Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice: A Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Dynamics of Social Exclusion and Discrimination

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This book helps us understand the current resurgence of social prejudice against ethnic minority groups, the logics of scapegoating and the resulting violence.Our time is characterised by a growth in expressed hostility and violence towards people who are perceived as 'others'. Hatred towards and discrimination against minorities is on the rise. This book presents a new understanding of prejudice, racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. It combines philosophy with psychoanalytic thinking, sociology and psycho-social studies, analysing the unconscious elements of social processes. The author makes a case for framing a questioning of prejudice, not in terms of normality versus pathology or deviance, but in what is socially unconscious. Hypocrisy and double standards are inherent in our social practices, reflecting the contradictions present in our thinking about these issues: that we both believe and do not believe in equality. Thus this study takes account of conflicts between theory and practice, layers of implicit- and explicitness, pre- and unconscious experience and the power differentials that shape these constellations. There is no neutral point of view from which prejudice can be addressed. The chapters in this study approach the problem of how to understand prejudice from different angles, aiming at ways of enabling listening to voices that are rarely heard. It questions how to reshape society so as to make room for people who appear to embody so-called contemptible qualities - for extension of respect across differences and inequalities.

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Chapter One - Subjectivity and Absence: Prejudice as a Psychosocial Theme

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“How come I've never seen you people here before?”
“Because we are the people you do not see”

(Knight, 2002)

This chapter aims to examine prejudice as a psychosocial field of study. The term “psychosocial” refers to theoretical approaches that strive to integrate a psychological understanding of human subjectivity with attention to the impact of social situatedness.5 Against the background of my understanding of respect as involving an ability to see people both, and simultaneously, as subjects and as objects, I can identify with the psychosocial project of aiming to avoid psychological reductionism, which disregards social circumstances, on the one hand, and social reductionism, which disregards subjectivity as active interpretation, on the other. The chapter makes a case for framing a questioning of prejudice, not in terms of normality vs. pathology or deviance, but to look for it in what is socially unconscious. It is argued that psychoanalytic studies of prejudice as a feature of the prejudiced person's subjectivity leave out the extent to which this phenomenon is founded on a silent social consensus. The social norm, the prejudice that “works”, is left untouched. Using Michael Balint's theoretical reflections on trauma, I argue that assessments of whose subjective responses and evaluations count are themselves socially structured. This model, and Gadamer's hermeneutics, is used to show how, when detachment becomes an unqualified epistemic aim, prejudices are concealed and preserved rather than addressed. The phenomenon of prejudice reveals that psychosocial studies should be concerned not only with subjectivity, but equally with what is absent from subjectivity on an individual and social level—with positions which have been rendered unreal, or meaningless. In other words, I present an argument as to why psychoanalytic thinking is of interest to social studies, with its focus on what is unconscious, and otherwise left out, and also why a critical social focus is of interest to psychoanalysis, with its focus on the impact of power relations on what can and cannot, and what need and need not, be made conscious, individually and socially.

 

Chapter Two - Primary Process Logic and Prejudice

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“In an age where sceptical doubt has taken root in the world, when in the words of a gang of salauds it is no longer possible to find the sense of non-sense, it becomes harder to penetrate to a level where the categories of sense and non-sense are not yet invoked”

(Fanon, 1986, p. 11)

In Chapter One, I referred to how we may speak of condensation and displacement, described by Freud as characteristics of unconscious thought processes, as unfolding in public space when people are portrayed as masses and become mere objects of discourse, and when groups are depicted as inwardly homogenous entities that are rigidly distinct. This chapter aims to explore these unconscious thought processes, and, thus, to capture some ways of functioning of the human mind of relevance to, and indicative of, the phenomenon of prejudice. I shall argue that Freud's exposition of primary process logic captures a central feature of the logic of operation of prejudicial perceptions and formulations. As we saw in the previous chapter, prejudices can often be wholly unconscious, but it is also the case that unconscious material is present in prejudices that are actively articulated and consciously upheld. Since we form part of a social system where some prejudices are “valid” and, therefore, not thought of as prejudices, they are often not spotted when they occur. The description given in the present chapter is a structural, logical one: while it does not purport to explain why certain prejudices manifest themselves in a given person, group, or society, or how they are socially shaped, the mapping it presents is, nevertheless, useful for identifying phenomena which might be socially implicit and remain unseen. In other words, we do not always notice dehumanisation in cases where it is habitual and socially regarded as “normal”. Furthermore, it is a fairly common observation that prejudiced articulations appear “illogical”, yet we may learn from the discussions to follow that stating this misses the point in so far as they are expressions of a different, primary process, logic. Thus, this chapter points to the limitations in thinking that prejudices can be addressed and corrected by better logic and better arguments, as such beliefs miss out on the motivational aspect and its grounding in a different level of the personality.

