Atonement and Resilience

How can the concept of resilience be applied to atonement between victims of crime and perpetrators of crime? Last week, I visited a class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor called The Atonement Project where we discussed that very question.

Atonement activist Shaka Senghor

The class is the brainchild of Shaka Senghor, and he has worked with The University of Michigan and the MIT Media Lab to make his dream a reality.  As he recounts in this TedX Midwest lecture, Shaka was incarcerated as a teenager for taking someone’s life in a drug deal. How did he become so hardened that he pulled the trigger during a fight? How did his dreams of become a doctor go awry on the streets of Detroit? How did he turn his life around and become a proponent of atonement? As Shaka explains, no person should ever be considered beyond recovery or rehabilitation. As he tells in his memoir, Writing my Wrongs, for Shaka, uncovering his pain and learning to atone for his mistakes came through reading and writing.

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Along with my dear friend Professor Ashley Lucas, Shaka guides 16 students at the University of Michigan in a class on The Atonement Project. Ashley has been visiting prisons for the last 20 years to see her father. And she has written a play based on interviews she did with family members of incarcerated persons called Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. She has done countless creative arts workshops inside prisons. And he has co-authored a book on women prisoners, Razor Wire Women.

Professor Ashley Lucas Through the Visiting Glass

Through their class, Ashley and Shaka reach out of their own pain to students who are willing to reach out to prisoners, their families, and victims of crime. The students go out in groups of two or three either into prisons or into communities affected by violence and crime and run creative arts workshops—painting, literature or theater. Their goal is to re-humanize people whose humanity has been harmed. Their energy and commitment was a tremendous inspiration to me. My last words to the students was that their work is a witness to a world that wants to shut itself off from other people’s pain.

I shared with the students about my own research among Haitian immigrants, and my recent research on young adults who have had traumatic life experiences. I asked them to read my favorite article on resilience, Chapter 1 of the Handbook of Adult Resilience, called “Resilience: A New Definition of Health for People and Communities,” by Alex J. Zautra, John Stuart Hall, and Kate E. Murray.I also assigned a blog by positive psychologist Robert E. Quinn where he answers a prisoner’s question about how focusing on the good can help his life that has been so full of bad.

Here are some students’ comments about the reading and discussion.

“I must have underestimated the human capacity to make something bad into something good. What stuck with me about our conversation about resilience is the universality of it. From Professor Mooney’s work in Haiti to our work in Michigan prisons, it is clear that human beings do not need to be ‘psychological superheros’ to respond to hardship with transformation. Hearing her speak about community and individual resilience restored my sense of purpose in regards to the Atonement Project. If I can convince people to hold on to hope through creation (art, theater, writing), I will have done my job well.”

Beautiful, sister!

“I really appreciated learning that from her [Margarita Mooney’s] numerous interviews with victims of violence or poverty, that it is often people who have less or people in non-Western cultures who are more accepting of people’s suffering and help build resilience as a community.”

So true!

“The first question I asked in regards to resilience is about its opposite effect. Might resilience be a bad thing, I thought? Why should people be happy about adapting to traumatic situations? After we discussed the notion of ‘hope’ with regards to resilience, I realized I was talking about something else. My concerns are regarding what is called ‘learned helplessness’ and that is different than resilience… Without this hope as a positive outcome, a person would always stay stuck in the box of suffering which becomes a defeatable attitude. Professor Mooney said that she is amazed how material hope is. That makes good sense to me.”

Wonderful! Martin Seligman would be proud that you know what learned helplessness is and how it differs from resilience.

“Recently I’ve been thinking about expectations of resilience, especially in terms of our interactions with people who have experienced trauma. I think it’s important to look for the little signs of resilience, in lieu of expecting great gestures. A smile, a willingness to talk about one’s challenges, positive social interactions, embracing one’s emotions (be they sad, angry, happy), empathy—these to me are the subtle signifiers of the resilient.”

