A Special Kind of Reading Experience: “The Sufis,” by Idries Shah

Until 1964, when “The Sufis” was published, Sufism was mostly the preserve of scholars, at least in the West.  “The Sufis” began a new era, opening a window on Sufi activity, history and influence.   Shah presents new information in an accessible way, and many readers feel that it’s a book they’ve been looking for.  Stories, history, unusually lucid perspectives on human nature and spirituality, and challenges to assumptions and established ways of thinking, are intertwined throughout, eventually combining to produce a special kind of reading experience.

“The Sufis” begins with the story of “The Islanders.”  This is a “teaching story;” Shah’s name for a form of literature whose internal structure and dynamics can support and provoke experience in the reader (a Sufi speciality).  Sometimes the learning happens at the time of reading, when the story helps us make sense of perceptions and experiences.  Often, as Desmond Morris, author of “The Naked Ape” and The Human Zoo” observed, it’s a delayed effect that happens when we encounter situations in life that evoke a story.  Morris is one of the leading observers of human nature who has commented on Shah’s work; others include author Doris Lessing, psychiatrist and author Arthur Deikman, and psychologist and author Robert Ornstein.

After “The Islanders” sets the stage, “The Travelers and the Grapes”—another teaching story—opens a discussion of the contextual background.  Here we start to look at the history of interaction of cultures; often concealed because spiritual practices not sanctioned by the authorities could have brought severe penalties over the last thousand years or so.  Here we also begin to see the Sufi approach to spiritual development; which I’ve found to be unparalleled in lucidity about human nature.

The chapter on “The Elephant in the Dark,” based on Rumi’s story, continues the intertwining of narrative, perspectives on human nature, and intercultural history.  Then we meet the joke-figure Mulla Nasrudin, “one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics,” whose antics illustrate “situations in which certain states of mind are made clear;” usually when he’s acting the idiot.  Subsequent chapters introduce classical Sufis, including Rumi, Attar, Omar Khayyam, ibn el-Arabi, and el-Ghazzali, and trace the influence of Sufi thought and action on Western figures (such as Chaucer and St. Francis) and groups.  We also meet the work of Western Sufis, such as Richard Burton (whose “Kasidah,” a remarkable poem of great depth, is reviewed), and are introduced to The Dervish Orders, The Creed of Love, Magic and Miracles, and more.

Of course, over the five decades since its publication, some things have changed.  In his discussion of Sufi orders, which do not need traditional buildings and grounds except as required by local economic and political conditions, Shah mentions that “one Arabic publishing company is a Sufi organization.  In some areas all the industrial and agricultural workers are Sufis.”  This might have changed in the political, economic and military upheavals of the past fifty years, but the principle remains the same; the “order” is in the hearts and networks of people.  The “beautiful tomb,” of the great teacher Data Ganj Bakhsh (Ali el-Hujwiri), in Lahore, “venerated by people of all creeds,” was bombed by terrorists in 2010.  The Idries Shah Foundation print and Kindle editions of “The Sufis” omit the original Introduction by Robert Graves (I like Grave’s commentary but “The Sufis” is complete without it).

Still, five decades after its publication, “The Sufis” continues to be relevant.  At first reading, and later re-readings after intervals, “The Sufis” continues to pack advanced spiritual psychology, eye-opening history, and impacts that both confirm and extend perceptions, and highlight and disconfirm prejudices and assumptions, into a special reading experience.

reviewed by Jay Einhorn, PhD, LCPC, www.psychatlarge.com

On the Psychological Impact of Racial Prejudice

Reposted from July, 2014:

(an invited panel presentation at the National Fair Housing Training Conference of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D.C., June, 2004)

Yesterday, in the program on “Reflecting On Brown At 50,” Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that “We have to reframe the debate” on racism and integration so that it applies to all humanity, around the world, not just to one or two groups in the U.S.A. I thank him for that comment, and it’s in that spirit that I’ve prepared my remarks.

I. Psychological Impact of Housing Discrimination

I’d like to begin considering the psychological impact of racial prejudice by discussing a case in which I conducted a psychological evaluation of a victim of housing discrimination. The victim was an attorney whom I’ll call “Deborah,” an African American woman, and the request for evaluation was in connection with her lawsuit against the perpetrator, a landlord who had very crudely refused to rent her an apartment, but who was quite eager to rent it to the white applicants whom her attorney sent as testers. The perpetrator had been nailed, and the case was set for trial. The psychological evaluation was Deborah’s attorney’s idea, in order to support her claim for damages.

