The Psychology of Invisible Prejudice

My academic project leaves me very little time to reflect on current events or to comment in public on them. But I take up pen in this instance to provide a short stab at what I take to be one of the most fundamental misunderstanding in the ongoing conversation on interethnic reconciliation. On the one hand, white Americans don’t tend to think of themselves as racist and don’t ascribe racist motivations to their actions. On the other hand, minorities see very clearly the lingering racism, prejudice, and privilege. Can the two viewpoints be reconciled? Perhaps I can provide one step toward it (there are certainly other aspects that need to be addressed).

My research has enabled me to dip my toe into the emerging research on the “adaptive unconscious” (Timothy Wilson’s terminology). The adaptive unconscious is roughly our lower level cognition especially at the level of perception, involving filtering white noise and  reflex evaluations of our surroundings. There is a strong link between our lower cognition and our emotional states (see Jesse Prinz). So, for instance, lower cognition enables my to be “aware” of dangers and react before I am even conscious of them. The difficulty with lower cognition is that it has a complicated relationship with our conscious thought. For instance, I talked with a man recently who had debilitating fear of barking dogs as a result of an attack as a child, but could not “think his way out of it.” The “irrationality” of our fears is no reason for us not to have them, since they operate at another level of our consciousness. Some people talk about this as the intentionality of the body (e.g. Merleau-Ponty).

So, to make a step toward reconciling the opposing views. I suspect that the many white Americans who say they are not racist are being sincere in the sense that they do not consciously entertain ideas of inferiority towards other racial or ethnic groups. But, at the level of the body, or at the level of their lower consciousness, the fear and disdain may exist very plainly and visibly to others. This is not insignificant. Our gut reactions to others form a major aspect of social intercourse. We like people who are “open” and “warm”, even though we may not be able to say explicitly what we mean by these metaphors. What we mean by “open” may be 1,000 small types of behavior, speech, or expression that are hard to specify. Minorities can face a world where nearly all of the people they come into contact with on a daily basis are “closed” and “cold,” or hostile. And conscious intentional hostility is not the only type that produces violence. Our heads say we are open and welcoming, but our bodies and our hands may tell a different tale.

So, are the police officers who have been in the news racist? They certainly are reacting with excessive force. Even if their thinking is not prejudiced (though perhaps it is), their bodies 2016-07-12 11.27.48 am.pngare. And this state of affairs is legitimately terrifying and sometimes deadly for those against whom this prejudice is directed. I grieve the lives these officers have taken.

So what can be done about invisible prejudice? The raises another feature of our “body-intentionality,” that it is largely affected by our experience. How did my friend fight his fear of dogs? He held puppies. It is absolutely essential for building racial peace for all of us to intermingle our lives with those who are different from us. We must experience the humanity of the other through hospitality to teach ourselves to love. We cannot be content with affirmations of equality but no bodily action. The role of the Christian church in this is especially important. We must take seriously our responsibility to build diverse, hospitable communities that are capable of ministering reconciliation both on a Spiritual and social level. We are to be a city set on a hill, a City of God where there is one body, as well as one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Overcoming Seduction Hysteria

The video below is Yann Dall’Aglio, “Love–You’re Doing it Wrong.” It’s really worth a watch. It touches on the problem that is created as modern man has lost his sense of significance from being situated within traditional roles. A man or woman could feel valued, loved, and belonging as a son, or a wife, or a citizen. But in our day, when traditional roles have been cast aside, we are all part of a continual race to be valued or loved, what he calls “Seduction Hysteria.” We acquire “seduction capital” like clothing, possessions, or internet presence to garner admiration. He says,

“We all pretend to have an idol; we pretend to be an idol for someone else, but actually we are all imposters, a bit like a man on the street who appears totally cool and indifferent, while he has actually anticipated and calculated that all eyes are on him. I think that becoming aware of this general imposture would ease our love relationships. It is because I want to be loved from head to toe, justified in my every choice, that the seduction hysteria exists. Therefore I want to appear perfect so that someone will love me.

What I find particularly fascinating is the 30 seconds that he devotes to his solution, self-mockery. He says, “For a couple who is no longer sustained, supported by the constraints of tradition, I believe that self-mockery is one of the best means for the relationship to endure.”

(As the kids might say) WHAT. A. LETDOWN.

Hasn’t it occurred to him that self-mockery is itself just another means of acquiring love through humor. Self-mockery is seduction capital. (Perhaps this is obvious only to a religious person, having seen countless examples of humility being used as seduction capital?)

It seems to me that a better answer, a better escape from this seduction hysteria is gospel oriented covenantal relationships in which people’s identities are formed around the notion of being “beloved of God” and find their purpose in his mission.