 

Chapter Three - Contagion, Conflict, and Ambivalence: Prejudice as Transfer of Shame and Guilt

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“So here is my Other. If fate brings him into contact with some Other – Other to him – he will find three features of that Other the most important: race, nationality and religion. I have been trying to find a common factor in these features, to discover what links them. It is that each of them carries a huge emotional charge, so big that from time to time my Other is incapable of controlling it, and then it comes to conflict, to a clash, to slaughter, to war. My Other is a very emotional person. That is why the world he lives in is a powder keg rolling dangerously towards the fire”

(Kapuscinski, 2008, p. 57)

In this chapter, I argue that a central characteristic of prejudice is the transfer of an affect-laden, evaluative content from a conceived social category to a person who is seen as exemplifying the category in question. The main emphasis in the previous chapter was on primary process logic, and on Freud's descriptions of how this logic functions as unfolding unconsciously, in dreams. In the context of prejudice, we see these processes as operating unconsciously or pre-consciously. Their results might be consciously affirmed, the conclusion resulting from them endorsed as valid, or they might remain unconscious. I explore the phenomenon of “affective contagion” in the light of Freud's description of mana in Totem and Taboo and of “magical thinking”. I contrast Freud's account with Douglas's non-psychoanalytic account in Purity and Danger (2002), concerned with similar phenomena, to show the advantage of a psychoanalytic account of prejudice in being able to identify and explain how an opposite attitude may persist unconsciously, contradicting the manifest behaviour towards, and evaluation of, the object as “higher” or “lower” than oneself, and how prejudice may persist alongside “scientific progress”. I examine prejudice as the transfer of shame and guilt on to others, arguing that prejudices can be rendered as claims that someone's action is expressive of an essence that the person cannot change; thus, it would be appropriate for that other person to feel both guilt and shame. The paradoxical character of such claims reveals their reliance on “magical thinking” in which aspects of oneself as simultaneously agent and sufferer, as active initiator of actions and vulnerable to their consequences, is forcefully displaced on to devalued others.

 

Chapter Four - Injurious Speech and Frames of Mind

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“Hatred is racialized and sexed; it is predictably directed at some groups over and above others…. Hatred can be fun because it allows feelings to be dispersed in violence rather than – as usually has to be the case – to be controlled and made safe. In this sense, hatred can be a form of ecstasy, allowing the self to be dissolved”

(Frosh, 2011, pp. 57–58)

The previous chapter was about prejudice as transfer of shame and guilt to others, a process saturated, I argued, with “magical thinking”. In this chapter, I examine how such transfer takes place in the form of “hate speech”. The first part of the chapter is concerned with a phenomenology of injurious speech, speech acts which are citational, rather than original, and which reinforce or reinsert a cultural pattern of domination. Since the responsibility for injurious speech is not limited to the speaker, and since fault may reside in the un- or preconscious framework presupposed in the utterance, debating for or against “free speech” is too limited a response to this phenomenon. In the more normative part of this chapter, I discuss some of the debates concerning injurious speech, arguing that while a defence of unlimited “free speech” as a human right is too simplistic, a defence of restrictions is associated with problems to do with the social identities of the “judges”. Furthermore, and consequently, the latter does not address cases of implicit linguistic discrimination. Thus, I end the chapter by arguing that what is required to amend the latter is, from a one-person perspective, attention to more nuanced perception and to a language that reflects it, and, from a multi-person perspective, representation of a wider range of standpoints in public discourse.

 

Chapter Five - Basic Trust and Alienation, or “We have Nothing to Reproach Ourselves With”

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“The obviousness of disaster becomes an asset to its apologists – what everyone knows no-one need say – and under cover of silence is allowed to proceed unopposed”

(Adorno, 2005, p. 233)

This chapter examines the phenomenon of prejudice from a different angle to that which has been seen in the previous chapters: from the point of view of what discrimination caused by prejudice performs. I argued in Chapter One that approaching the theme of prejudices from the point of view of examining the (highly) prejudiced person's subjectivity is epistemically, as well as morally, problematic, the latter because it risks reinforcing an already existing pattern of silently performed social violence. Thus, this chapter aims to go some way towards amending this imbalance. Using Winnicott's understanding of “basic trust” transposed into a social context, it is argued that a prominent characteristic of discrimination is that it undermines “basic trust”. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film Fear Eats the Soul serves an illustration of how racism has an impact on the addressee's fundamental relation to, and sense of, self and surrounding others, his or her orientation in the world. Where Winnicott's concepts are intended as universal, Fassbinder's film contains a critical analysis of power relations, so as to reveal how forceful asymmetries are operative and have an impact not just on large-scale levels of interaction, but also on intimate levels. Thus, I argue that prejudice and discrimination, as described here, reveal the need to situate a moral phenomenology of trust in terms of the dynamics of power differentials between the representatives of different socially defined positions, ending on a note on how this film can contribute to compensating for an absence of social imagination.