Deborah herself was ambivalent about participating in the psychological evaluation. Although she understood its potential value in supporting her case, she didn’t expect it to show much damage, and, as an intensely private person, didn’t relish the prospect of opening her personality to investigation. She prided herself on being tough and realistic, and had the kind of attitude that regarded vulnerability to social mistreatment as a form of personal weakness. She was sophisticated, beautiful, intelligent, and elegant, and presented herself as relatively unfazed by having been the victim of housing discrimination, after her initial shock and anger had abated. Her attitude was that there are these despicable elements in society, and you just sort of had to hold your nose and get past them. Despite her reluctance, Deborah acceded to her attorney’s advice, and consented to undergo psychological evaluation.

I approached the evaluation expecting to find as little in the way of deep emotional injury as Deborah did. I knew her socially, and was well aware of how bright she was and how tough she could be. I’d recommended to her attorney, and Deborah, that it would be better for a psychologist whom Deborah didn’t know to conduct the evaluation, but she wouldn’t even consider another psychologist, so it was either me or nobody. Yet, to both my surprise and Deborah’s, I discovered, as we proceeded through the evaluation protocol of interviews and testing, that she had, in fact, been injured by this act of discrimination; injured much more deeply than she had acknowledged, to herself or anyone else.

The great psychologist George Kelly taught that, “Experience is not what happens to us, experience is what we do with what happens to us.” (Pelaez, 1970) The psychological impact of what happens to us depends on what it means to us. To understand the psychological impact to Deborah of having been a victim of housing discrimination, we have to understand something about her background and personality.

Deborah’s parents had come from another country to the U.S.A., and landed in the largely African American neighborhood of a great city, where she grew up entirely insulated by her parents from the surrounding culture. She attended parochial schools, and when not in school was mostly kept at home or sent away for vacations. She grew up believing that her destiny was to transcend the limitations of her surroundings by talent and effort, and ultimately to take her rightful place among the accomplished and successful people of this world. To Deborah, the fact that she could become the victim of housing discrimination after she had jumped through all these hoops meant that she was a person of no consequence after all; that, no matter what she did, outside of small protected islands of elite culture, she would always be defined by, and subject to, the prejudices of others.

Although Deborah denied emotional impact beyond the initial shock of being the victim of housing discrimination, she had experienced a series of distressing physical symptoms, beginning immediately after the episode of discrimination and continuing for several months by the time of her psychological evaluation. These symptoms included frequent migraine headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, and menstrual dysrhythmia. I diagnosed these physical symptoms as psychosomatic reactions to the emotional stress of having been the victim of housing discrimination.

Deborah’s physical symptoms were a response to feelings of helplessness, inconsequentiality, and depersonalization or dehumanization. As Michael Seng, Merilyn Brown, and I wrote in “Counseling a Victim Of Racial Discrimination In A Fair Housing Case,” in the Fall, 1992, John Marshall Law Review: “Racial discrimination strikes at the victim’s personhood, and if left to fester, will poison the victim’s self-esteem.” (Seng, et al, 1992)

II. The South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission

We can learn something about the psychological impact of racial prejudice from the experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as discussed by South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author of, “A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid,” and presenter of a recent talk entitled, “Forgiveness: The Human Moment.” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2004)

The TRC was the brainchild of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others who understood that, in order to make a successful transition from minority to majority government in South Africa, atrocities that had been committed had to be acknowledged, but in a way that laid the foundation for the reconciliation of the two populations. The search for justice through retribution would have sparked the bloodbath that was on the verge of happening after decades of bloody repression and rebellion. The success of the TRC is recognized by the saying that the transition from minority to majority rule in South Africa was characterized by “the bloodbath that didn’t happen.”

