11 August 2014

A prejudiced critique of prejudice?

Kristin Y. Christman says nothing new in a recent Albany Times Union op-ed in which she attributes American foreign policy under President Obama and his predecessors to prejudice. Her particular, if not original spin on the subject is to use categories conceived by the 1950s thinker Gordon Allport, who divided the world into "Prejudiced Personalities" and "Democratic Personalities." Christman, a student of Russian, sees prejudice in American portrayals of Russians as evil actors in Ukraine. She sees similarly selective attitudes wherever the U.S. operates. Her discoveries are old news: we see things in black and white, oversimplify, demand unconditional compliance with our demands, etc. etc. That news isn't so old that it can't stand repetition, of course, and Christman writes plenty of sensible stuff besides. "Evil is not one side of war," she writes, ""Evil is the war [itself] and the belief that the enemy deserves punishment and destruction." I've said nearly the same thing when I warn the world against taking sides whenever war breaks out. Yet obviously I have a problem with Christman or you'd have nothing to read here today. The problem, from my own perspective, is that while Christman understandably singles out Americans for these prejudiced attitudes, she does so with such singlemindedness that you might infer that only Americans have such attitudes. Isn't it also possible that the Russians simplistically see the Ukrainians and their western backers as evil? Isn't it also possible (duh!) that Arabs simplistically see Israelis as evil? I'd guess that Christman does see Prejudiced Personalities as a universal phenomenon, but her column makes it look like a peculiarly American problem. It may be a worse problem for Americans given our tendency to moralize in foreign policy, but where's the country whose foreign policy is unmotivated by prejudice? If Prejudiced Personalities "believe people are superior or inferior," as Christman claims, we should expect to see them in every nation. Asking Americans to change their ways will accomplish little if other countries don't change -- especially when Christman warns that Prejudiced Personalities could be set in place as early as age five. Nor is it very encouraging when the best Christman can suggest is that "we must help children and adults know love more than threats, empathy more than punishment, and caring more than commands." I'm not sure we can get to that point worldwide, given the human material we have to work with now, without a lot of threats, commands and punishments. But that might be my own prejudice talking, -- or a certain misanthropy born not of prejudice, but of experience and reading history.

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