Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Prejudices and the "Undermind"

"Wenn einer eine Reise tut, dann kann er was erzählen". (A German proverb: "When someone travels, he has a lot to tell about afterwards")
The last few weeks I have been traveling through altogether 9 European countries. Maybe you remember the American movie:"It´s Tuesday this must be Belgium."
This is about the way we traveled on this trip.
I haven’t done a lot of traveling the tourist way so far, have most often just been visiting close relatives when I was away from home. So this time I thought, I’ll use the chance to see as many places in Europe as possible. Who knows when I ever get another chance.
One other positive aspect for me was, that when I ride as passenger in a car or a bus or a train and see the landscape move by in front of my eyes, my thoughts also start moving.
(By the way, the other best place for me to think is the bathtub at home, where nothing at all is moving. Maybe its the Icelandic hot water, it’s full of sulphur and actually very good for your skin. Maybe it’s also good for the brain cells, mine at least.)

What I noticed most during my trip, when I was talking to the people I met, was that just about everybody from every nation or ethnic group seems to have some prejudices against people from other nations or ethnic minorities.
Many Germans are prejudiced against the Tschek and the Polish, many Tschek are prejudiced against the Polish and the Gypsies, most everybody else in Europe seems to fear the Germans are still Nazis in their hearts. And while many Icelanders are prejudiced against Asian immigrants into Iceland, most other Western-Europeans are now severly prejudiced against their Muslim immigrants.
And actually if I’m really honest, I have to include myself in this litany. How often don’t I just generalize "the Americans", when I talk about the horror and disgust I feel for the crimes of war and oppression organized by the American government and acted out by American military and intelligence agencies.
My friend Umkhalil thinks, that the major reason for all these prejudices people have against "the others" might be the superior complex nearly everybody has sometimes. And she is probably right in this.

Everybody has some doubts about him- or herself, feels slightly incompetent in some situations, and this makes him or her feel bad. But when we can compare ourselves favorable to somebody else our self-doubts get smaller and we feel better.
It’s the situation Jesus describes in the story about the Pharisee standing in the front row of the synagogue praising and thanking God for being so much better morally than the sinner back there in the last row. And Jesus said that the sinner in the last row who accepts that he has done wrong and asks sincerely for divine forgiveness will find far more favor in the eyes of God.
But alas, it seems to be human nature to think far more often like the Pharisee than the repentant sinner.
But we do not only compare ourselves individually with others, since we are social beings, nearly all of us identify with some social groups, very often a national or ethnic groups. And there we also try to make ourselves feel better by thinking that our group of people is morally, intellectually, economically or in some other way better than some other group.
Since this prejudiced thinking is so very common, it most often isn’t really dangerous to the people who are objects of our prejudices.
Take for instance an elderly German aunt of my husband’s (He is half German, half Icelandic and we were also visiting his German relatives on this trip). As a child she lived in Poland as a member of a German minority. Together with her mother and sister she was driven out of Poland during after WWII. She never grew out of the prejudices against the Polish people taught to her by her parents and neighbors so very long ago.
She actually told me that nearly all Polish are lazy workers and steal.
I just gaped at her. How can anybody nowadays believe a thing like this?
And this aunt is not a general right-winger hating all foreigners. She has quite a good relationship to the foreigners living on her block.
I told her, that I knew many Polish people from my parish. All of them are very diligent workers and would never think about stealing anything, ever.
"And besides, think about the German farmers who are sometimes interviewed on TV, when it is talked about forcing unemployed Germans into work as seasonal harvest helpers on farms. Those farmers are actually horrified by the thought of having to employ only Germans instead of the Polish who come year after year as guest workers for the harvesting season. The farmers say, that the Polish workers are by far more diligent and skilled in this hard work than any unemployed German they have sometimes tried to employ." "These are the special Polish" the aunt thinks, "They are exceptions."
So if this aunt would ever have to deal regularly with some Polish people, she would probably meet them at first with quite a bit of distrust. But after a while she would probably decide, that these Polish neighbors probably belong to the small group of the "special Polish". I don’t think that there would be too much harm done.

