Sunday, September 24, 2006

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.

Robert W. Firestone
Click to see a video clip from an interview of Dr. Firestone with Salon's Fred Branfman