Opinion Piece

In this newsletter, we occasionally publish opinion pieces. These pieces are not official positions of AJP, the Board of AJP, or of Schmooze, the newsletter of AJP. We believe in giving our members a voice and opportunity to express their views as we are a diverse community. Members are welcome to respond to the views that are presented here as well as to any of the articles in Schmooze.

Disarming Antisemitism: A Piagetian Perspective

I am a Christian deeply troubled by the recent resurgence of antisemitism. I am also a psychologist. This is to provide a psychological perspective on the problem, with the hope of fostering reconciliation. Though the focus of this reflection is on “Christian” antisemitism, I believe the concepts apply to non-Christian antisemitism as well.

My belief is that all antisemitism is powered by cognitive dissonance. Said simply, cognitive dissonance is cognitive conflict. Said a little less simply, cognitive dissonance is when two thoughts collide, causing unwanted tension. In the case of antisemitism, the two thoughts are: (A) “I am right.”, and (B) “The smartest people in the world think I am wrong.

Confronted with this conflict, the antisemite has two choices: they can change one of the thoughts to fit the other (assimilation) or they can create a new “schema”, which incorporates the seemingly two contradictory thoughts (accommodation).

For the antisemite, assimilation might look like changing thought B from The smartest people in the world think I am wrong.” to “The allegedly smartest people in the world think I am wrong. Jews are not the smartest people in the world. Their extreme overrepresentation of intellectual achievement is the result of a conspiracy. They cheated.” From this could follow hate.

However, from my professional perspective, intelligence happens organically. There is no conspiracy. It just happens. Much like cream rises to the top. Much like height grows. You can’t ‘conspire’ to do it. You can’t try to be smarter than someone else, any more than you can try to be taller than someone else. Environment matters, but biology matters more.

Suggesting that Jews conspire to overrepresent intelligence is as unreasonable as suggesting that Whites conspire to overrepresent height.

If my contention is true, what can the antisemite do? I would suggest either: (A) Recognize that you are wrong in one way, but because you are wrong in one way, does not mean that you are wrong in every way, or (B) Recognize that different people are smart in different ways.

Recognizing that you are wrong in one way, might involve letting go of your belief in Christian “fundamentals”, without letting go of your belief in Christian “principles”. The same way you let go of your belief in Santa Claus, without letting go of your belief in Christmas. Think of this as updating your belief system, rather than replacing it.

Recognizing that different people are smart in different ways might involve recognizing that some people are smarter materially, and some people are smarter spiritually. There may even be a mystical point of intersection where the two meet, such that you can’t have one without the other. But make no mistake about it, just as there are intergroup differences in physical characteristics, there are intergroup differences in mental characteristics.

The sooner we accept these inter-group differences, the sooner we open the door to complementary and peaceful co-existence.  An even more compelling accommodation involves redefining personal value based on personal choice, rather than personal inheritance. After all, we don’t pick our genes any more than we pick our parents.

All of this said, we can take solace knowing that cognitive dissonance is an equal opportunity disruptor. Just as Christians experience dissonance from the recognition that Jews are generally more successful, Jews experience dissonance from the recognition that Christians are generally more popular. Though what is popular is not always what is right, what is right is not often what is popular.

In any event, what you don’t do with cognitive dissonance, is hate. One need not look any further than the holocaust, to confirm that. At least anyone with a soul. If inferiority produces cognitive dissonance, the holocaust should produce cataclysmic dissonance.

Glendon Rayworth, Psy.D., C.Psych.

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