In Practice

A practicing doctor's views on psychiatry and contemporary culture.

Racism, Politics, and the Unconscious

Unconscious prejudice, or imprudent outburst?
Shankar Vedantam
This post is a response to George Allen's "macaca" moment: Does he deserve censure or compassion? by Shankar Vedantam

macacaClearly consciousness is layered. But not every thought we might want to disown occurs outside awareness.

On his Web site and here at PT, journalist Shankar Vedantam responds to points made in my recent review in the Washington Post of his book, The Hidden Brain. I put a good deal of thought into that essay, trying to focus it on changes in our perceptions of the unconscious and in our assessments of bias and prejudice. I hope that Vedantam finds the review fair and considered.

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You will need to read both essays for this comment to make sense, but I would distinguish between lack of intention and lack of awareness. Former senator George Allen may have made his 'macaca' comment impulsively; outbursts are like that. Nonetheless, the insult might have been preceded or accompanied by his thinking something like, "Why that rude little foreign twerp!" It's not that Allan wanted to come out with just what he said, but he was inclined to make fun of his opponent's representative; and Allen may have perceived that he was in front of a home crowd, not averse to xenophobia. The outburst was not deliberate, but is the prejudice therefore necessarily unconscious? Would we be altogether surprised were we to learn that Allen had on occasion said yet worse over drinks in a small, friendly guy group? To put the matter more kindly: might Allen be aware but not always proud of his tendency sometimes to consider native-born Americans superior?

I respond in this way not because Vedantam is necessarily mistaken. In any given instance, the line of speculation that he engages in may prove right. My point is that it is hard to know just where speech acts originate and that we are often wrong (certainly psychiatrists and psychologists have often been proved wrong) about the nature and content of the unconscious. My second, and secondary, point, elaborated in the review, is that Republicans have used bias too persistently, as a political tool, to be given a quick pass when they misstep in that very direction, toward the denigration of minorities and outsiders.

Peter D. Kramer is a psychiatrist and author. His books include Against Depression and Listening to Prozac.

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