt in the marshes of Lerna. It had nine heads, one of which was immortal. If one head was cut off, two more heads grew back from the fresh wound.
Recommended reading: “Language, Racism and a Protest” by Dick Gregory.
1 I have taken editorial liberties with the original layout of Tavris’s text but not with any of its meaning.
2 This quote is taken from the description of the book provided by the publisher and not at all exaggerated.
3 Um, I tend to simply complex things, to break them down to component parts, like I do with my stereo system. (No integrated amps for me!)
4 The word christian is in lowercase and quotes to express my displeasure at having to associate many of these people with the message and image of the Prince of Peace. And the only alternative the “alt-right” offers is to not have to call them neo-Nazis or fascists.