Church Matters: Church Seminary Divide

or, tongue firmly planted in cheek: 7 Shocking Reasons Seminary Students Feel Alienated from the Local Church

See also:
Church Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Types
Church Matters: Truncated Biblical Authority

Not all seminarians feel the angst of the church/academy divide, but many do. This post is a mental exercise in thinking about why. The point is to provide a springboard for more thinking on the issue, not to provide an exhaustive treatment. Please do not treat my generalizations as anything but generalizations (which by definition are not exhaustively true). If this is not your experience, then give thanks and keep plugging. A related goal is again to reinforce my nagging suspicion that the church needs a location and time for the practice of good thinking. Seminarians might be a good resource for this.

1. DIvergent approaches to questions

Fundamentally, local churches often look to close questions as soon as possible and scholars look to keep them open as long as possible. That scholars do not close questions has to do with the nature of questions; they are the objects of intellectual passions. In other words, they fuel inquiry by providing motivation for study. So a scholar may pursue a question for a lifetime, which a minister may want to answer with a five minute rabbit trail from his lesson. Questions are often at best “off topic” and at worst “impudent.” Granted there might be practical reasons for the church not opening every question. But a culture of all the “answers” needs to be avoided.

2. Ignoring or ignorance of contemporary challenges to the faith

Often local churches have (understandably) little interest in the big questions which threaten to undermine or derail the Christian faith ideologically, since their primary work is local. For example, churches have no interest in the metaphysical challenge of panentheism. Perhaps readers may not even know that this is “an issue.” But there are a whole host of issues that are relevant either in the wider theological or secular world that theologians need to address, but often are only very tangentially related to the life within church. Pastors largely do not concern themselves with this issues, and seminarians may notice them under every rock as the hidden cause for troubles X, Y, or Z. It seems to me that seminarians are myopic in thinking that modalism is the cause of all vice in the church or that it is vital that grandma not express herself in a modalist fashion.

3. “The First Year Philosopher Phenomenon” (or the Socrates problem)

It has been said that the most annoying philosophy student with which to dialogue is the one that has had only one year of philosophy. Critical thinking in small doses leads to a nascent awareness that things are wrong in a world that formerly seemed roughly OK. Usually, the first problem of which one becomes aware is attacked with such foolish zeal that people are hurt. The professors are “corrupting the children.” The truth is that the fourth year students might have a large store of valuable insight to offer, but often have learned to shut their mouth. Therefore, the vocal minority are foolish and the church stops asking seminarians for insight when they might be able to offer it.

4. The resulting mistrust

Local churches tend to become a bit lukewarm about seminarians in general because seminarians are critical and seem to know it all (the first years are foolish and the third and fourth years are more measured, but sometimes “angsty”).

5. The pastor may threatened; the seminarian may be threatening

Sometimes pastors who lack seminary training or whose training came in the 70s can be threatened by the young seminarians. Rather than looking at them as a valuable resource for the church, they can completely ignore them while secretly wishing they’ll finish and move to another church. The quickest way to get pushed out of a ministry is to ask questions about things that are already decided. When seminarians tend to do this, leaders can feel threatened and frustrated. Further, seminarians need understand that the pastor likely possesses a large store of pastoral wisdom that can only be acquired in shepherding people from birth to death.

6. The “You Need to Work Your Way Up” phenomenon

Most large churches have few needs in positions of teaching or authority. The needs they do have are filled by people who have “worked their way up,” often starting with a ministry like set-up crew. Since many seminarians are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities (sometimes full time at more than one of these), they can sometimes see these lower ministries as valuable, but not a good use of their time. This might not be arrogance, but rather wise stewardship. But without these “starter ministries,” the student may not have opportunity to exercise his or her gifts anywhere. From the church’s perspective, it is perhaps a warranted concern to reserve positions of teaching positions or authority for those who are committed to the church in the long term, but it does fail to recognize unique gifting and ability as well as the church’s own responsibility to its members who are training for ministry, especially in cultivating their gifts (it takes years to find one’s voice) and confirming (or not) their calling.

7. General lack of intellectual virtue in the local church

There is often no place or time for asking questions in the local church. To carry on glibly unaware of the fact that disagreements exist, vaguely contented in one’s own view, is vice. Dialogue is crucial for truth seeking and unity, because only in dialogue are one’s own ideas really tested and positions nuanced. The fact that the church mostly has no space for dialogue on really important issues has some really awful consequences.  All of the dumbest decisions I have witnessed either in business or in the church have occurred within the context of the latter institution. My heart breaks for now defunct local churches and institutions that have been ruined by poor thinking.

My prayer is that these observations and generalizations may foster further dialogue on these issues. So if you agree or disagree, kindly post below.