Beautifully written!

“I think resilience is a highly relevant skill to have, not only in our own Atonement Project but also in much of life. Previously, I had thought resilience was just the ability to ‘bounce back’, but upon our class discussion with Margarita Mooney, I have learned it encompasses much more than that. We discussed and read about how resilience is often incorporated into entire communities, not just within the self…I remember reading before class that resilience takes into account our vast range of emotions/experiences, not just a lack of negative and a desire for positive outcomes.”

So glad you now have higher expectations that bouncing back!

“Resilience applies to my work with the Atonement Project because the two exist simultaneously. Both resilience and atonement require an acknowledgement of the situation, the pain and suffering and adversity that you are going through, or that you have inflicted upon another, of interior self-reflection. They work in a very cool circular relationship. Atonement is both an act of resilience, as well as a step towards resilience. It goes beyond the idea of just getting by in the face of adversity. Resilience is an act of taking life into your own hands.”

Yes, reflection is key to both atonement and resilience. Brilliant!

“Margarita’s discussion on resilience was eye-opening. The point that she mentioned that struck me the most was the way the United States learned to only desire the good emotions, while desiring to completely eliminate the bad ones. However, if there is any lesson that I learned here, it is that resilience—this notion of seeing the good through the bad—is so incredibly essential to human connection.”

Absolutely. Connection to other human beings requires a willingness to share their pain, not ignore it.

“Resilience is more than just getting back to zero or having overcome and physically surviving adversity. Resilience is a state of mind that requires having awareness about future positive events. You can’t just survive something tragic—you need to have the state of mind to move forward in a positive light. This doesn’t mean to forget what has happened but to learn from it. In order to even being to atone you need to have this resilient state of mind to understand that there are positive things ahead. Conversely you need to atone to be able to move on and see the positive.”

Resilience is not forgetting but transforming. Well put.

“I learned that resilience comes in different forms of manifestations. Whether you are resilient depends on your environment, personality, etc. Being resilient doesn’t mean simply getting back to ground zero, but rather continuing to move along and grow and prosper in your life. The talk left me uneasy about the line between what role mental illness/depression/drug addiction plays in resilience. I am continually astounded by the resilient people who surround me every day. It makes me believe that the human psyche is capable of anything.”

Thank you. We should keep talking about mental illness/depression/drug addiction and resilience.

“I learned how expansive the process of resilience is. Not only is it overcoming one’s trauma but it also means sustaining that positive outlook and going beyond just getting past an event. I want to bring this into the Atonement Project by encouraging a goal-setting mindset. Goals, a positive future, maintain and sustain this resilience. Getting over what landed you in prison is not enough. It is necessary for you, who you’ve hurt, and your community to ‘get over it’, come to terms about it TOGETHER and set goals to sustain this positive approach.”

Resilience only occurs with others. TOGETHER. Amen.

“The idea of resilience as a forward momentum, as an affective engagement into the future, is a concept I will take with me not only into the prison workshop but throughout my life. I will honor the challenges and struggles I’ve faced as opportunities for developing new capacities, not merely as set-backs.”

Keep moving forward, and let those setbacks make you stronger!

“I thought that resilience brought me a new perspective on atonement. It made me think how a person almost needs to reach resilience before they can reach atonement. Resilience is a very difficult process and I think it’s very important for the human psyche. Resilience gave me a new perspective when I think about the people we work with and what they’ve been through. I think resilience can bring people together to overcome difficult obstacles.”

Resilience is difficult and rewarding indeed. Preparing a talk on resilience and atonement was challenging for me, but as you can see from these comments, it was extremely rewarding. Thank you for your inspiration and witness.

Why Did Grant Walk?

It has been a long time since I have watched any award shows. To be honest they are just boring to me. I can just read who won what the next day and I am fine. So I guess I had no idea about the quality of entertainment that occurs at these shows. Or according to the actions of Natalie Grant, I had no idea of the lack of quality in that entertainment.