It only starts to become dangerous, when some powerful politicians are using those prejudices for their own selfish reason, most often for war-mongering in the pursuit of more power and more land ore other economic advantages.
But for this purpose to play upon our inner superiority complex is not enough. The war-mongerers have to play on something else as well: our hidden fears.

And these fears have something to do with the way our brain works.
In the book "Hare brain and Tortoise mind", by Guy Claxton, the author explains, that we all are thinking on different levels of consciousness. And on all levels the mind tries to figure out patterns so we can function as good as possible in a complicated world.
Our conscious logical mind, which is related to our speech centrum tries to figure out the most obvious patterns.
But like with the learning of physical skills, the patterns involved in social situations are often far too complicated for our rational mind to cope with the entire subtle tale telling signs and recognize the underlying patterns.
This is when our "undermined" gets in. Our "undermind" has a mote of thinking, which can deal with far more information than our rational mind and see the underlying patterns.
And from the time we are very small children we start watching the people in our environment, watching their facial expressions and body language. And from the experiences we get through this, our "undermind" tries to figure out patterns in behavior, feelings and thoughts. And most of us are getting rather good in reading other people especially their opinions and feelings about ourselves. And from this our "undermind" tries to figure out, if we can trust these other people or not.
So far explains Claxton in his book.

My guesses in this are, that the trouble with this pattern seeking of our “undermind” is, that it bases its judgment on signs which are not universal. Some signs like smiles or a threatening aggressive posture are probably more or less the same throughout the human race, but the more subtle signs of our body language are probably depending on the culture we come from. And when we meet people from an unfamiliar culture our "undermind"has not enough information to base its judgment on. We are no longer able to "read" the other’s mind in the same way as we would in a familiar social setting. This makes us insecure and slightly fearful. And this is also the moment, when we are most vulnerable for the self-serving propagandists and the fear-mongerers.
Hitler and the other Nazi propagandists used these vulnerabilities, the old prejudices and the subconscious insecurities Germans felt when dealing with Eastern Europeans both Jews and Slavic people. The Nazis used them when proclaiming to the Germans that those "others" are dangerous to the Germanic race, that those strangers are planning to overwhelm or even eliminate the "superior Germanic race", out of envy of course.

Some people might conclude from this, that it is always dangerous when people of different cultures live together in the same country, the same town or the same neighborhood, for the differences and insecurities between the cultures can be exploited by the powerful and ruthless for instigating violence between those different cultural groups, even instigating a civil war or a war between nations.
This surely could happen. And therefore you might conclude to either ban any kind of immigration of people from other cultures or demand absolute assimilation. This is what most German politicians are demanding of the Muslim community in Germany right now. They see a multi-cultural society as dangerous.
And I think they are wrong.
Even while part of the mechanism, which could lead to violence between different cultural groups is subconscious, we, each and every one of us also has a conscious, rational mind. And this mind has, given enough time to think, always an override over our "undermind".
I actually see a big chance in a multicultural, multiethnic society, a chance we can use to promote a permanent peaceful world with just a bit of deliberate positive effort.
By having people of different cultures living just next door or across the street, if we reach out to them, we have the chance to overcome our conscious prejudices and our subconscious insecurities and fears, so they can no longer be abused by self-serving manipulators.
As human beings our ability to learn stays with us for all our lives or at least until we get Alzheimer. Just like our conscious mind can learn a new language, our "undermind" can learn in on a new culture. It however does take a slight bit of effort or even courage to stand the insecurity we will feel in the beginning of this new social experience and not just run away.
In my opinion the reaching out to other cultures should not only be done on an individual bases, but it would be more effective on a collective bases.
And since the modern self-serving propagandists are trying to use the differences between the so-called Judeo-Christian culture and the Muslim culture for their newest project in war-mongering, I see a big obligation of especially the Church to counter their unscrupulous efforts.