Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Psychology of persecution

Seems to me there are two possibile explanations for why people persecute others for their beliefs:

1) A genuine disagreement over the issues, a belief that such people are morally reprehensible and/or dangerous for holding them.

2) A cynical desire to maintain their power and position by stifling opinions that draw their own authority into question.

The first is possible, I suppose. But I lean toward the second, because it seems to me that persecution occurs in all realms of human intercourse, both religious and secular -- but is rarely led by people who don't have an economic and/or political stake in the outcome.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure there are many troops in these wars who genuinely believe the enemy is bad -- but it seems to me they're just pawns who have been deceived and emotionally manipulated by leaders who always have a personal stake in the outcome.

Consider the Catholic Authorities trying to maintain their hold on Europe through the inquisition. Given the unfalsifiable nature of their claim to authority, could they afford an alternative whose claims were equally unfalsifiable drawing their own into question?

Or evolutionary biologists insisting so rabidly that no alternative is worthy of consideration. What would happen to the funding for their research if it were acknowledged that their theories are absurd?

Or Republicans and Democrats (whose policies are often indistinguishable) using the rhetoric of ideology and morality, and then turning around when in power to do things totally counter to what they said. What would happen to their power and ability to draw contributions and alter the law to benefit themselves and their friends if the other side's moralizing went unanswered?

Or Muslim clerical authorities who use law to stifle religious dissent. What happens to the religious authorities' power if others are free to question it?

And on and on and on ...

It occurs to me that if one attempts to take on these forces through ideology -- through arguing about ideas -- one is simply wasting one's time; because the oppression is not itself about ideas -- it's about the power and authority of those whose ideas are being questioned.


blogger said...


First, thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts over the last few months. I just took a little while to read through all of your entries and I can tell you that I am refreshed. Although I prefer the old Borders or Starbucks format to electronic transmissions I still look forward to the ongoing conversation across the distance.

As for the "psychology of persecution," you have stated an obvious condition for motivating one toward oppression and suppression of another – the attempt to promote supremacy or command of institutions that maintain and advance power over other institutions. However, I'm not convinced that the two categories stated actually represent the entire dichotomy describing psychological incentives for persecution. With that said, and before I continue, I do think that you have hit the nail on the head in describing the economic or political motivators as a primary reason for persecution. All I want to do is expand into a third category which can, perhaps, be derived from your primary motivator.

The third category plays out constantly in the micro scale of social interaction. It is the relentless and insecure desire to distinguish oneself above another in moral comparison. Whether this takes the form of judgment laced gossip, mental comparisons that establish an individual as morally superior over another, or outright verbal dismantling of someone in a moment of indignation, the impulse to act as such seems to depend on an unstable and apprehensive view of the moral self. The need for an individual to define arbitrary moral reference points favoring himself over another is inspiration enough for all kinds of persecution.

Granted, you are framing the explanation in terms of large scale persecution but if the question is framed in terms of all persecution, or all ill treatment, then this third category seems to carry some weight. The similarity to your second category is that the perception of the moral self could be seen as an asset (or liability) in the same sense that political, economic or social power could be seen as an asset, and one in need of defense at the expense of others.

I recently read an excerpt from a book in which a self-proclaimed atheist, one of the scientific type, said that the moral position of the atheist is superior to the moral position of the theist because the theist’s morality was incentivized by a heaven of some sort. The reward, he said, reduced the theist’s morality to self indulgence while he was being good just because (my paraphrase). I found this fascinating because the atheist’s moral position is always inherently humanistic, meaning that it is self serving and nothing else. Man or woman rather than God is the measure, the reference point by definition. Even so there was an obvious need for this person (I can’t remember the author’s name at this time) to stick their chest out and let the world know how good they really were, even at the expense of trying to make one of their weakest points, one that really should have been avoided, into an asset. Now this in itself doesn’t constitute persecution but it is an example of the kind of moral insecurity that seems prevalent and often leads to persecution of the sort I described above. Richard Dawkins loves to call people stupid although I think if he were honest he would really call them evil. He would erect a moral reference point (the one that places him at the pinnacle of course) and stand on top mocking everyone below. Unfortunately Dawkins prefers to hide behind week language that he hopes will conceal his moral proclamations. I think his academic persecution of others is because of the typical reasons of academic politics that you have already described, but also because of his moral insecurity.

I’ll leave it at that for now. Again, thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts.

ungtss said...

Great point, man -- I think you're right. That insecurity motivation does seem to play itself out on the micro scale -- probably because the person with the insecurity has no real power to wield:).

Along those same lines, I think you're right that persecution on a macro scale stems from insecurity -- because if you were really confident that your ideas stood up on the merits, why would you take drastic measures to oppress those who draw them into question?

The responses I've heard to that charge usually revolve around distrust in the common man to understand the truth. "If there are atheists running around telling lies, people will fall for those lies, so we must shut them down to protect the sheep who would fall for it!" Interesting how the response simultaneously assumes the correctness of one's own opinion, and its inability to persuade anybody else on the merits. That's a formula for insecurity if I've ever heard one.