Grant is a gospel singer nominated for 2 Grammy awards. After attending the ceremony last week, she left as she did not want to expose herself to the “entertainment” that was presented. According to reports, there were several candidates for being the type of entertainment that may turn off a Christian woman. Beyonce seem eager to reveal her rump to the world. Katy Perry decided that a simulated burning at the stake of a witch was entertaining. We have a mass wedding ceremony including same-sex couples. And then there was a song about a guy just hoping to get lucky. It is feasible that any one of these “performances” was the one that put it over the top for Grant and convinced her to call it a night.

Her exit has evidently led to hate mail being sent to Grant. In response to that hate mail she replied: “We left the Grammy’s early. I’ve had many thoughts, most of which are probably better left inside my head…I’ve never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I’ve never been more sure of the path I’ve chosen.” Thus, ultimately we do not know why she chose to leave the event. It is possible that some are angry that she may have left due to the mass wedding, but since Grant has decided to keep that information to herself, they are only speculating. Yet, even if that is the reason she left, we should respect her right to not watch something with which she is uncomfortable, and yes perhaps even disagrees with. Has the new politically correct standard become that individuals must attend same-sex weddings? Seems to violate the assertion that allowing same-sex marriages comes with no costs to those who do not agree with them.

But I do not want to focus on that issue since we do not know why Grant decided to leave the ceremony. Rather I am more interested in the Katy Perry act. From what I have been told Perry took the stage as a witch and after some singing and dancing was “burned at the stake.” What!!!! How did this get approved by whoever decides what goes on the stage? I am not blaming Perry. I get it. She grew up a Christian and now she hates Christians. Maybe it is daddy issues. I leave that between her, her family and God. But there had to be more mature individuals involved in the planning of the program who would see the offensive nature of this act.

I know one of the critiques is that art is supposed to push the limitations. Art is about being cutting edge and challenging the status quo. If you do that then sometimes you are going to be offensive. Let us test that little argument. Instead of simulated burning a witch at the stake how about a performance where we reenact someone machine gunning down a group of Palestinians. Do we think that Jewish performers in the audience would have the right to be offended and walk out? Or perhaps we can have an act simulating a terrorist cutting the head off of a captive. Would a Muslim singer be in the right to be disgusted and to walk out of the award show? Putting issues in this perspective allows us to see why a Christian singer has a right to be offended by an act based on Christians murdering accused witches.

Furthermore, do we seriously think that any performer would do one of these latter two acts no matter how badly he or she wants to be cutting edge? I may be wrong. Perhaps there are media acts in the United States that are as rude to Jews, Muslims, the nonreligious, Buddhists, etc as this one is to Christians. I am open to being proven wrong in my assertion of the exceptional nature of offending Christians as opposed to other religious groups if someone can post some links illustrating my error. So ironically, the Perry act is not all that much of a cutting edge act after all. Does it really take much bravery to blast Christianity in Hollywood?

Someone helping to run the Grammys should have anticipated just how offensive Perry’s act would be, but they failed to do so. We can speculate why they were unable to foresee the insulting nature of this act. The organizers of the Grammys likely have few friends who are Christians or who at least take their Christianity seriously. So they had no one to give them some perspective of why such a performance would be insulting. I found it interesting that many of Grant’s critics automatically assumed that the mass wedding motivated her to leave. When I heard of all of the acts I immediately assumed that it was the witch burning that convinced her to go. I suspect that most of her critics also do not have Christian friends to give them perspective on why that act would be so offensive. I know from my research concerning interracial contact that not having friends from different groups can contribute to a level of ignorance and insensitivity towards members of those groups.

