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Ruth Bettelheim

Ruth Bettelheim

Posted: July 29, 2009 04:16 PM

Crowley vs. Gates: The Heart of Prejudice


A heated debate about "racial profiling" was the immediate response to the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University by Sergeant Crowley for disorderly conduct on his own front porch. It became, within moments of publication, an intense argument about the whether or not racial profiling had taken place in this instance. The two men became protagonists in torrent of commentary in which some painted Gates as a long suffering victim of social injustice, a sort of black everyman standard bearer for all people of color, and Crowley as the unjustly maligned police officer, a champion for the forces of law and order. The press, pundits, bloggers, and virtually everyone else immediately took sides as if for a gladiatorial contest, all of them framing the situation in the same kind of "us vs. them" way.

No one who wasn't at the scene in that moment knows what really happened, and only the people involved know what they were thinking or feeling as it happened. Professor Gates, having just gotten off an extremely long flight and returning home to a jammed door, and then finding himself questioned by the police just for being on his own property, might not have been in the frame of mind to take the most charitable view of the police officer's motives. Sergeant Crowley might have been at the end of a frustrating shift, or felt inordinately threatened by something about the scene. But none of us know, because none of us were there, or have even seen a video of it (as there is none). Notwithstanding this, almost everyone who heard about what happened immediately had a very strong reaction about who was right and who was wrong. Lacking any definitive evidence on the topic, the basis of these judgments must be our own pre-existing attitudes and prejudices.

These prejudices are, unfortunately, exacerbated by that same "us vs. them" framework that has been taken by the press, commentators, and bloggers. Prejudices against others are increased when we think of ourselves as part of a group that is in opposition to another group.

This kind of group identification is found in many areas of life. If we are sports fans, we want our team to win and to defeat the other team. We want the opposing team to lose, i.e. to have something bad happen to them. The opposing team may have players as qualified and competent and even noble as the players on our team, but nevertheless we want them to suffer defeat. Whenever we identify with one side in opposition to another side, whether it is the popular kids vs. the nerdy kids or our company vs. our competitors, we want to see our group as better than the others. Inflicting harm on our opponents or members of the out-group is not only OK but, once we see them as the enemy, is often adopted as a single-minded pursuit.

This phenomenon is so well known and established that in every country going to war, the military routinely inculcates views among troops that demonize and dehumanize the enemy combatants so as to make it easier to kill a fellow human being. If the enemy is the "Japs" or "gooks" or "infidels" to be exterminated, we are more easily able to overcome our moral compunctions against killing and otherwise mistreating fellow human beings. It allows us to stop feeling compassion and kill or maim with a relative sense of impunity.

This conditioning also instills fear of the danger the enemy poses to us by imparting a sense that our lives, culture, or sense of well being are endangered by the enemy. In the case of sports teams, our well-being is threatened by the sadness, humiliation, and defeat we experience when our team loses. Even the benign, pleasurable, and healthy identification with a sports team can become dangerous when it's taken to the extremes of rioting or violence between fans of opposing teams. In the case of military conflicts, the enemy is endangering our "way of life" or our very existence.

These are natural human responses which are subject to manipulation by corporations and institutions like the military and police, as well as by sports teams, politicians, religious leaders, and the press to name but a few. We are often pressured, invited, or seduced into taking sides. We vicariously enjoy sharing the validation that comes with the victory of our group, team, company, political party, or side, over the "enemy." It increases solidarity within the group and enhances our sense of well-being by increasing our sense of belonging and status. We also long for the profound sense of excitement and exhilaration that engagement in battle brings, whether on the playing field, battlefield, boardroom, or backroom. It is not because we are bad or evil. It is because we all thrive on the comfort of belonging, the thrill of battle, and the pleasure of conquest. There is no easier or cheaper way to get this than by joining a side.

Because of all this, we are all quite ready to join adversarial groups without thinking about the harm we may be inflicting in order to gain the benefits of social acceptance, pride, and status. However, in joining our team or rooting for the "good guys" - being on the side of Gates or Crowley, for example -- we are immediately condemning the other side to being, if not bad, at least inferior. We give ourselves permission to inflict the maximum possible damage to win the most decisive and glorious victory that we can possibly achieve. In this process, we have diminished the people on the opposing side, seeing them as the "other" or the "enemy" and thereby giving ourselves a free pass to beat them into submission to achieve victory.

That is the heart of prejudice. Once we are engaged in advocating for our side and trying to win the battle for hearts, minds, or bodies, we have decided to view the people on our side in positive terms and those on the other side in negative terms (black people or the police in this case). Those dangerous, threatening others are to be, if not beaten or suppressed, at least castigated or shunned.

When the media, bloggers, pundits, and commentators perpetuate the "us vs. them" conversation, they are unwittingly collaborating in opposing the "enemy," thereby increasing and fomenting prejudice. We should all be aware of the seductive, insidious impact that "us vs. them" journalism and thinking has on our prejudices. It grabs us, the audience, exactly because it is not dispassionate discourse or an unbiased presentation of complete and accurate information in the best journalistic tradition, the kind that was so recently honored and discussed, after the passing of Walter Cronkite. "Us v. them" arguments do not engage our rational reflective capacities, but instead inflame us with an exhortation to battle. Any call to battle enlivens and exhilarates. But it also activates and exacerbates prejudice.