Why People Are Jerks

This week I’ve been reading a lot of analyses about race and political divisiveness in America — some insightful; much not — including this Salon piece, in which some More Liberal Than Thou white guy explains,

In “All Eyes Are Upon Us,” an important new book I’ve just reviewed for Bookforum, the historian Jason Sokol shows not just that whites have been two-faced about race but – counterintuitively to those who don’t know them – that both faces have often been quite sincere: They can cheer Tiger Woods or Colin Powell (or, until recently, Bill Cosby) unreservedly and insist that their daily discrimination in their neighborhoods and workplaces is driven only by hard market realities and real, undeniable dangers from blacks broken by richer whites who insulate themselves from the racially inflected consequences of economic policies they design and promote. Another of Sokol’s books, “There Goes My Everything,” showed that in the 1960s, even many die-hard Southern segregationists believed sincerely that the mores and protocols they were losing had done more for racial comity and mutual understanding than had activist lawyers’ impositions. No wonder that their children are trying now to re-segregate Southern politics via opportunistic racial districting and voter-identification laws.

IMO the author of the paragraph above must have a different definition of “sincere” than the one I go by. The online dictionary says “sincere” means “free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings.” And of course the Good Old Boys who persuaded themselves that Slavery Was Good and who are now trying to re-segregate Southern politics, etc., are anything but “free from pretense or deceit.” Rationalization is not “sincere.” Desperately lying to yourself to justify your own bigotry and cruelty is not “sincere.”

This is not to say the Salon author is completely wrong about everything, but I do find lectures about how liberals don’t “get” white men, even though many of them are white men as is, it appears, the lecturer himself, to be weirdly fascinating. What is it they aren’t “getting”? What is it we aren’t getting?

I want to go back to something I wrote a few days ago.

We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.

One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.

Another way to put this is that we can’t be who we think we are without everyone else being who we think they are. This is something we “know” intuitively but not consciously. We conceptualize ourselves as stand-alone, autonomous person-units. We assume Who We Are is intrinsic to our bodies somehow, and that we remain Who We Are no matter what else happens.

However — and yes, this is kind of a Buddhist view — if we fully appreciate that we take identity only in regard to our function and position in our larger social networks, and that in fact we cannot be who (we think) we are without other people being who (we think) they are, this tells us that on a subconscious level we may all have a very heavy vested interest in seeing to it that other people remain who we think they are. Too much social change is a genuine (we think) existential threat.

This explain why our attitudes about race are so weirdly inconsistent. It explains why some African-Americans are given the right-wing stamp of approval even by people who turn around and call Michael Brown a “thug” who deserved to be killed. In one way or another, someone like Ben Carson or Herman Cain is able to not pose a threat to the social order, and indeed, may enable white racists to deny their racism.

IMO if we understand social and cultural upheavals this way rather than assume it’s just about untethered hate for people who “look different,” many things make more sense. Whites who cling to a particular identity as whites have a vested interest in maintaining racial hierarchies; whites who have mostly let go of whiteness as defining themselves are less invested in racial hierarchies. Whites who cling to whiteness as an essential part of their self-identity assume that those other whites are “just being PC” or suffer from “white guilt,” but it’s more accurate to say that those other whites’ personal orientation toward racial issues is different because it’s less personal.

This is not necessarily the same thing as being wiser or more racially sensitive; basically, it just means racial privilege is no longer a central, personal concern. And, of course, in the real world it’s not an either/or thing but more of a sliding scale. Even a lot of self-identified liberals haven’t quite let go of the sense that white maleness is the default norm.

It is, apparently, still important to a lot of American whites to think that whiteness doesn’t just give them privileges but genuine superiority. Whiteness is identified with industriousness, morality, dignity, self-sufficiency, and respect for the rule of law, so that a white-identity-clinger sees those traits in himself even if they aren’t actually there. This explains the persistent white belief in the black welfare queen; the belief in lazy, dependent black people is necessary to reinforce an identity as an industrious and self-sufficient white person, especially if one isn’t particularly industrious and self-sufficient, but just white.

This is why poor whites dependent on government programs are so easily duped into voting for Republicans who vow to dismantle such programs.They hear about “takers” and see “lazy black people,” not themselves. This explains why so many whites eagerly anticipate black violent reactions to such events as the George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson verdict, because Those People Act That Way. Of course, when whites form violent mobs they think it’s justified, so it’s okay.

The persistence of aggressive hostility to women among a subset of males no doubt has to do with a confused “masculine mystique” that requires women to be submissive and completely nonthreatening so that a “man” can be a “man.” These males cannot be who they think they are with women going around being who they are and, just as bad, other men being okay with that. Feminism is the destroyer of worlds.

And then there’s fundamentalist Christians, who insist that their “faith” requires them to be allowed to discriminate at will and use public schools to proselytize. Christian triumphalism will not abide being told it is not privileged among all other religions. The believer in Christian triumphalism, like the believer in American exceptionalism, must have the triumph of Christianity acknowledged because his ego is attached to the specialness of Christianity (or the USA), which makes him special, too. If Christianity is just one religion among many, what’s the point? (To his credit, last year Pope Francis criticized Christian triumphalism in a homily.)

Anyway, this is my Grand Theory as to why people are jerks.

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