Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: The Dark Ground of Prejudice:
The Revolt against Rationality

Books on race prejudice and anti-Semitism have shown a significant shift in the past few years: the emphasis is no longer on the history of anti-Semitism, an emphasis which perforce implied that understanding anti-Semitism was a matter of discovering and appraising various historical, economic, and social factors; it has become increasingly focused on its deeper “irrational”—or emotional—roots in the psychology of the human personality. The anti-Semitism of the late 19th and early 20th century has thus been traditionally explained as a political phenomenon; the anti-Semitism of today is studied as a mass neurosis.

Anti-Semitism and other forms of race prejudice, as mass neuroses, offer a perplexing challenge to modern social scientists. They seem a permanent and highly persistent part of modern society, hardly affected by good times or bad; they seem to represent an inner compulsion of the prejudiced, which makes them impervious to the onslaughts of reason; their wide reach, in space and time, indicates that the need they serve is not primarily the relatively temporary one of political expediency (though of course race prejudice is constantly used for reactionary political ends) or perhaps even of economic advantage (though, again, there are often obvious economic advantages at stake). The characteristics of modern race prejudice would seem to point to some deep-seated disturbance in society, from which prejudice offers many people, in most countries and in practically all strata of the population, a ready escape.

In this month’s “Study of Man,” two well-known social scientists look at a number of books on anti-Semitism and race prejudice and suggest the lesions in modern society from which race prejudice arises. Arnold M. Rose is Professor of Sociology at Bennington College. He is best known for his collaboration with Gunnar Myrdal on the latter’s monumental study of the Negro in America, An American Dilemma. Siegfried Kracauer has written a study of the German middle class, a biography of Offenbach, Orpheus in Paris, and most recently, a comprehensive history of the German film, From Caligari to Hitler. Their analyses, written independently and from somewhat different points of view—Professor Rose is primarily a sociologist, Dr. Kracauer a social psychologist—converge remarkably on similar facets of modern society: in brief, Professor Rose points to urbanization, Dr. Kracauer to an inner revolt from over-rationality. These aspects of our modern society are so all-pervasive that most people are probably not aware of them; yet the victory of both urbanization and rationality is so recent and sudden, in the perspective of human history, that they may well have highly damaging effects on the individuals subjected to them, of which modern race prejudice is one.—ED.

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The sizable number of recent volumes presenting in popular form analyses of race prejudice and suggestions for dispelling it indicate the wide diffusion and acceptance of both a standard analysis and a standard therapy for race prejudice. Let us look briefly at three of these books and their prescriptions.

Mr. George de Huszar, in the Anatomy of Racial Intolerance (New York, H. W. Wilson, 1946), has made an intelligent compilation of excerpts from magazine articles, research papers, and books, mostly written during the war and reflecting the apprehension then current of a rise in intolerance during the reconversion period. Dr. Dorothy W. Baruch, a trained psychologist, elaborates in the Glass House of Prejudice (New York, William Morrow, 1946) upon individual conflicts and group incidents, giving well-authenticated case histories that effectively support her arguments and suggestions. Miss Margaret Halsey (Color Blind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1946) confines herself to drawing on her wartime experiences in an interracial canteen.

In his eagerness for complete documentation Mr. de Huszar occasionally includes less nourishing material: specimens of arid formalism and flights into lofty regions where the assumption of an “economy of abundance” is made effortlessly. But the main body of his compilation consists, fortunately, of such substantial articles as Gordon W. Allport’s analysis of bigotry in our midst; Edwin R. Embree’s war survey, “Race Relations Balance Sheet”; Clyde R. Miller’s presentation of the Springfield Plan; and a short piece by Horace M. Kallen that reveals the structure of democracy with a true sense of its inner workings. Here and there a less orthodox observation juts out of the rather familiar surroundings. Thus Robert Redfield infers from events in Russia that a social revolution may well do away with seemingly immovable racial prejudices.

Dorothy W. Baruch deals extensively with Mexican minority problems in California, covering ground not yet fully explored. A whole chapter is devoted to the zoot-suit riots of 1944. The book, with its emphasis on psychological readjustment, breathes a warmth that would be more effective did not Dr. Baruch repeatedly try to convince hesitant readers with rhetorical flourishes. Students of race bias will appreciate the appendix with its many references and supplementary materials.

