As sapient beings who are a part of a society, we are capable of treating one another in very different ways: on the one hand, we can be kind, caring and tender, on the other brusque, cruel and selfish. In the light of increasingly xenophobic, nationalistic and hateful attitudes spreading across Europe, in this article, I would like to discuss the darker side of our social behaviour: prejudice. Before I focus on the substance of the problem, I would like to explain what is prejudice and how it rises.
There exist many definitions of prejudice, I will use the definition created by Elliot Aronson who, in his book The social animal, defines prejudice as a hostile or negative attitude towards a certain identifiable group defined according to generalisations based on untrue or incomplete informations.
What elements is prejudice composed of?
Prejudice can be divided into three components. The first piece of the jigsaw is the so called cognitive element, namely a set of beliefs about the group. The second component are emotions, for example active hostility towards the group. Finally, the third component is the tendency to discriminate against the group whenever and wherever possible. For example, when we say that someone is prejudiced against Muslims, it means that they are convinced that all Muslims – with few exceptions – are the same, that this person does not like Muslims and is capable of taking hostile actions towards them.
Essentially, the prejudiced person does not try to negate facts. Quite the opposite: they accept the facts but simultaneously distort them in a way that enables continued hate. Occasionally, they even adapt facts as a starting point for their next attack. Thus, one could say that a prejudiced person resists information which is not consistent with the stereotypes they believe in.
According to Gordon Allport, drowning people in facts does not make them change their views. Instead, they tend to create new sub-categories and convince themselves that the newly obtained information may be true but then every rule has an exception. In their opinion, the exceptions only prove the rule.
Generalising from an individual to a group is a core characteristic of prejudice. Matter-of-factly speaking, we know that many terrorists are young Muslims, but this clearly does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists. However, the stereotype is often so strong that it takes over simple logic.
What makes people prejudiced?
Psychologists suggest that animals have a strong drive to be empathic towards genetically related animals and at the same time are wary of animals which are genetically dissimilar to them, even if these animal are not a threat. According to the researchers, prejudice can be an innate biological mechanism facilitating survival. Prejudice makes us favour our family, tribe and race; it also makes us suspicious towards strangers. On the other hand, one could assume that humans differ from animals and our attitude is characterised by friendliness, openness and the will to cooperate. Following this train of thoughts, we could claim that our prejudice is not inbuilt but inbred by either copying behaviours of others (parents, society, media) or through the mechanisms we use to define ourselves.
Prejudice can also be caused by economical and political circumstances. Attitudes marked by prejudice are more common in times of social tension and when conflicts of economical, political and ideological goals exist in the society. Discrimination and tendency to use negative stereotypes thrive with increasing unemployment and competition in the job market. Not to look far, there exists a prejudice towards Polish workers in Great Britain (“The Poles are stealing our jobs”).
But this is not the only reason. People who are prejudiced are commonly driven by frustration and bad circumstances. Such people show strong tendencies to attack the source of their frustration. However, the source of the frustration is frequently too formidable (economy, government) or undefined to attack it directly. It is thus more convenient and above all easier to find someone or something more defined.
People who feel frustrated look for a scapegoat – namely a person or community, often innocent and relatively uninfluential – and blame it for something it is not responsible for. In fascist Germany, Jews were such a scapegoat. In today’s Europe refugees from the Middle East are usually blamed for all problems, even though we can notice an increasing trend towards putting blame on immigrants from Eastern Europe. It is worth reminding that various forms of approval affect the forms aggression takes. from the historical perspective, exterminations of e.g. Jews were not frequent events throughout history, unless the dominating worldview approved it.
Some of Western societies have been concerned with events taking place after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite the initial hopes, the West has quickly realised that regaining of freedom was correlated with an increase of nationalist attitudes and thus prejudice and distrust towards other groups. The Balkan war is one of the best examples of how extreme nationalism on the one hand and pro-independence attitudes on the other lead to an explosion of hate in the whole region.
As noted by Ervin Staub, all genocides which took place during the last two decades were provoked by weak leaders who were likely to lose their influence, and who tried to secure their position by turning everyone’s attention to an external enemy. PiS as well as other national conservative parties, including Kukiz’15,have been trying for a while now to show certain communities in a negative light.They frequently use the natzi rhetoric, for example when Jarosław Kaczyński’s said that immigrants spread diseases. Using this mechanism, parties are imposing a consistent worldview with a scapegoat being guilty for the economical, political and cultural problems in the country.
However, our prejudice is influenced not only by our family, society and politicians but also by our socio-economical status and personal predispositions. If we have a low position in the hierarchy, we may feel the need to identify a minority group we can look down at. Many researchers, including Jennifer Crocker, stated that individuals who are low in the professional, economical and educational hierarchy show disproportionately more antipathy towards people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and are also more likely to use violence.
Our personal predispositions and susceptibility to prejudice are also important. Individuals are believed to differ when it comes to their propensity to hate. It means that some people are predisposed to prejudice not only by direct external influences such as family and society, but also because of their personality. Theodor Adorno refers to such people as having authoritarian characteristics and personality, which can be distinguished by rigid views, support for conventional values, shows a strong tendency towards punishing, is usually very suspicious and, finally, does not tolerate vulnerability neither its own nor anyone else’s. In summary, people with authoritarian personality feel the need to hold on to traditions and values of their own culture and predisposition to distrust towards new ideas and people who differ from them.
Judging from the current attitudes in the Polish society and division into so called better and worse grade of citizens, into patriots and traitors, into the real Poles and the ‘German fifth column’, one could suggest that people with strongly authoritarian personalities such as members of PiS and the episcopate, are usually convinced that domination of one group over another is natural, that the equality of different races is undesirable and even incompatible with the laws of nature, and that political conservatism is better than liberalism.
About the author: Aaron Laskowski holds a BA in Politics from the University of Nothampton.