The foundational concept of the TRC was that those who had committed crimes during the war, whether acting for the apartheid government or the resistance (mainly the African National Congress), would be eligible for amnesty if they came forward and acknowledged what they had done, and cooperated with the Commission’s investigations, as long as such actions had been done for political reasons and not personal ones. The TRC proceedings were conducted publicly, in open courtrooms and on the record. Survivors, for example, those whose loved ones had been killed, were able to be present while perpetrators were testifying. Amnesty was granted in some, but not all, cases. After acknowledging their crimes, the perpetrators could ask the survivors for forgiveness, although not all did, and forgiveness was not guaranteed. (TRC, 2003)

Now, here’s the most relevant part for our consideration today. Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela observed that, when perpetrators did ask for forgiveness after acknowledging their crimes, the survivors often gave it to them, often in quite emotional interchanges, after which the survivors were able to go through a process of mourning for their loved ones, which they had somehow not been able to do prior to that time. Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela observed that the impersonal way in which the victims had been killed, as if their individuality did not matter, seemed to have deprived them of their humanity in a way which stopped their survivors from carrying through with their own mourning. When the perpetrators acknowledged their deeds, acknowledged why and how they had done them, and asked for forgiveness, it somehow restored the personal humanity, the individual dignity, to the victim, in the minds of their survivors, in a way that allowed the survivors to more fully mourn their losses. The victims had been dehumanized, so to speak, in the hearts of their survivors, by having been killed in so impersonal a way, and were rehumanized, in the hearts of their survivors, by the perpetrators’ acknowledgment of their role and purpose in carrying out their murders. Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela pointed out that this rehumanization did not occur in cases in which the perpetrators, after acknowledging their deeds, did not ask for forgiveness of the survivors.

I propose that the dehumanization process which Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela describes also occurs to victims of prejudice who survive the encounter, as well as to their friends and associates. Later on, I will consider ways in which the TRC process might provide an alternative model to litigation for addressing instances of housing discrimination. But before that, I want to consider racial prejudice in the context of brain function, and then consider some additional aspects of the psychological impact of racial prejudice.

III. Prejudice and the Brain

The genius of the human brain is that it can make automatic or habitual what it has originally learned through experience and trial-and-error. Human beings have the largest cerebrum, the top part of the brain, in the animal kingdom, proportional to the rest of the brain. New learning tends to involve the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the cerebrum, at the front of the brain, and habits and skills become encoded in the more rearward parts of the cerebrum (and the cerebellum). (Goldberg, 2002) This means that we can store an incredible amount of learned behavior, ready to be recalled when needed, while leaving the frontal parts of our brains available for what are called the executive functions, which include planning, organizing, analyzing, evaluating, prioritizing, selecting what to focus on, maintaining that focus while inhibiting distractions, monitoring both the environment’s and our own internal responses to what we’re doing, and adapting as appropriate.

Almost everything we do consists of habits and automatic responses that we once had to learn consciously. Walking and talking are examples of skills that children work very, very persistently to learn. Once learned, they operate more or less unconsciously unless we encounter some unusual situations that make us think more consciously–that is, with executive functions–about how we’re walking or speaking. But even before we learn to walk and talk, children learn to make sense of what they see and hear. Although children’s eyes and ears work more or less normally from birth, much of our perception actually involves interpretations, the assignment of meaning to visual and auditory stimuli. The experiences of adults, blind since birth due to corneal deformities, who have been enabled to see as adults through corneal transplant surgery, show us how hard the newly sighted have to work to make sense out of the confusing visual array. Some of these newly sighted patients have even closed their eyes in order to get around. So our very perception of reality is based on an enormous number of largely habitual and unconscious automatic assignments of meaning to perceptual stimuli.

The efficiency of this is that it enables the executive functions to operate on top of all those learned habits, which can be recalled as needed but otherwise take up little storage room in the normal adult brain. Now, “Prejudice” means “pre-judging,” and, in a strictly neutral sense of the word, prejudice is the usual form of operation of the human mind, the source of its efficiency and effectiveness. We can get around in the world as well as we do, and be effective in dealing with lots of different situations, because we have pre-judged them already, and can respond more or less automatically to them when they arise. In fact, some our problems in living and coping are because we don’t have enough prejudices, that is, we are presented with situations that we can’t recognize efficiently or cope with rapidly because we haven’t yet learned how to. This is a most important point, because it means that we’re not going to be able to substantially mitigate or transcend the psychological impact of racial prejudice until we understand racial prejudice as a pathological variation of normal brain function.

Not only is prejudice–pre-judging, using the term neutrally–a normal operation of mind, but when an impression carries a threatening meaning, it is “fast tracked” through the brain directly to the emotional centers deep in the middle part of the brain, bypassing the conscious processing of the frontal lobes, with their executive functions. (Le Doux, 1998) The advantage of this system is that it enables us to respond quickly to threatening situations, where split-second reactions can make the difference between life and death. The disadvantage is that racial prejudices, which are typically perceptions that carry an emotional threat, to the extent that they do so, will tend to be evoked more quickly than other perceptions and be less subject to executive review by the person who has them.

