For those of you who are reading this blog series for the first time let me do a quick recap of where I am at. In my first post I showed that willingness to use authority figures to take away the rights of others is not limited to those high in right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). In my second post I showed that religious/political progressives are the ones most likely to agree with the characteristics of Christian dehumanization correlated to the willingness to use authority figures against conservative Christians. In my last post I showed that those with attitudes of Christian dehumanization are also likely to have vindictive attitudes against conservative Christians. Thus, the qualities of authoritarianism generally linked to religious/political conservatives can be found in religious/political progressives when we measure them using conservative Christians as the targeted group.
There is a generous amount of research arguing that RWA is a viable explanation for social problems such as racism, intolerance, and oppression. The theory of RWA paints a picture of vengeful, irrational individuals looking for an authoritarian leader to follow. That leader tells them who to hate and oppress which they promptly decide to do. But my research indicates that authoritarianism is not the best way to understand the results generated by those who have developed theories of RWA. Rather, ethnocentrism is a better way to understand what has occurred. Results tied to RWA are caused by the ethnocentrism of those with conventional social attitudes. Results tied to my findings concerning Christian dehumanization are caused by the ethnocentrism of those with unconventional social attitudes. Ethnocentrism is a more universal phenomenon than RWA and thus it more accurately explains why religious/political conservatives are willing to use authority figures to suppress political radicals and why religious/political progressives are willing to use authority figures to suppress conservative Christians.
Ethnocentrism is a part of every culture. There may be some sort of universal need for a society to have ethnocentrism. I can only speculate on what that need may be, but ethnocentrism may be necessary for societies to have some degree of ethnocentrism to justify their norms and values. This keeps us from constantly “reinventing the wheel.” So if you think that how your society’s families are structured or how your society runs the economy is superior to the way all other societies accomplish such tasks then it does not make sense to change our families or economies. Societies cannot be efficient if they are consistently altering their social structures. Having some confidence that the way our societies accomplish important tasks is important to allow for the development of a viable level of societal continuity.
We often think of ethnocentrism as a social dysfunction. But if it is universal then it may be vital for a healthy society.
Ethnocentrism in and of itself may be natural and not necessarily an evil commodity. Yes ethnocentrism can lead to oppression and prejudice. But it can also lead to societal stability and healthy social norms. Even those desiring to change society advocate certain social norms on how they want our society to be run and possess the ethnocentrism needed to maintain those norms. Whether we like it or not, ethnocentrism is a part of how all of us perceive social reality. A moderate amount of ethnocentrism is normal and may even be helpful. It is when we have too much ethnocentrism that we start oppressing out-group members. It is healthier to recognize that we all have ethnocentrism and that is not bad as long as it is a moderate amount than to try to deny that ethnocentrism is a component in our social outlook.
Merely asserting that all subcultures have some degree of ethnocentrism should not be controversial. But tolerance can be conceptualized as the opposite of ethnocentrism and some progressive subcultures pride themselves as being tolerant. They ironically see their value of tolerance as superior to other values and use the value of tolerance to condemn those they perceive as “intolerant.” Those focusing on tolerance quite often see themselves as only intolerant of intolerance. Thus they define intolerance in such a way that intolerance just happens to look like people different from them. Such individuals are not likely to be any more ethnocentric than others, but they may not be any less likely to be ethnocentric. We are intellectually better off recognizing that ethnocentrism infects those across different political, religious and social dimensions than attempting to show that its effects are limited to those who disagree with us. The fact that those who conduct research on social attitudes, and thus on RWA, are likely to be part of subcultures that pride themselves on tolerance can account for some of their inability to pick up intolerant attitudes against conservative Christians.
Ethnocentric attitudes take place in a particular context in the United States. Previous scholars have discussed the culture war in the United States and argued that we have two major ideological groups with a great deal of disaffection to each other. Previous research has utilized RWA scales to operationalize the disaffection cultural and political conservatives have towards their opponents in the culture war. That work is accurate in that it looks at the processes of dehumanization and authoritarianism when perpetuated by political and religious conservatives. But until recently there has been very little work documenting the hostility cultural progressives have towards their opponents (although see this blog series for one example of such work). Since conservative Christians are often conceptualized as the embodiment of the conservative opposition to cultural progressives, my scale of Christian dehumanization is a way we can assess the degree and nature of the hostility within cultural progressives.
Am I arguing that the way ethnocentrism manifests itself is exactly the same regardless of whether it is ethnocentrism by those with conventional perspectives as opposed to those with unconventional perspectives? No, because context does matter. I showed in my last post that those with unconventional attitudes are less supportive of the death penalty than those with conventional attitudes. So the willingness to use the death penalty has to be taken into consideration as we look at how vindictiveness can manifest itself in the ethnocentrism in either group. We have to understand the social context in which this ethnocentrism exhibits itself to fully understand it.
Another key context is the sort of authority figures used. Both those with conventional and unconventional attitudes are quite willing to use authorities to punish out-group members. But those high in RWA tend to concentrate on using the law and justice apparatus of the government to go after political, cultural and sexual minorities. Those who dehumanize Christians seem to prefer using educational institutions to marginalize and stigmatize conservative Christians. This difference may be important in helping us to understand what ethnocentrism looks like when we see it in religious/political progressives. If we want to protect individuals from the misuse of authorities by conservatives then we have to look at the potential misuse of legal apparatuses. But if we want to protect individuals from the misuse of authorities by progressives then we have to look at potential misuse in the educational system. It is in this context that my previous work documenting the willingness of professors to discriminate against conservative Christians can be better understood.
If I have a final takeaway from this particular study, it is that dysfunctional social attitudes tend to transcend different groups but they manifest themselves within the context of those groups. We tend to assert that those we disagree with are uniquely immoral and that helps feed our ethnocentrism as we feel better about those who support our beliefs. A more humble, but ultimately healthier, attitude is to recognize that the shortcomings we see in those who are different from us can often be found within those who agree with us. This self-introspection is difficult to do for a variety of reasons, perhaps some that I will discuss in a future blog, but this introspection can help us corral some of our worse demons. Such an attitude does not mean that we have to abandon our deeply held beliefs but it can help us to recognize that those with whom we disagree may not be the monsters we can sometimes make them out to be.