Another reason why the organizers of the Grammys did not foresee how offensive this act is concerns the general propensity of some individuals to dehumanize Christians. I recently finished up a blog series based on my latest book Dehumanizing Christians. The focus of that book was to indicate that ethnocentrism by certain groups of non-Christians lead to similar characteristics tied to previous theories of authoritarianism. I am doing other research investigating a more generalized examination of anti-Christian animosity. Needless to say anti-Christian hostility is an explanation that is underused by academics to explore social events. But it seems very viable that animosity towards Christians explains why the producers okayed an anti-Christian act that I do not think they would have okayed if it was as potentially offensive to members of other religions.

At the end of the day, having distasteful acts at the Grammy awards is not even close to being one of the more important problems in our society. I suspect that such performances will decrease the number of viewers of award shows over the next few years, but that will not be the end of the world. However, these episodes do provide insight into certain social dynamics occurring in the United States. So deconstructing these events provides us more insight into the religious atmosphere in our society.

Let’s Boycott – Not

About a week ago I decided to pick up a little lunch. I was trying to avoid red meat so I decided to go to Chick-Fil-A. However, the drive-through line nearly circled the store. I did not feel like going into the restaurant so I went to a close by WhataBurger and ordered a grilled chicken salad. But I really wanted that chicken sandwich so while I was in line at the WhataBurger I began to think about the boycott. You remember the boycott. The one launched against Chick-Fil-A because of their support for traditional marriage. That boycott certainly was not working given the number of people waiting to place their order. Chick-Fil-A is not going out of business any time soon.

The boycott against Chick-Fil-A has worked about as well as the boycott against Starbucks. Starbucks was supposed to feel the wrath of Christian conservatives due to their support of same-sex marriage. Ever see an empty Starbucks? I probably have but it has been a long time. The boycott against them seems to have no effect whatsoever. It probably helps some conservatives to feel good and they can console themselves with the fact that none of their money is going to be used by the leaders of Starbucks to support causes they oppose. However, it is clear that Starbucks is not feeling pressure to alter their political advocacy. Like Chick-Fil-A they are not going out of business any time soon.

What can we learn from these failed boycotts? These failed boycotts indicate the degree of cultural division in our society. Generally speaking, boycotting an organization for supporting a culturally conservative cause is likely to fail since cultural conservatives are going to financially support that organization. The reverse is true when it comes to boycotting an organization that supports a culturally progressive cause. The exception to this is if an organization’s product especially caters to one group or the other. The show Duck Dynasty caters to individuals who tend to support culturally conservative causes. Thus when GLAAD fought against those cultural conservatives over the Duck Dynasty controversy, there is no question who the producers at A & E needed to keep the successful show going. There are limited times where a boycott can work but if the opponents of those doing the boycotting can support the business being boycotted, then a boycott is doomed to fail.

My observation about boycotts has important implications about our society. There is often talk about a culture war. It is a war fought not only about cultural political issues but also over lifestyles and theological presuppositions. It seems that both sides in this war are of roughly equal strength. Thus, both sides of the war are strong enough to protect businesses supporting their causes. Since cultural conservatives and cultural progressives are of equal strength, they view each other as threats that must be stopped. This helps to explain the degree of vitriol we often pick up between cultural conservatives and cultural progressives. Those of us who perceive ourselves in neither camp have to watch them attack each other and this type of hostile attitude is not going away in the near future. Lucky us.

Over the last few years I have done quite a bit of work documenting the type of bias and intolerance found within cultural progressives. There is a lot of previous work documenting these qualities within cultural conservatives. Both sides believe that they are locked in a war they must win. Cultural conservatives believe that if they do not win then society will fall into the hands of immoral secularists who will end the traditional social structures that have sustained us. Cultural progressives believe that if they do not win then society will become a theology that oppresses all non-Christians. This reminds me of work on religious terrorists by Juergensmeyer who pointed out that those terrorists feel that they are in a cosmic war that they dare not lose. They feel free to engage in terrorism as they are desperate to win their social struggles. Neither cultural progressives nor cultural conservatives are terrorists, but both are desperate to win their social struggles and they are not only willing to avoid a Chick-Fil-A sandwich or a caffe latte but also will try to stigmatize those who do eat or drink those products. But, as I have pointed out, the energy on the other side of the struggle prevents those boycotts from succeeding.