The sense of identity, of knowing who we are, both as an individual and as a member of a group, is increased when we are responding to a threat. There is an immediate psychological payoff to prejudice, in the sense of selfhood, of clearly knowing whom one is. Thus, in responding to the object of prejudice, the prejudiced person’s quality of thought is reduced while his or her sense of self is expanded.

IV. Dehumanization of the Prejudiced

Racial prejudice is psychologically dehumanizing to the prejudiced person as well as to the person who is the object of that prejudice (unless the recipient has the psychological structure and emotional stamina to withstand it, considered below). It is dehumanizing to the prejudiced perceiver because, by perceiving another human being, or a category of human beings, as less human than he or she is, or than they are, the prejudiced perceiver is attenuating the effectiveness and reality orientation of his or her own perceptual processes. Such perceptions are examples of what psychiatrist Arthur Deikman calls “cult-like” thinking (Deikman, 2003), which give rise to a “Them and Us” mentality, in which “people like us” are somehow morally superior, and “people like them” inferior. Discussing “Devaluation and Projection,” Deikman writes, “Perhaps the most important thing to understand about devaluing the outsider is that it is a necessary preliminary to harming others, to doing violence. Whether the conflict is between nations or individuals, the attacker devalues the victim prior to the violent act…The person you devalue becomes easier to kill. But when you look at him or her, be sure you do not see who he or she really is, for if you do, you cannot believe the person is inferior to you.” (p. 108)

Thus, by perceiving the other with diminished humanity, the prejudiced person diminishes his own humanity, his psychological selfhood. In order to be fully human, we need to participate in reciprocal relationships with others who perceive us as fully human and whom we perceive as fully human. When we perceive others as less human than they are, there is a reduction in humanity of the self, by the self. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela describes rehumanization as occurring to perpetrators as well as survivors of terrible crimes.

V. Social and Economic Payoffs for Prejudice

In addition to the psychological benefits of a more definite sense of self and identification with a group, (“people like us”), there are social and economic payoffs for prejudice. When we dehumanize our neighbors, we can keep them in their place, preventing them from competing with us economically and socially, and even dislocate them from their homes and help ourselves to their belongings, without feeling the distress or doubt that we would struggle with if we regarded them as human beings just like ourselves. Psychologist Hadley Cantril did a study on the rise of prejudiced social movements, in which he focused on the rise of lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and the rise of Nazism in Germany, among other movements. (Cantril, 2002) Cantril showed that both the Southern Whites who oppressed Southern Blacks, and the Germans who oppressed German Jews, mainly came from social classes which were themselves teetering on the edge of desperation, poverty and hopelessness due to economic and social conditions beyond their control. Southern Whites who kept southern Blacks “in their place” where often themselves kept in their place by the prevailing socioeconomic structure, and would have been displaced by the rise of a successful and enduring Black middle class. Germans who humiliated and displaced German Jews were often those who had lost their ability to earn a living and protect their families, seemingly forever, in the economically devastating conditions of Germany under the Versailles treaty, and who were threatened by upwardly mobile Jews.

An example of such dehumanization comes from the experience of a colleague of mine, who leads a group for Israeli and Palestinian women. As you can imagine, it’s been a very difficult experience for everyone, members and leader. The Israeli and Palestinian women participate in the group because they believe that it is of great importance that they be able to relate as human beings to women from the other group. My colleague reports that both the Israeli and Palestinian women have been strongly advised by members of their families and community not to participate in the group, as if the effort to relate on a human basis to members of the other group was somehow a bad thing in and of itself. An Israeli woman reported that she was advised by her Rabbi not to participate in the group, but if she was determined to, to behave as if the Palestinian women weren’t there.

VI. Prejudice and Addiction

There is an analogy between racial prejudice and drug addiction–not that they are the same, and I am not suggesting that racial prejudice is an addiction–but both racial prejudice and drug addiction are pathological deviations of normal brain functioning. Certain drugs are addictive because they can bond with neuroreceptors in the brain, because they approximate the architecture or chemistry of the natural substances which the brain manufactures for those receptor sites. The use of the drug is always rewarding in the short run, even though it may severely undermine a person’s life in the long run. Racial prejudice uses the natural processes of perceptual categorization and fast-track processing, and is emotionally rewarding to the prejudiced person, in the short run.

