10/26/2010 12:22 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Troubled Times and the Scapegoating of the 'Other'

While New Yorkers struggle to understand the ghastly gang assault carried out against three gay men in the Bronx, People magazine catalogs a year of infamous bullying cases and our Supreme Court labors over the free speech rights of preacher Fred Phelps, who considers it his duty to torture mourners with hateful placards that link the deaths of soldiers to laws that guarantee equal rights. "Thank God for dead soldiers," reads one. "God hates you," says another. As we puzzle over these issues -- bullying, harassment, and assault -- and wonder what they may have in common, it helps to understand the role played by "the other" in the lives of individuals and societies.

As social animals who depend on group identity for survival, human beings have tended to define themselves in part by affiliation -- I belong to this family, this village, this nation, you name it -- and in part in opposition to all others. Inside our groups, we tend to draw further distinctions to determine our status. Wealth and power confer a certain security, as do strength and beauty. Their opposites -- poverty, weakness, and ugliness -- become markers of failure and justification for rejection, discrimination, and violence.

In times of plenty the social order can be maintained in relative peace. Psychotherapists like me see the benefits of prosperity in the lives of the people we treat, and social scientists have documented it in studies of every kind of culture, from the Yanomami of Amazonia to the United States in the 1950s. It's a lot easier for everyone to get along, both within a group and in relation to other groups, when food, clothing and shelter can be had and we don't fear the immediate future.

We also know that when resources become scarce, due to economic crisis, the stress can bring out the worst in us. Among ancient tribes, drought and famine were reliable predictors of war as individuals and groups sought someone to blame for their suffering and found relief through the forcible acquisition of territory and wealth. In our modern world, massive unemployment, widespread bankruptcies, and waves of foreclosures lead directly to increased domestic violence, which has been rising since 2006. Hate crimes are tracked less reliably, but many states report recent increases, and few would disagree that we seem to have reached a low point when it comes to expressions of rage and disgust in our national discourse. Almost always, the anger and disparagement are directed as individuals and groups that can be branded the "other" and blamed for our own problems.

For Fred Phelps, the "other" is the American gay community, which has, in pressing for equal rights, brought God's fury down on America. For more ordinary bullies in schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces the target is anyone who looks or acts in ways that are somehow outside their definition of what's acceptable or normal. The "other" is short, fat, ugly, gay, female, foreign, disabled or otherwise "deviant," and this makes them worthy of serving as a target for months and perhaps years of self-doubt and terror. Lately, some of these "others" have found suicide to be the only way they could imagine ending the relentless shaming and bullying.

In domestic politics, anger and vitriol may be constants, but there seems to be a measure of extra, free-floating hatred in the air, and on the airwaves, these days. I cannot recall a time when so many people have used the word Nazi, and the swastika symbol, as freely as people use it today against their political opponents. On television, rightwinger Glenn Beck has deployed this below-the-belt technique most flagrantly, but Nazi symbols have also appeared on signs waved by leftwingers in street protests. In both contexts, the practice is intended to identify the "other' as an object of hatred, and contempt. President Obama is a frequent target of this kind of projection, as his critics heap their fears and anxieties upon him and insist he must be foreign-born, Muslim, or some other sort of outsider and not one of "us."

Beyond the domestic political realm, Americans seem eager to find "others" in the community of nations to blame for our insecurity. At the moment, China and Mexico are the enemies we want to blame for our troubles. In much of the American media, Mexico, and not our own demand for cheap labor and drugs, is responsible for all sorts of crime and economic dislocation in our country. In our political campaigns, China is the new Red Menace, threatening us with both a competing ideology and economic ruin.

How is the "other" that is China responsible for our troubles? According to political ads running in various congressional districts, the Chinese are exploiting our policies to destroy American industries and throw American workers out of their jobs. As Chinese music plays and images of Mao and traditional dragons are flashed on the screen, these spots attempt to link one party or the other to a foreign threat. Christine O'Donnell, Delaware's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate goes further, saying China has a "carefully thought-out and strategic plan to take over America." Although she cannot prove the existence of this "plan," O'Donnell insists that it is ample reason to reject the idea of the U.S. working with the world's largest country to establish a more open and productive relationship. "That doesn't work," she says.

From gays to the Chinese, Americans have produced a bumper crop of "others" to serve as scapegoats in this time of economic stress. Besides the ones I mentioned so far, I would also include, on the domestic front, immigrants of all sorts, and Muslims, including moderates. On the international scene I detect rising anger toward India and its call-center sector, and any country that sells us oil, with the exception of Canada.

What is the effect of this hatred? In short, it distracts us from dealing with the real economic, political, and social problems that afflict us as individuals and as a nation. No individual can focus on improving his own lot in life while plotting and carrying out violence against the "other." Similarly, no people can get on with the business of reform and recovery while they sling swastikas at each other or blame at foreign countries.

The remedy to the scapegoat problem at all levels begins with what the pioneering psychologist Gordon Allport called "friendly contact." This process requires that community leaders -- educators, clergy, politicians, etc. -- bring different constituencies together and broaden the definition of "us" to include every person of goodwill no matter his or her color, size, shape, sexual preference, nationality or faith. On a national scale, the end of scapegoating will require that Nazi symbols and hate-filled rhetoric be set aside in favor of more "friendly contact." Until we do this and reject politicians and media mouthpieces that exploit our fears, recovery, both personal and national, will elude us.