A shrink or swim policy

The Anatomy of Prejudices
May 9, 1997

Many of the origins of prejudice have been firmly established. For example, as early as the 1940s Muzifer Sherif showed that violent prejudice could be induced between two groups of American schoolboys, simply by having them compete with one another, particularly if a valuable reward was at stake. Second, if one is to have pride in one's own group, it is necessary to denigrate out-groups, otherwise there is no virtue in one's own. Third, bad behaviour is more readily noticed in minority groups than in the majority one: the reason is subtle - we associate bad behaviour with the members of minority groups just because both are rare.

In her analysis of prejudice, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl mentions none of this research nor a vast number of other findings that are relevant, an extraordinary omission. Instead she provides an extensive and scholarly review of the purely speculative and often unintelligible sociological literature on the subject, only occasionally stopping to evaluate it. She then gives her own psychoanalytic interpretation of the causes of prejudice within the individual, producing a tidal wave of words (about 250,000), which are likely to drown her meaning even for the strongest reader. She introduces various classifications such as that between the obsessional, the hysterical and the narcissistic personality, going into great detail on how each develops as a result of the ways in which infantile and adolescent conflicts are resolved. Since we all - or almost all - share the events that allegedly lead to complexes, such as penis envy, the castration complex and the Oedipal complex, it is unclear why some should develop one personality type, others another.

Young-Bruehl claims the three types exhibit different forms of prejudice. The obsessionals with their longing for order try to eradicate the groups against which they are prejudiced (as in the Holocaust). The narcissistic, on the other hand, want to preserve these groups in order to interact with them, since by so doing they can project onto another group their own repressed wishes: this is said to explain the former attitudes of American southerners to blacks. Fantasising the sexual habits of blacks with their large penises is, according to the author, a projection of the white American's inhibited sexual longings, while southerners gained sexual release by having sex with black servants, keeping their white wives pure. Hysterics are restless and show-offs, who take disappointment badly and are given to projection. They want the world to be hierarchical, with themselves at the top: they therefore preserve the groups towards which they are prejudiced in order to dominate them. It is unclear how this follows from the characteristics of the hysteric: it is also unclear how their prejudices differ from those of the narcissistic.

Young-Bruehl's reasoning is thin, to put it mildly. She is hard to follow because she dashes madly from one topic to another and sometimes contradicts herself. For example, she claims both that there is no evidence that prejudiced people are neurotic and later that prejudice is a neurosis. The four forms of prejudice with which she deals - anti-Semitism, racial prejudice against blacks, homophobia and sexism - appear and reappear throughout the book, making it hard to glean her views on any of them. Again, she takes it completely for granted that the tenets of psychoanalysis are true, but does not hesitate to revise them when it suits her.

Nor does she mention let alone rebut the evidence that the traits said to constitute each of her three types - obsessional, narcissistic and hysterical - simply do not tend to go together, except in the imaginings of psychoanalysts. Finally, she does not take into account such facts as that in 1920, there was less anti-Semitism in Germany than in most western countries. It seems unlikely that methods of child rearing had changed dramatically from that time to the Holocaust, which was caused not by psychoanalytic factors but by economic depression, obedience to the ruling Nazis backed by terror at the consequences of failing to obey and the power of contemporaries to alter attitudes.

Much of her psychoanalysing is based on case histories, the modern form of fairy story, for as we all know they can be interpreted in any way according to the analyst's preference. Moreover, the observations on which she relies can all be given a different and more commonsense explanation than she offers. In America, southerners had extramarital sex mainly with black women because as maids they were available: no further explanation is needed. It is a puzzle how anyone can ignore hard evidence and produce a psychoanalytic fantasy such as this book. The author even cites evidence from the long discredited Rorschach test.

The Anatomy of Prejudice is partially redeemed by its last section in which moving accounts are quoted of what it feels like to be the victims of prejudice, though even these chapters are marred by the author continuing to wave her psychoanalytic flag. The book's most remarkable feature, is that it should have been written at all, despite the massive discrediting of Freudian theory that has occurred in recent years. But then the psychoanalytically inclined are no more interested in evidence or plausibility than are astrologers.

Stuart Sutherland is the author of Irrationality: The Enemy Within.

The Anatomy of Prejudices

Author - Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
ISBN - 0 674 03190 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 632

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