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A Long-term Solution to Ethnic Strife

Excerpted from The Origins of Ethnic Strife by Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.


You've got to be taught to hate and fear.
You've got to be taught from year to year....
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You've got to be carefully taught!

The words of this song from the musical South Pacific pertain to one aspect of a powerful psychological defense mechanism that reifies the family, shrouding it and other forms of group identification in a fantasy bond that assures immortality in the face of the conscious and unconscious anxiety associated with death.

Psychological defenses that minimize or shut out psychological pain are collectively expressed in restrictive, dehumanizing cultural patterns that people feel must be protected at all costs. Ernest Becker suggests that aggression stems from frustration and fear rather than from instinct:
It is one thing to say that man is not human because he is a vicious animal, and another to say that it is because he is a frightened creature who tries to secure a victory over his limitations.
This explanation not only provides a clear perspective concerning the underlying meaning of prejudice, racism, and war, but is also more positive, pragmatic, and action-oriented. It offers hope for the future, whereas the deterministic conception of man's essential savagery may well provide a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, pessimistic forecasting generally precludes constructive action and people tend to feel progressively more demoralized and helpless.

The lack of an immediate, obvious course of action or definitive pragmatic program should not be interpreted as cause for pessimism or devalued on those grounds. Psychological guidelines explaining human aggression can lead to an effective program of education that may enable men and women to come to know themselves in a manner that could effectively alter destructive child-rearing practices and social processes that foster aggression. Freud declared that people might benefit from an awareness rather than a denial of their mortality:

Would it not be better to give death the place in reality and in our thoughts which is its due, and to give a little more prominence to the unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed?
In order to find peace, we must face up to existential issues, overcome our personal upbringing, and learn to live without soothing psychological defenses. In some sense we must continually mourn our own end in order to fully accept and value our life. There is no way to banish painful memories and feelings from consciousness without losing our sense of humanity and feeling of compassion for others. An individual can overcome personal limitations and embrace life in the face of death anxiety. Such a person would find no need for ethnic hatred or insidious warfare.

Click to see a short video clip on this subject of an interview of Dr. Firestone by Salon's Fred Branfman.

Originally posted to expolitico on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 08:22 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I've often thought (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kraant, Crashing Vor, Allogenes

    what a great commercial that song would make. You have someone singing it softly while images of hate and fear (from now and from the past) appear and dissolve one into the next. If only someone would/could do it!

    All Truth is non-partisan

    by MA Liberal on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 08:35:59 AM PDT

    •  That song (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      word is bond

      is for me Broadway's finest moment. It's hard to remember that back then prejudice was respectable, even normative. And not just in the South.

      "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." -- Will Rogers

      by Allogenes on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 09:30:37 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The song was ahead of its time (0+ / 0-)

        when written in the 1950s, but it still focused on the prejudice against Asians stemming from WWII.  Not sure if many people in that era clued into its application to prejudice against other non-white races, because some consider prejudice (now matter how subtle) or "preference" against certain races "acceptable" while claiming not be prejudiced against others.  For instance, in TV, movies, and ads it appears to be "acceptable"  to show mixed race couples, but only as long as one of the races is Asian.  Yet mixed race couples of white/African American are apparently still too far on the fringe to be "safe" for the mainstream.  Eg. Grey's Anatomy on ABC - how much of an uproar would there be if Izzy had been the one to date Dr. Burke rather than Christina?

        My Karma just ran over your Dogma

        by FoundingFatherDAR on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 10:14:05 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I must admit (0+ / 0-)

          you do have a point.
          Still, the song (and the show as a whole) does seem to me to cross a line, however delicately, between saying "we shouldn't hate individuals just because we are (or have recently been) at war with their homeland," and saying "we shouldn't hate anyone just because of the way they look."
          Undoubtedly quite a few people might have thought the message was OK but didn't apply to African Americans. Prejudice is insidious that way. But just putting the message out there - with nothing in the song itself to say it applied to Asians only - was quite a step.

          "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." -- Will Rogers

          by Allogenes on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 12:04:23 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  It's one of my favorite songs (0+ / 0-)

        and no matter what the prejudice being taught in the movie, the song specifically relates how prejudice, or hate, must be taught. Think of how many kids grow up in homes with prejudice - no matter what the color. "You've got to be tuaght, before it's too late. Before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate..."
        Powerful.

        All Truth is non-partisan

        by MA Liberal on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 04:58:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Civil discourse and uncivil discourse (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kraant

    So much of American culture and rhetoric strikes me now as uncivil.  Kids cartoons are full of disrespect, cruelty, cheating and nastiness as if it were normal for all kids everywhere.  News commentators bulk massive groups of billions of people into a violent, sub-human stereotype that "deserves its fate" - whether in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or Asia.

    Here in Britain it would be unconscionable and unacceptable to have any category of political speech aired which dehumanised an element of the population by religion, race or ethnograpy.  Tolerance is taught.  Tolerance is expected.

    I guess if I have any optimism for America it comes from knowing that tolerance can be taught as well as hate and fear.  I am a much better, less racist, less fearful person for living 16 years in a better civilisation than the one I grew up in.  So there's hope.

    "The battle, Sir, is not to the strong alone, it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave." - Patrick Henry

    by LondonYank on Mon Sep 25, 2006 at 08:40:43 AM PDT

  •  To hate and fear (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kraant, Allogenes

    You've got to be taught
    From year to year,
    It's got to be drummed
    In your dear little ear
    You've got to be carefully taught.

    You've got to be taught to be afraid
    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
    You've got to be carefully taught.

  •  Learning tolerance (0+ / 0-)

    "South Pacific" relates directly to the theory described here, since the story line involves inter-racial romance in the face of potential imminent death in wartime. (I wonder how many people today would view a romance between a Caucasian and a Polynesian as presenting a racial issue.)

    I remember a song we sang each year on Brotherhood Day in elementary school:

    You can get white milk from a brown-skinned cow
    The color of its skin doesn't matter anyhow

    As the peach pit said to the apple core
    The color of your skin doesn't matter anymore

    Many of the children who sang that song grew up relatively free of racial hatred, but I suspect it had less to do with Brotherhood Day than with the everyday experience of learning and playing with a diverse group of children.

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