The Emotional Roots of Prejudice and Bigotry

At the social level, bigotry and prejudice are tools of oppression where in groups dominate and exploit out groups. But analysis at this sociological level leaves important questions unanswered about why people are are so prone to in group – out group thinking in the first place. Note that the most stridently prejudiced are often not those who benefit significantly from exploitative power dynamics between groups. Prejudice, bigotry and discrimination have deeper emotional roots in individual psychology than sociological analysis can fully illuminate.

We are familiar with fear mongering in racist demagoguery and fear often does play a central role in othering The Other. We see this in the long history of racial prejudice against African Americans and more recently against Muslims. This fear is irrational given that the perceived threat is largely based on fantasy stereotypes. But fear does little to explain misogyny or other cases of discrimination like anti-semitism in Nazi Germany or the caste system in India.

Disgust, according to Martha Nussbaum, does shed broader light on the psychology of prejudice. But what exactly is disgust? And how does it lead to prejudice, discrimination and oppression? These are the questions I will briefly explore in this essay. But first, I want to mention that the occasion for this reflection was a wonderful event at Seattle Town Hall the other night where Martha Nussbaum spoke about her new book, Aging Thoughtfully, co-authored with Saul Levmore. The full event is online here. While the main focus of the evening was ageism, her discussion also explored disgust and its role in prejudice and discrimination more generally.

We should also note that Nussbaum is a cognitivist about the emotions. That is, she thinks that emotions aren’t just feelings, but that emotions have at their core a cognitive element of judgment or belief. At the core of fear, for instance, is the judgment that something or someone presents some kind of danger. Similarly it would not make sense to understand a person as experiencing grief unless that person believes they have lost something or someone dear to them. Having this cognitive component means that emotions can be well grounded or irrational. A person’s fear, for instance, is rational to just the degree that the perceived threat is real. A fear based on distorted or fantastic belief is not rational. So, given this theoretical context, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice in no way excuses prejudice and discrimination as somehow beyond the scope rational critique. To the contrary, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice will be an attempt to get at what is going wrong in the mind of the bigot or the misogynist. The goal here is to illuminate the irrationality of prejudice.

So back to disgust. Nussbaum takes disgust to be aversion to contamination. In particular, disgust is repulsion against things we associate with decay, disease and death. What Nussbaum calls primary disgust probably has a biological basis. It’s easy to see how evolution would favor a strongly felt repulsion from things like rotting flesh or signs of communicable disease. Disgust in these cases is rational, just like our fear of tigers. Of course even here we often find overriding reasons for caring for the sick or facing down our fear of the tiger.

But then, people also suffer what Nussbaum calls “projective disgust.” As she puts it, “people seek to create a buffer zone between themselves and their own animality by identifying a group (usually a powerless minority) who can be targeted as the quasi-animals and projecting onto that group various animal characteristics, which they have to no greater degree than the ones doing the projecting: bad smell, animal sexuality and so on.”

Projective disgust is neither rational nor obviously adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. So how do so many people across so many cultures become saddled with this irrational, socially problematic emotional attitude? Well, as slightly rational, self-aware beings, we must somehow cope with the foreknowledge of our own eventual decline, decay and demise. Gifted self-deceivers that we are, a widespread strategy for dealing with this long run crisis and the anxiety it can provoke is to deny and distance ourselves from our own animality and mortality. Indeed most of our major religious traditions seem to be overly concerned with assimilating us more closely to God or gods and thereby distancing us from our essential nature as mortal, disease prone, biological organisms.

Projective disgust is a dishonest mode of dividing the person against its self, cleaving our elevated, rational, self-aware minds from our ultimately decaying flesh. Descartes had it hard wired into the nature of reality. But the comfort of this dualism comes at a steep price. In elevating ourselves as something more than animal and mortal, we extend this elevation only to those we can readily identify with. Others can be literally left to rot. And so we other The Other. There are no doubt assorted other ways in which we other The Other, but failing to come to terms with our own humanity, and our own animality and mortality in particular, is surely among the deepest and most universal. Prejudice and bigotry is, in varying degrees, grounded in self-deception aimed at evading self-loathing. But if we can muster the courage to see ourselves with clear eyes, susceptible to all manner of corruption and decay, ultimately destined to demise, we might also hope to get over our disgust and find ourselves, along with all our fellow vulnerable, decaying, mortal organisms, as lovable all the same.

James Baldwin invokes this wisdom in connection with racism in America when he writes,

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.


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