The psychology of racialist violence

Having now watched three movies about neo-nazis, I am compelled to seek to understand why smart people get sucked into racist ideologies. The movies in question are American History X (1998), the Believer (2001) and Steel Toes (2006), and I recommend all of them to the observer of modern racism (who is not squeamish).

Each movie centers on a single, articulate, young neo-nazi who commits acts of violence against racial minorities. Each movie outlines why the young man in question is a neo-nazi. Their arguments are well presented. They have clear reasons for hating. After all the arguments about why Jews, blacks and all other non WASPs are bad, it is essential that we look beyond words to see why people hate those who are different.

The young men all had a sense that they were losing something, that their society was headed in the wrong direction because it was being contaminated by inferior races. Derek in American History X said that every problem in the US is race related; Michael in Steel Toes believed we were losing our superior, white, Canadian way of life to immigrants; and Daniel in the Believer declared confidently that spiritual life comes from race, and thought that the modern world is a Jewish disease where that spiritual life was being sucked away. (They are not the only ones who believe they are losing their world. Robert Pape has found that nearly all suicide bombings are motivated by foreign occupation. A study by the think tank Demos found much the same.) But all generations seem to have a feeling that something is lost, and that the world is not what it used to be. Why do these boys blame minorities?

Perhaps we are living in a new age of minorities. At one time in Europe, the minority, if there was one, was the easily-scapegoated Jew, Gypsy, or Huguenot. Now, minorities come from every country and bring their cultures, languages and skin colours with them. Because more rapid social change than ever before is occurring alongside more immigration than ever before, it is easy to conflate the two. Our supposedly sacred ways of life are changing, and the culprits could not possibly be in our group. Violence, segregation, deportation all seem reasonable when viewed through the warped prism of convenient blame.

For a second explanation of how these characters turned into radicals, let us consider what I call “opinion creep“, how we choose one path in our thinking and follow it until our opinions become extreme. Perhaps these people are simply victims of opinion creep. Opinion creep might also be what enables us to hold contrary beliefs, such as that the Jews instigated communism and yet control the world’s banking system. It sends our emotions spiraling down to the evils of our nature and can lead us to obsess over people we do not even know or understand.

Hatred is a natural feeling that any of us can fall victim to. Hate is anger with a direction. It can come easily when the objects are dehumanised, considered less deserving of respect than those in our exclusive group. Stereotyping simplifies the other and simplifies hatred of the other by turning him into a one-dimensional caricature of his group. The arguments against Jews, for instance, refer to them collectively, to say what they are and are not, imposing square pegs of what people are in round holes of what they could be. Uncomfortable with ambiguity, which might mean that we accept that everyone is sufficiently different to defy stereotype, we package things for our own convenience and lose understanding in the process. Sherif (1937) likened this removal of ambiguity to the slogans and propaganda that dehumanised the enemy and fired up the masses in the fascist movements of his time. By repeating canards about who the enemy is, we form images that fill us with hate.

Violence, likewise, is a powerful drive within us. In his excellent book on collectivist violence Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff explains

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

[T]here is a deep connection between violence and belonging. The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence, because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience: if a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives them a reason to kill.

This drive to violence, especially on behalf of one’s group, may be carried out with the intention of domination. Those with authoritarian leanings are more ethnocentric and prone to prejudice (Altemeyer, 1996). Many such people endorse the myths that explain why one group dominates another in society, and either are afraid to lose their position at the top, as Michael in Steel Toes was, or aspire to reach the top (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999). They feel no reason to share society’s resources equally when they have reasons to believe others are less deserving. Moreover, the same people may see the world as either threatening or a competitive jungle where dominance is natural and desirable (Duckitt, 2003).

One final source of violence and hatred is internal conflict. The Believer, in particular, showed Daniel’s deep conflict between his past–a Jew, born and raised–and his present–a Jew-hating skinhead. While leading in the desecration of a synagogue, Daniel picks up a Torah scroll, takes it home and repairs it because of what it had once meant to him. Michael forcefully declares his membership in the Aryan Nation and then breaks down in guilt after reading that the man he assaulted died and yet bears him no ill will. He could not handle the human consequences of what his ideology proposes.

Another thing each movie had in common was to juxtapose the protagonist’s present life as a skinhead with an innocent youth, spent running and laughing and playing. One clear lesson from all three films was that hatred and violence do not lead to fulfillment, wisdom or happiness. They only lead to pain.