VII. Cycles of Prejudice

This leads to a cycle of racial prejudice, which is also part of the psychological impact of racial prejudice. Both at a macrocultural level, at the level of peoples and cultures, and at the most microcultural level of the individual and the small group, the psychological impact of racial prejudice includes victims of prejudice becoming perpetrators of prejudice in their turn. Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela emphasized, in her talk in Evanston, that groups that have been the victims of genocide tend to become the perpetrators of it; it was specifically to avoid such an outcome in South Africa that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Almost every national and ethnic group has been the victim as well as the perpetrator of racial prejudice, in ways that range from economic and social discrimination to genocide, and the less than fully genocidal processes variously called ethnic cleansing or politicide, which I refer to as “ethnicide,” meaning the murdering, displacement, etc., of of one ethnic group by another, short of all-out genocide in the sense of a determined attempt to exterminate them.

In fact, when we look at the history of the 20th century, we see a first World War based on the interethnic prejudices of European countries–whose people welcomed the war in expectation of quick victory over inferior rivals (Keegan, 1993)–and featuring the intent of the victors to carve up crumbling Ottoman Turkey, which helped to precipitate the Turkish forced removal, with much death–described by many as a genocide–of its Armenian population, and concluding with the treaty of Versailles, which, by placing impossible burdens on the German economy, already devastated by the first world war, utterly undermined it, helping to precipitate the Nazi pathology, leading to the German genocide against Jews and others, and World War II, followed by regional wars in Asia (Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, others), Africa, and Latin America, sponsored by global powers which regarded the indigenous people as less than fully human, followed by the Soviet war in Afghanistan, from which the country has yet to recover, and Serbian ethnicide or politicide in Bosnia and Kosovo–Serbia having itself been oppressed by the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires–and the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis by Hutus (where, as Ambassador Joseph Wilson points out, there had been a genocide of Hutus by Tutsis in Burundi during the last century)–so the pattern keeps going. (Wilson, 2004)

As we prepare to leave this conference, many of us will be flying home this afternoon or tomorrow, and many of us are concerned, whether in the front or the back of our minds, about the possibility that we may be blown up by suicide bombers acting on behalf of the Palestinians. Now, I don’t have time to parse the fine points between genocide, on the one hand, and ethnicide and politicide on the other, and different people define them with different nuances, so that could take a long time. But surely the way that the Palestinians have been treated could never be visited upon any group of people by any group of people who regarded them as fully human. Over fifty years of deliberate and systematic terror and brutalization–some of which is documented by the Israeli Zionist Simcha Flapan (whose profound humanity in doing so, incidentally, absolves Zionism of the charge that it must be racist), has created a situation in which some Palestinians, and some Palestinian sympathizers, have come to believe that blowing themselves up and taking as many Jews, Americans, or their allies, as possible, with them, is better than living. The terrible psychological algebra by which Jews kill Palestinians because they are Palestinian, and Palestinians kills Jews because they are Jews, or kill Americans or others because they are supporters of Israel, could only be spawned by the victims of racial prejudice becoming its perpetrators.  (Note:  The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit gives a nuanced treatment of the founding of Israel and Israeli-Palestinian relations in his 2013 book, My Promised Land.)

The victim of prejudice who loses touch with his own humanity responds to persistent or overwhelming dehumanization by either turning it against himself, or turning it back outside. Deborah turned it against herself, against her own body. The suicide bomber responds to dehumanization not by becoming rehumanized, but by sacrificing himself, or herself, in an attempt to ultimately dehumanize the other, by depriving them of their very lives. It’s as if they are saying: “You say I don’t count for anything, well I’ll show you, even if I have to destroy myself in the process.”

So, when I say that racial prejudice has resulted in more damage to human beings by human beings than any force in history, you can see what I mean. This is part of the psychological impact of racial prejudice. And when suicide bombers with briefcases or backpacks can kill as many people as can be reached by their explosives, and when chemical, biological, and perhaps even nuclear weapons are only a few degrees of separation away from them, the psychological impact of racial prejudice deserves our careful consideration.

