In the aftermath of the tragedy in Charleston a much-needed national discussion has ensued about the scourge of racism, the plague of bigotry, and the “symbols” that can sometimes promote both. What’s been absent from the discussion, however, is a meaningful probe into the character of a bigot and the kinds of things that promote such troubling character development in any human being. For that reason, even though I’ve already shared a few thoughts on Charleston in last week’s post (see: The CD Continuum Wrap-Up: The Preeminent Role of Character), I’m departing a bit from my usual mode of topic posting to say some necessary things about bigotry and character.
I was more than a bit disappointed as I perused several sources for the current accepted definition of bigotry. Dictionary.com defines a bigot as: “a person who is utterly intolerant of any different creed, belief, or opinion” but offers nothing about what underlies such intolerance. The British Dictionary says a bigot is: a person who is intolerant of any ideas other than his or her own, especially on religion, politics, or race. Again, the focus is on intolerance, not what predisposes it. Merriam-Webster takes a slightly more comprehensive casting a bigot as: a person who both strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc., and who hates or refuses to accept members of a group (such as a particular racial, religious, or ethnic group). Clearly, none of these definitions speaks to what it is about a person that can allow him or her to hold such poorly reasoned, yet intolerant and hate-evoking attitudes. But as any reader of this blog or my books might already have surmised, I believe the answer has to lie in character – specifically, the inherently malignantly narcissistic character of the bigot.
I’ve written before about narcissism that reaches a hyper-pathological extreme (see, for example: Malignant Narcissism and Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy). It’s one thing to think really highly – perhaps even too highly – of yourself and to be self-centered. But it’s quite another to view others with disdain or even contempt because, after all, they’re just not you. A pathological degree of grandiosity (i.e. malignant narcissism) is always at the root of bigotry. Whereas the “garden variety” narcissist feels and acts superior, the malignant narcissist knows he or she is superior. Just ask him or her! And if you affirm his or her opinions, then you have some value. If you don’t, you’re pond scum. It’s that simple for the more malignant narcissist. Of course, the most extreme example would be a psychopath (some also use the label sociopath and I, as my readers know, prefer the label: predatory-aggresssive), who regards all those poor souls who care, fear, or have compunctions as inherently weak, inferior, and expendable creatures, and, therefore, their rightful prey. But there’s a lot of folks on the continuum of malignant narcissism who fall short of being out-and-out psychopaths. So while psychopathy is still relatively rare, bigotry, unfortunately, is not so uncommon. And in the age and culture of narcissism, it’s simply too easy for some among us to look down on those they view as inferior just because they don’t look like, act like or hold the same views as they do.
As readers of my book The Judas Syndrome already know, I believe Jesus of Nazareth knew exactly what he was talking about when he advised those who would follow his way of living about judging others. Some folks cite the part of one passage that reads: “Judge not,” as evidence that he advocated we simply not judge anyone about anything at any time. But a closer reading of all the relevant passages from the various sources renders a much different interpretation: We’re to be really cautious about exercising judgment. For the standards by which we judge others we will be the standards by which others judge us, and to the degree we hold others to account, they will hold us also to account. Moreover, if we really want someone to see reason (i.e. when we’re trying to “remove the speck from their eye”), we can’t be oblivious to the biases, prejudices, and other distortions in our own perceptions (i.e. the “plank” in our own eye), which are often greater than the flawed views of the other person, that make it truly impossible for us to rightly judge the situation. We’re advised, therefore, that when we simply have make a judgment about someone (and there are plenty of situations where it’s imperative we exercise good judgement), to do so in genuinely righteousness manner, not looking at the relatively irrelevant externals (a person’s appearance, background, manner, etc.) or with partiality or prejudice, but with an unbiased eye about what might lie in the person’s heart. Again, he had it exactly right. So did Martin Luther King, Jr., who openly prayed that the day might come when all people would be judged “by the content of their character” and not by the color of their skin. Sadly, his dream has not yet been fully realized.
It is reported that Dylan Roof told police that for a brief moment he had second thoughts about the horror he planned to inflict on his unsuspecting victims because “they were so nice” to him. But his perverted beliefs about their value as human beings and his sense of superiority and entitlement trumped any limited capacity for empathy he might also have had. And if that statement doesn’t illustrate in dramatic fashion the supreme importance of character, I don’t know what possibly could. Roof’s comments and actions not only testify to how dangerous it can be for someone’s narcissism to reach such a malignant level but also underscore how imperative it is that we successfully confront what I have long asserted is the defining issue of our time: the character crisis and the sociocultural factors responsible for promoting it.
Radical, bigoted ideologies are appealing to a certain kind of character (for more on this see: Radical Ideologies: Deadly Ways of Thinking). And such ideologies will be around as long as there are hearts and minds receptive to them. To put an end to bigotry we must first be about the business of changing hearts and minds, necessarily starting with our own. But to even begin to do that, we have to confront the proverbial elephant in the room: character.
In the coming weeks I’ll be making some announcements about the latest foreign edition of In Sheep’s Clothing, some new material to accompany Character Disturbance, and the advance registration details for this fall’s webinar. And I’ll have a lot more to say on today’s topic on Character Matters this Sunday evening at 7 PM EDT (6 PM CDT, 4 PM PT), which will be a live show, so I welcome your calls.