The deep concern of those on both sides of the cultural war is creating an interesting phenomenon. We are becoming a society not only divided by the traditional cultural/political issues, and our lifestyles but also by the very products we purchase. As I looked at that car line at Chick-Fil-A, I could not help thinking that those in the line were likely to be cultural conservatives. When I look at a Starbucks I tend to think that those customers are probably cultural progressives. Since I buy at both Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks, obviously I am an example that such assumptions are not always correct. But I do fear that we are becoming a society that culturally divides itself in every way possible. That divide is not just on the overt cultural elements such as media consumption, religious tradition, entertainment choices but even in our most basic decisions such as where we purchase our food and drink. If we link a division with even more basic ways about how we divide ourselves such as where we live (cultural progressives tend to live in big cities while cultural conservatives tend to live in small towns and certain suburbs) then we can gain more of an appreciation of just how much our society is segmented.

Googling Tradition

Instructions on mantillas can be found at wearyourmantilla.blogspot.com

Dear Google: Can you tell me how to put on a mantilla? My stifled laugh turned into a snort when the young woman standing behind me in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome desperately asked Google about an old-fashioned Catholic tradition. After Vatican II, lay women mostly stopped covering their heads before going into Catholic Churches. Even many religious sisters abandoned the habit. In the swarm of thousands of people waiting to get into St. Peter’s for Christmas Vigil Mass in 2012, women’s hair flowed abundantly.

The elegantly dressed Latin American woman behind me spent 30 minutes trying to cover her hair with a lace mantilla. Every time she thought she had succeeded, her mantilla slid down the side of her head or the front of her face. Clearly she was trying on a tradition she didn’t normally practice. Her last resort was to turn to Google for help. Her struggle with the mantilla reminded me of the book “Tradition in a Rootless World,” in which Lynn Davidman describes how Jewish women in New York embraced an orthodox Judaism. Free to choose whatever they want, young Jewish women chose traditions their elders spurned. Similarly, it is mostly younger Catholic women today who wear a mantilla to Mass.

I like to practice old traditions, too. One time I even wore a saree to the baptism of an Indian-American Catholic baby. Would you like the Gujarati wrap? my Indian hostesses asked me. Apparently it’s different from the Malayalee wrap. I had no idea that different ethncities in India wrapped sarees differently, but since I had a choice, I requested the Burrito Wrap.

What’s the Burrito Wrap? When I make burritos, I lay the tortilla flat and add the beef, cheese, and assorted condiments. Then I wrap, wrap, wrap, wrap and finally flip! You have a perfect burrito: nothing sticking out.

Not so with the Gujariti saree wrap. First I tried on the petticoat and walked into the living room to show everyone. As I twirled around showing off my Indian clothes, one Indian man gave me a puzzled look, took me by the arm, and led me upstairs. That’s an under-garment! You don’t go out in that! he explained. I thought petticoat was a fancy word for skirt. But upon closer look, I realized I was wearing a transparent, lace-covered slip meant to protect the exquisite saree, not my purity.

Already beet red, next I put on the “blouse.” That’s a funny name for basically a sports bra with short sleeves! Pull, pinch, pin those sleeves tight! Your torso can hang loose but not your arms!

On top of that sports bra with tight sleeves plus a slip, two Indian ladies wrapped me in six yards of sequined saree material. Flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap. The saree was finally on me, but my mid-riff was still exposed! Sarees are carefully designed so that you can wear the same one your whole life, so all the extra material got crammed into my waist. I looked pregnant.

How can I go to a Catholic Church with my torso exposed and carrying four yards of material on my belly? Could you wrap me up like a burrito, I pleaded? You know, use all that material to support my flab rather than accentuate it?