At a more mundane level, the attribution of prejudice to others can be a knee-jerk reaction by people who have been the victims of prejudice; which in turn perpetuates the cycle of prejudice, and certainly disqualifies them, when they are in that state, from efficient reality perception. An African American mother and grandmother–mother and mother’s mother– are resented and feared at a school their children and grandchildren attend, for their vehement attacks on white teachers whenever the children’s normal misbehavior, or genuine learning problems, are mentioned. This has created an insurmountable obstacle to the teachers’ teaching and the children’s’ learning. One teacher became so upset that she took up so much time complaining about it in staff meetings, that her complaining itself became an obstacle to getting necessary work done. When I pointed this out to her, she accused me of gender prejudice. The inability of victims of prejudice to think clearly, and their tendency to attribute problems of their own making to the prejudices of others, is also part of the psychological impact of racial prejudice.

VIII. What Can Be Done?

If racial prejudice is so pervasive and ubiquitous a part of human psychology, what can be done about it. I recommend five methods for your consideration.

1. First, we need to teach our children about racial prejudice as a malfunction of normal human mental and economic activity. The human brain is the source of all our achievements as a species, as well as of the main threats to our survival as a species, and economics is the main source of our interrelationships, as well as the main justification for oppression, so we had better teach our children about them. Children need to understand more about how the brain works, with prejudice as part of that, but there is almost no instruction in psychology or economics below the high school level, and very little in high school. Appropriate textbooks could be developed for children even in elementary school. There’s no use in just repeating that prejudice is bad; this is mere social conditioning, and will not remove or mitigate prejudice.

2. Second, we need to balance such formal instructional literature with a literature of “stupid prejudice” stories, showing how racial and similar prejudices make incompetent perceivers. The extant non-scientific literature on racial prejudice, including biography, autobiography and fiction, predominantly describes the traumatic experiences of victims. This is of great value, but what’s needed in addition is a perspective on how stupid and inefficient it is to be prejudiced.

During a radio interview, comedian Dick Gregory told a story about an experience of prejudice that is both truly funny and illustrative of the stupidity of the prejudiced, as well as providing listeners with a kind of psychological inoculation against the future experience of prejudice. Gregory was traveling alone through the Jim Crow South when he stopped at a diner for a meal. When he sat down at the counter, the cook came over and said, “Sorry, we don’t serve n—–s here.” “That’s good,” said Gregory, “because I don’t eat n—–s. I came for food!” (Gregory, undated)

Gregory’s semantic judo with the meaning of “serve” is itself worth savoring, and a healthy reaction to prejudice. As Edward de Bono points out, humor is an insight function, encouraging flexibility of thinking and creativity. In his book, Serious Creativity, he writes, “Humor is by far the most significant behavior of the human brain.” (De Bono, 1992) As part of a healthy humorous reaction, Gregory illustrates how to avoid being psychologically injured by prejudice. His response shows that he knows that the cook’s prejudice is not really about him, personally.

In Central Asia and the Middle East, a remarkable body of jokes featuring the wise-fool figure, “Mulla Nasrudin,” has arisen. Nasrudin fulfills the Sufi “corrector of idiocy” function by showing up the ignorance, arrogance, and credulity that characterize so much of human mental and social life. In this one, Nasrudin is “In Charge of the List:”

“Nasrudin was not a popular Imam and was continually being demoted, until he found himself in a remote hamlet full of farmers not known for their generosity. Most of their donations to the mosque consisted of carrots and apples, a diet against which their spiritual leader soon rebelled.

“One day, in an address after the morning prayers, Nasrudin made an important announcement:

“’I have been asked to inform you that from now on it has fallen upon me to draw up a list of those of you destined for Heaven and those of you destined for Hell.’

“From that day on, the Imam was never short of fresh meat, butter, cream and pulao.” (Shah, 2003)

Among other dimensions, this story invites us to reflect on where religious authority really comes from. Such jokes can help to prepare the mind for experiences which it has yet to have, as well as to make sense out of experience that remains to be “digested.”

Children raised on a diet of anecdotes, stories and jokes about how prejudice makes us stupid and inefficient, would have a powerful psychological inoculation against the impact of racial and related prejudice.

3. The third pathway to reducing the psychological impact of racial prejudice is interracial or interethnic teamwork. The psychologist Muzafer Sherif, in important social psychological research conducted decades ago, showed that groups in conflict for economic and social status goals tend to view each other as morally inferior and despicable. (Sherif and Sherif, 1964) This contempt could be neutralized, and the groups could be rehumanized in each others’ eyes, through the experience of having to cooperate together to achieve mutually important goals. When people have to depend on one another and come through for one another, it tends to break down psychological stereotypes. Incidentally, there’s no use just having people meet one another in groups that don’t involve mutual cooperation. Sherif’s research shows that such meetings actually tend to reinforce existing prejudices.

