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Archive for March 28th, 2010

The first researchers to observe chimpanzees in the wild were left with an idyllic impression of our close ape cousins.  They appeared to be a peaceful tribe of vegetarians, who cuddled and groomed and cared for one another in extended family units, sharing fruit and showering their young with affection.

Only later, when in-depth studies were attempted, did it become clear that this was merely part of the picture.  These serene vegetarians were also capable of shocking violence towards members of their own species, including murder.

Chimpanzees are gentle, loving and family-oriented within their own territorial mating group.  But with chimps from outside that circle, they can turn vicious.

In this respect, chimps resemble humans.

You, for example, would never display intentional cruelty towards another human being.

That is – unless you knew that other human being wasn’t like you.  Then you might be surprised at what you could do.

Welcome to in-group/out-group psychology.

Consider the guards at Auschwitz.  They thought of themselves as nice people.

An album of photos was made public in 2008 containing photographs taken by members of the SS who worked at Auschwitz. These pictures are not what you would expect.  Dating from 1944, they show laughing, singing, smiling people reveling at Solahütte, an SS recreation home located just outside the death camp.

There’s even a shot of an SS officer lighting the Auschwitz Christmas tree only a few miles from the place where millions were being starved, beaten and gassed.

The question becomes how you convince yourself that other human beings are not like you – that they are outsiders.

One common method is to place them outside of your religious system.  Religion is often credited with teaching morals and enforcing good behavior among human beings.  More often, it is used to justify the abuse of out-groups by defining the parameters of an in-group.  As Freud put it:  “a religion, even when it calls itself the religion of love, must be hard and loveless against those who do not belong to it.”

Freud watched Hitler march into Austria during the Anschluss in 1938, as the powerful Roman Catholic church stood by offering no resistance whatsoever.  As Peter Gay describes it:

“The Austrian prelates, keepers of the Roman Catholic conscience, did nothing to mobilize whatever forces of sanity and decency still remained;  with Theodor Cardinal Innitzer setting the tone, priests celebrated Hitler’s accomplishments from the pulpit, promised to cooperate joyfully with the new dispensation, and ordered the swastika flag to be hoisted over church steeples on suitable occasions.”

Freud managed to escape to England with his immediate family.  Four of his sisters, each of them over 70 years old, were not so lucky.  These helpless elderly women were murdered in concentration camps.

In-group/out-group psychology, coupled with religion, explains a lot about wars, inquisitions, crusades, burnings at stakes, pogroms, terrorism and the ugly history of mankind in general.

Another way to ostracize a group is to link them to disease.  When Glenn Beck calls Progressivism a “cancer” in America, he implies that Progressives, those people like myself who believe in Progressive causes, are the embodiment of that cancer.  He is borrowing a page from Adolf Hitler’s playbook.  One of the Fuehrer’s favorite tropes was to compare Jews to tuberculosis bacilli infecting the German nation.

If people are tuberculosis bacilli – or cancer cells – it becomes much easier to abuse them.

Still another way to justify dehumanizing a group of people is to isolate them because they have a different ethnic background, or physical appearance. This country began as a slave colony, based on the firm notion that people with dark skin could be beaten, abused, tortured, murdered, and bought and sold as chattel because they weren’t really “human” at all – they were more like animals.  This is another example of in-group/out-group psychology at work.

The Tea Party movement lends itself to in-group/out-group psychology because it is a homogenous population – an excellent candidate for an in-group.  According to a CNN poll, active supporters of the Tea Party, those who have attended a rally or donated money, are much more likely to be wealthy, male, have graduated from college and reside in rural areas that are already GOP and conservative strongholds.  According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 88% of the Tea Partiers are white.  They are also almost entirely Republican.  It’s a fair guess that most of them are Christian, too, and probably fundamentalist.

This might explain their obsession with attempting to prove that Barack Obama, the President of the United States, was somehow not born here or is somehow not American.

He’s different from them.  That makes him a member of an out-group.

Mr. Obama’s out-group status, in turn, permits the Tea Party people to justify treating him in ways they would never treat one of their own.  That explains shouting “You lie” at him in the middle of a joint session of the US Congress, or flaunting firearms at events where the President is speaking.  Since he is an out-group member, they can justify treating Mr. Obama with a level of disrespect that might otherwise be difficult to fathom, especially from people who claim to respect the office he fills.

More disturbing, perhaps, is the way the Republicans treat their fellow Americans who happen to lack healthcare.

If another human person were injured or ill, and needing to be taken to a hospital, it is hard to imagine anyone, whatever their political or religious beliefs, refusing to come to that person’s aid.

But the Republicans have managed to convince themselves that denying healthcare to their fellow Americans is morally defensible.  Perhaps it’s a Christian doctrine that an atheist outsider, like myself or Sigmund Freud, could never comprehend.

More likely, for the Republicans, it’s simply that any American living without healthcare must be a member of an out-group.  Perhaps they are all Socialists, African-Americans or Progressives, or even part of the “cancer” that Glenn Beck battles on tv.

The latest example of in-group/out-group psychology at work has appeared in the form of threats of violence by radical Right-wingers against Democratic politicians who supported the healthcare bill and voted it into law last week.  Black and gay politicians have had nasty names shouted at them.  One Democratic congressman was called “baby killer” by his Republican colleague on the floor of the US House of Representatives.  There have been death threats and acts of vandalism.

You wouldn’t do these things to someone whom you considered an equal.

The truth seems to be that, for the Republicans, anyone who disagrees with their political agenda is an outsider.  The code word for “outsider” is that you are not a “real American.”  Sarah Palin warned you about those people, the “fake Americans” – the outsiders.  You can place gun targets over their faces.  You can threaten their lives.

As I’ve said time and time again, this column is strictly without political bias.

But perhaps it is time for the Republicans and their Tea Party minions to rise above the level of chimpanzees and Nazis, and to recognize the humanity of their fellow citizens.  For decades, tens of millions of us have been denied access to decent healthcare.  As a result, each year tens of thousands of us have died.

The issue of healthcare is finally being addressed with a mainstream political solution, thanks to President Obama and the Democrats.

But the Republicans still need to learn a basic lesson in citizenship.

They are not the in-group, and everyone else is not the out-group.

There is no out-group.

There is one America, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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