 

Chapter Six - Adaptation, Containment, Experience: Adorno, Psychoanalytic Developments, and the Potential for Social Critique

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“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it”

(Benjamin, 1968, p. 255)

It is the premise of The Authoritarian Personality that prejudice does not correlate easily with political–economic criteria, but must be defined in terms of character traits still encountered in democratic societies. Hence, a working through of the past must involve a turn toward the subject (Adorno, 1998b, p. 102). In this chapter, I shall discuss the study's usage of psychoanalytic thinking, as well as Adorno's psychoanalytically informed engagement with the theme of prejudice elsewhere. I argue that while this turn has proved most valuable for the understanding of prejudice, the employment of the concept of ego strength as a proposed solution to the problem is problematic for several reasons. It neglects the role of the unconscious as well as that of the other and of society. Advocation of uncritical adaptation is a consequence of this lack. I shall suggest that Bion's conceptions of thinking and containment are better suited to illuminate Adorno's understanding of prejudice in terms of destruction of experience and to describe the conditions for having experience. Bion's models deepen some of Adorno's central concerns, although they insufficiently incorporate the subject's existence as a recipient, rather than initiator, of intentions, acts, and violations. With reference to some of Ferenczi's and Winnicott's formulations, I emphasise the significance of these concerns and their neglect in C. F. Alford's usage of Hanna Segal's theory of symbolisation, ending by asserting the relevance of the search for a form of thinking that is attentive to the object.

 

Chapter Seven - Perspectivism and Plurality: Arendt's Contribution to Thinking about Respect and Prejudice

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“It is about good, then, as it seems, that we must speak, and about good not without qualification, but relatively to ourselves. For we have not to do with the good of the Gods. To speak about that is a different matter, and the inquiry is foreign to our present purpose. It is therefore about the good of the state that we must speak”

(Aristotle, 1984, p. 1869)

This chapter is concerned with Hannah Arendt's philosophical contributions on the significance of human plurality, her perspectivist account of truth and its implications. My reason for discussing Arendt in the present work is the conviction that her thoughts on these themes bring in a dimension most often left out in psychoanalytic conceptualisations of the dynamics of prejudice. Arendt's version of perspectivism, I posit, affirms that abstract theories and argument arise from, and reflect, concrete experiences and particular points of view, while emphasising the importance of extending one's moral imagination. It affords a central place to subjectivity without being a type of subjectivism. According to one's position in the world, the world opens up differently to each person, though a dialogue with others is needed to give otherwise private experiences a character of reality and, indeed, to make the speakers human. To illustrate Arendt's perspectivism in further depth, I recount the character it takes in her biography of Rahel Varnhagen. From the example of the latter's salon as an exemplary space for free thinking and exchange, I proceed to reflect on the conditions for partaking and participating in an “Arendtian revelatory space” in today's world, emphasising first the impact of the situation of being excluded from a political space, and thereafter questioning the varying qualities of some modern spaces themselves in terms of perspectival plurality. A space that enables confrontation with a variety of perspectives that differ from one's own is one that has the capacity to dispel or reduce prejudices—hence the centrality of this discussion to our theme.

 

Chapter Eight - Responsibility and the Unconscious: Sketches for a Psychoanalytically Informed Ethics

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“ ‘You only understand the things you tame,’ said the fox…. ‘You must be very patient…Sit down in the grass a little way away from me, like this. I'll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won't say a word. Language is a source of misunderstanding. And each day, you can sit a little closer’”

(Saint-Exupery, 2010, pp. 89, 90)

In the first chapter of this book, entitled “Subjectivity and absence”, I argued that, as the case of prejudice reveals, insisting on only being accountable for one's declared subjective intentions is insufficient with regard to responsibility. As we saw, the denial of prejudiced intentions is widespread. What this socially sanctioned denial performs on a structural level is to reinforce an already existing silent and implicit pattern of violence. The examination of Laplanche's critique of the notion of “primary process” in Chapter Two, furthermore, showed how something is communicated to the infant that is unconscious to the parent, the communicator, as well as to the recipient. One is, and remains, in other words, in imperfect command of what one communicates, expresses, and passes on to others, as well as of what one receives and of which one becomes the depository. Psychoanalysis, at least in its object-relational version, with which I am concerned, revolves around the concrete singular. And where theoretical knowledge about one's unconscious is void, barren, the capacity for conviction and change resides in the experience of something as real.

 



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