4. The fourth method of reducing the psychological impact of racial prejudice is to include information about it in the training of mental health counselors and therapists. Good counseling and psychotherapy is often about the rehumanization of the dehumanized, but the psychological impact of racial prejudice is not much appreciated or taught in counselor and therapy training programs.

5. The fifth method of reducing the psychological impact of racial prejudice comes from South Africa, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides a model of rehumanization after prejudicial dehumanization has occurred. With some modifications, we might find the TRC model quite useful as an alternative to either litigation or off-the-record settlement in cases of housing and related forms of discrimination.

The most egregious cases of red-handed discrimination rarely go to trial. Dr. John Bough, of Stanford, who presented his brilliant work in voice recognition discrimination yesterday, said that, although every case he’d been involved in had been settled successfully, he regretted that this left no public record of successful prosecution of racial discrimination. Settled cases leave no record.

The landlord who discriminated against Deborah settled the case before trial, on advice of his attorney, as well he should have done. Deborah’s settlement, of a couple of thousand dollars or so as I recall, was a bitter solace for her to receive, and a bitter pill for her landlord to have to give, but there is no record of this ever having happened. I wonder whether a modified Truth and Reconciliation type of procedure might not have been more healing for Deborah, the landlord, and the culture which we all share, even if it had resulted in a smaller monetary settlement for her. The TRC hearings are public and on the record, and for the landlord to have to face Deborah and her family and friends, publicly acknowledge his wrongdoing, and have the option of asking publicly for forgiveness, would have provided a different resolution, for everyone involved–which, in a larger or smaller way, includes all of us– than an off-the-record settlement.

IX. Conclusion

The foundational concept in this discussion is that racial prejudice cannot be understood simply by being condemned, or eliminated simply by being opposed. Fifty years of “Brown” have demonstrated that legal sanction is necessary but not sufficient to address the psychological impact of racial prejudice. We need to inoculate children against the psychological impact of racial prejudice, through the stories that we tell them and the examples that we show them. We need to provide restorative justice alternatives to litigation that are psychologically rehumanizing for everyone involved. Only when we understand racial prejudice as a pathological deviation of normal human brain function, and understand the psychological impact of racial prejudice upon its victims, its perpetrators, and the larger culture, will we be able to take those steps which will enable us to avoid, escape, or transcend racial prejudice.

References

Cantril, Hadley. The Psychology of Social Movements. 2002, Transaction Publishers.

de Bono, Edward. Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas. Harper Business, 1992.

Deikman, Arthur. Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat. Bay Tree Publishing, 2003.

Flapan, Simha. The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. Pantheon Books, 1987.

Gobodo-Madikizela. “Forgiveness, the Human Moment.” Presentation by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela at the Lake Street Church in Evanston, Illinois, April, 2004. Her book is: Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid. Mariner Books, 2004.

Goldberg, Elkhonon. The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. Oxford University Press, 2002.  (Note:  A revised second edition has since been published.)

Gregory, Dick. NPR radio interview, undated (it had to be over fifteen years ago, and might have been with Terry Gross)

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Le Doux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon and Shuster, 1998.

Palaez, Cesareo. Personal communication by Cesareo Palaez, who had been a graduate student of George Kelly’s. 1970. For Kelly’s psychological theory, see: Kelly, George A. A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. W.W. Norton, 1963.

Seng, Michael, Einhorn, Jay, and Brown, Merilyn,. “Counseling A Victim Of Racial Discrimination In A Fair Housing Case.” John Marshall Law Review, Fall, 1992, Volume 26, Number 1.

Shah, Idries. The World of Nasrudin. Octagon, London, 2003. p. 168 For more on the Sufi “corrector of idiocy” function, see Shah, Idries. Knowing How To Know: A Practical Philosophy in the Sufi Tradition. Octagon, 1998. For more on Nasrudin, see Shah, Idries. The Sufis. Octagon, 1964.

Shavit, Ari.  My Promised Land.  New York, Spiegal and Grau, Random House, 2013.

Sherif, Muzafer, and Sherif, Carolyn W. Reference Groups: Exploration into Conformity and Deviation of Adolescents. Harper and Row, New York, 1964.

TRC, 2003. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Website: http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/

Wilson, Joseph. The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity. Carroll and Graf, 2004.

Copyright © 2004, 2014, by Jay Einhorn