the hydra of hate bubbling beneath america’s surface

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

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.”


No Hydra Here: Front cover of the book MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME) By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

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 Trump AltRight Fitzsimmons 1000 2

Car­toon by David Fitzsim­mons of The Ari­zona Daily Star.

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


Racism AuntJemima RagDollFamily copy 2

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 . . .

In this Trum­plistic Era, public dis­plays of in-your-face racism ap­pear to be on the rise. Click To Tweet

Painting of the multi-headed Hydra by Velinov at Deviant Art

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.




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