You look great, they reassured me. You don’t need a Burrito Wrap! Wanting to please my hosts, I smiled and posed for some pictures. The wrapping ceremony took so long we were late for Mass and parked far away. Rushing across the parking lot and up a big hill, I didn’t want to get the bottom of the saree dirty or trip on it. So I bent over, picked up the saree, and carried the bottom of it by my waist.

What are you doing?!?!? Two Indian men chided me. Huh? I queried them. You can’t pick up your saree like that!!!! We can see your ankles! It made no sense that my torso could be bare but I could not show my ankles. I was terrified that if I tripped on the hill, the precarious wrap would come undone. I pictured myself rolling down the hill with all my juicy cheese sliding out of the wrap, just like when I mess up my burritos. I stared defiantly at those gentlemen who spent the morning confused about how to wear their own traditional garments. I kept the saree by my waist until I was safe on level ground.

Once inside the church, I kept twirling around, trying to use all that flowy material to create my own Burrito Wrap. I never succeeded, and was quite relieved to take the saree off that evening. Comfortably back in their own Western clothes, my Indian friends confessed that they had only worn sarees three times in their whole lives—and mostly since they left India.

Why does a woman outside St. Peter’s ask Google to instruct her on a Catholic tradition she was never taught? Why do migrants in the diaspora adopt traditions they barely observed back home? Traditions are an important part of our collective identity. Special events like a trip to Rome or a baby’s baptism are occasions where we want to symbolize our religious or ethnic group belonging.

We mostly take our traditions for granted; so much so that many youth today feel rootless and search for traditions. One freshman I taught could not relate to Victor Frankl’s inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning because he felt like he belonged to no meaningful tradition. The survivors of the Holocaust camp Frankl described found meaning in their families and Jewish faith. But this student had been told his whole life to define meaning for himself. I was stunned to hear an 18-year old complain that he is tired of being told to define the purpose of his life. How can his life have meaning if he doesn’t belong to a group that teaches him about meaning? he asked.  He didn’t have a religious identity, an ethnic identity, or any group identity. Consequently, his life lacked one core element of meaning. The next year, he joined a fraternity. He reassured me that his desire to join a fraternity was not to have drinking buddies but to belong to a group that gave his life meaning.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that personal narratives need to be embedded in traditions and institutions that give our lives collective meaning. Religions, nationalities, ethnicities and universities with their many fraternities, sororities and sports teams all remind us that our lives have meaning as part of a narrative that is bigger than ourselves. Wearing a mantilla, a saree, a fraternity shirt or a college baseball cap links us to a group.

Embracing someone else’s tradition is a symbol of respect for their group. So despite my nervous debut wearing a saree, when I was invited to an Indian-American wedding, I bravely asked my Indian-American friend to help wrap me in my saree. Google didn’t have instructions for a saree Burrito Wrap, but we found a pretty cool You Tube video where an Indian woman teaches an Indian-American woman to be a “good Indian girl” by putting on a saree.  We laughed and acted out the scene. When I walked outside, my neighbors stopped to take pictures of me in my gorgeous saree. You too can turn to YouTube to learn how to be a good Indian girl. Check it out right here.

Previous generations rejected traditions in favor of individuality. But for many young people raised in today’s society that exalts individual autonomy, where our personal identity is malleable, and where our closest relationships change frequently, there is something very appealing about traditions. Even when you have to Google a particular tradition, even when a tradition is not from your own ethnicity, and even when others hardly practice those traditions anymore, traditions link us to other people. Traditions link us to a past and to a future. Traditions look good in Facebook pictures.

Can an individual life be meaningful without any tradition? Perhaps no more than a baby can survive on his own. Traditions help fulfill man’s search for meaning, a quest that is essential to being a person, and a quest that must be fulfilled in relation to others. What are the traditions that give your life meaning? What social practices tie you to others?

Dehumanizing Christians Part 4 – Ethnocentrism instead of Authoritarianism

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.


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