Margaret Halsey is not a well-intentioned psychologist but a bright and sensitive woman. The way she supervised the junior hostesses in her war canteen, straightened out tangled situations and worked upon the more mildly prejudiced white servicemen while leaving the un-teachable alone—all this testifies to maturity combined with tactical skill. It is true that Miss Halsey does not always avoid jumping to conclusions, but she shows that she understands Southerners and their piled-up inhibitions, and she debunks current legends about Negroes with incisive sarcasm, rightly emphasizing the role sexual jealousy and social frustration play as motives of discrimination.

All three books prove that psychiatry has made inroads in modern thinking. Many authors now dwell upon the lasting effects of early environment and explain stereotyped prejudices as the result of deep-rooted childhood impressions. The emotional consequences of economic insecurity are given no less attention; it seems to be common knowledge that such insecurities touch off certain psychological mechanisms, and it is taken for granted that the all-but-automatic release of these mechanisms accounts for the persecution of minority groups by harassed majorities. Hence educational measures are recommended—adequate child-training, schools cultivating interracial relations, group organizations for the reorientation of adults, and so on.

This whole literature is symptomatic of an almost mystic belief in the potentialities of social psychotherapy—particularly in Dr. Baruch’s case. And who would deny the beneficent effects of psychotherapy? But its devotees as a rule overrate what can be achieved in this field, for they fail to acknowledge one powerful motive of racial bias in our time—a motive that despite its partly psychological origins proves inaccessible to the intervention of psychologists.

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It is a motive related to a society that, like our modern one, seems unable to provide powerful cultural incentives for the total human being. Dr. Max Horkheimer, one of our foremost thinkers, attributes the actual lack of such incentives to the contemporary “deterioration of reason.” With the development of abstract thinking and technical proficiency, reason itself has become increasingly denaturalized. What this means can be grasped by comparing our present civilization with a past in which all reasoning involved the universe both within and outside us. Not yet emancipated from tradition and creed, reason then embraced the angelic and devilish components of nature with an acute awareness of their significance, incorporating them in a substantial, multi-faceted pattern of existence. Set against the background of such relative completeness, contemporary society appears strangely incoherent and empty.

Our society is governed by formal reason, under whose rule we have learned to control nature at the cost of sympathetic contact with its inherent urges and goals. The tissues connecting thought and matter, image and object, have withered away. Values are labels, mass culture takes the place of culture, and ideas degenerate into slogans that may affect people but fail to get under their skins. The realm of reason has become a sham reality filled with oversized vistas, unsubstantiated notions, and the bizarre shadows of things existent. Chirico’s paintings reflect the horror vacui haunting any mind with a memory in this No Man’s Land.

Abandoned by denaturalized reason, nature appears as something incomprehensible, if not hostile, something that should be eliminated rather than admitted. It not only appears this way: exactly as oppressed minorities become more and more debased, so nature disintegrates in the wake of our alienation from it. A deep gap grows between the rational and the elemental in us. . . .

In his present enlightened state of mind, civilized man, not without infinite malaise, identifies the unceasing manifestations of race hatred and crude violence as relapses into that jungle region which he thought to have long since left behind. No doubt, these manifestations are relapses. But what from an enlightened point of view seems retrogression at its worst can also be considered a reaction against the emasculating effects of present-day reason.

The upsurge of primitive instincts in our society awes much to an irresistible, if unavowed, desire to re-establish the right of nature. Modern man derives a remarkable satisfaction from the shaking off of all controls. Savagery both scares and fascinates him as something that may enable him to attain a great fullness of being. Thus it should not be overlooked that the persistence of blind prejudice may still include an element of legitimate revolt. Prejudice has been called a disease, but spreading like an epidemic, it bares the disease of civilization itself.

Psychologists concerned with rehabilitating the maladjusted endorse, of necessity, rational behavior as something desirable. They restore and consolidate the rule of reason. And yet it is reason itself that, because of its denaturalized, anemic condition, calls forth the protests of neglected nature. To be sure, this does not prevent psychotherapy from removing prejudice in individual cases, but even those practitioners who knowingly co-ordinate rational aspirations and irrational drives are bound to conform to the pattern of a civilization that breeds prejudice of itself. There is something Danaïdean about their efforts in an age of mass culture.

Effective dealing with current mental disturbances depends upon a change of our general mental climate—a change in a direction pointed out by recent French writers, such as George Blin and Camus, who explore the tabooed regions of our bodily existence with a spiritual compassion that reveals their longing for the reconciliation of reason and nature. To express such a longing means to envisage a life in which the now prevailing abstract ideals, with their vain pretence to reality, will have yielded to incentives strong and full enough to seize upon man as a whole. Only under their auspices might we be able to put our fears to good use and come to terms with the demoniac forces of nature. This is about all that can and should be said here of matters transcending the domain of formal concepts.

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