Prejudice. Racism. Sexism. Discrimination. These are problems that have plagued mankind throughout history. The modern democratic world has made an unprecedented effort to create an egalitarian society in which everyone treats each other as equals regardless of group affiliation. For decades, civil rights and minority activist groups have been lobbying for laws forbidding discrimination and hatred. We have been taking power away from the oppressive majority and giving it to the disenfranchised minorities. Both formal and informal educational measures have been used to foster understanding of and sympathy for minority groups.
These approaches have made significant inroads, but probably not nearly to the extent that most minority groups have hoped for. While legal advances have been made in guaranteeing minority rights, prejudice stubbornly continues to exist, as though there were an impenetrable wall keeping us enslaved to our fear and hatred of each other’s groups. Most of us still live in segregated communities and our friends tend to belong to our group. The American dream remains that – a dream – for several minority groups.
Why are we hitting this brick wall in our attempt to end discrimination? Perhaps it’s because there are limitations to the traditional approaches to the problem.
For many years I have been teaching individuals how to stop being victimized in their personal and work relationships without having to resort to help from the government or lawyers. At my seminars, I have also been demonstrating through role-playing how these same Bullies to Buddies™ principles can be used to handle prejudice. Those of you who follow my newsletters know that I have been writing about these principles one at a time. This manual brings these lessons together in one document. I hope that you will find it useful enough that you will want to pass it on to others.
Law Versus Psychology
What is the main reason for the inadequate progress in reducing prejudice? It’s that we’re trying to solve a psychological problem with a legal approach. The predominant belief in the social sciences is that prejudice exists because the majority population uses its power to create a political system that supports them and keeps weaker groups suppressed. The weaker groups are therefore victims–”the good guys”–and the powerful are the perpetrators–”the bad guys.”
A legal solution corrects this unfair situation by passing laws protecting the weaker groups and forcing the stronger to compensate them for having made them suffer. The responsibility is put solely on the powerful side – the perpetrator. No requirements are made of the weaker side since they are the innocent victims.
This legal process is essential for society. However, it is not sufficient. Laws can prevent people from acting badly, but it cannot legislate what people feel and think. Law cannot make people respect each other and want to be friends. Interpersonal relationships are a psychological function, not a legal one.
There is a fundamental difference between the legal profession and the psychological profession. In the legal view, when a crime has been committed, one side is the victim and the other side is the perpetrator. But psychology is supposed to be scientific. Science is not about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Science is about understanding objective reality, figuring out how things work, and making changes if possible.
If I am a psychotherapist and you are my client, my job is to help you figure out how you are causing and/or contributing to your problems and to lead you to a solution. If I am holding someone else responsible for your problems, how can I help you? I have to work with the other person and make them change.
On the other hand, if I am a lawyer and you are my client, my job is to hold someone else responsible for your problem and sue them and make them pay. If I am holding you responsible for your problem, I am not helping you. I am working against you. You should fire me and get yourself a good lawyer.
The legal and the psychological roles are therefore diametrically opposed. The legal profession needs clients to see themselves as victims so that someone else can be held responsible; that is how lawyers make their money. Psychology is supposed to get clients to stop seeing themselves as victims and solve their own problems.
But the legal profession has gotten increasingly involved in the mental health professions–and at our own request. For decades we have been actively lobbying for laws to protect victims from abusers and bullies. We have been fighting for laws against inequality. In essence, we have been acting as though the goals of the legal and mental health professions are identical. In reality, they are opposites.
When we combine law with science, science becomes less objective. It becomes less about understanding what is really going on and more about who is the victim and who is the abuser or perpetrator or bully. And victims, of course, are blameless. They have no responsibility to do anything about their situation since it isn’t their fault.
Furthermore, when law is combined with science, law takes over. The legal system decides what we are allowed to do and how we’re supposed to do it. If you have to make a decision between doing what you believe to be scientifically correct and doing what’s legal, you had better do the legal thing or you are going to get into trouble.
And that is what is limiting the modern approach to discrimination. We are treating the problem like a legal one, in which the victimized minority is encouraged to complain to the courts and the evil majority has to reform itself and make restitution.
Unfortunately, the legal approach doesn’t make people love each other. If I take you to court for being mean to me, is that going to make you like and respect me? Of course not! You will hate me even more and completely lose respect for me. You will also hate the legal system as well. So you will want to get back at both me and the system.
The only way to get past this brick wall is by realizing that the legal approach that puts all the responsibility on the powerful side and makes no requirement of the weaker is not going to work. If we have to wait for society to get rid of “power differentials” in order for us to be happy, we are going to be miserable forever. Only when we understand that we have something to do with our situation is there any chance of meaningfully achieving good relationships among people.