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October 3, 2013
October 3, 2013

The psychopathology of a racist

Author: Thanos Lipovats Translator: Elsa Nicolaou
Category: Antifascism
This article is also available in: eselfrsh
The psychopathology of a racist

edited by Lena Theodoropoulou

In September 1994 the Psychiatry Notebooks issued a special edition entitled ‘Fascism and Psychiatry’. The following is a summary of the article ‘Racism and Anti-Semitism’ by Thanos Lipovats in this issue.

1. The concept of ‘race’

The breed, according to its biology definition, is the variation of a species defined by a number of common distinctive genes that are reproduced hereditarily from generation to generation and whose mingling may lead to the creation of a new breed. According to the classification of human races there are about 3 Asian, 4 European and at least 10 black races. The problem with racism starts from the scientifically erroneous assumption of a “causal link” between physical and spiritual or moral characteristics of a “hierarchy” between breeds. Despite the fact that it is now scientifically proven that the skills and attributes of people are only associated with the conditions of their culture and race is defined only descriptively by physical criteria, the racist person maintains a concept of race defined by socio-cultural factors and considers the mental/moral characteristics of a group of people to be homogeneous and hereditary for all the individuals who compose it. The fact that this conviction of the racist person is based not on knowledge but on an assumption makes it almost impossible to refute them with logical arguments.

2. Biological interpretation of racism

According to the biological interpretation, aggressive rejection and fear of the other occur in all peoples, so presumably there is an aggressive ‘instinct’ in humans as in animals. In contrast to this assumption, there is the view that humans are the only species in which one person kills another without this being necessary for survival, so human aggression should be divided into two categories: instinctive reaction to an immediate life-threatening situation and the arbitrary and willful attack against other people, with no direct reason. Racist attack belongs to the second category.

3. Socio-economic interpretation

For sociologists racism is a form of ideology based on the theory of frustration, that is, a personal sense of failure that leads to the aggressive reaction against a hostile mythical object. This perception, however, cannot explain adequately why masses repeatedly espouse such ideologies and myths, as it takes no account of the unconscious, historical and cultural aspects of the phenomenon, examining racism only within the context of liberal capitalism. Introducing however the unconscious and the historical dimension to the socio-economic interpretation of racism, we see that the roots are found in the traditional society before capitalism: in slavery and the exclusion of people of other religions. This system of economic and intellectual dominance has never disappeared, but has adapted to liberal capitalism creating modern racism as an imaginary continuation of outdated relations of domination.

4. Psychological interpretation

According to psychological theory, a racist’s hate is “directly proportional” to an “inability of their ego”, i.e. a racist is a kind of neurotic person that identifies their personal integrity with that of their (national, etc.) group. Here a kind of imaginary identification functions as in the psychology of the masses. This analysis focuses on the concept of the “authoritarian personality”, the type of person who has no independent moral conscience, respects the ideals of the haves and chases power, has a defensive, unchanged stance towards everything and is possessed by thoughts of persecution, not being able to differentiate things. According to the psychology of the ego, this person must have been suppressed by their parents and unconsciously hates them, but because they cannot realise it (due to psychological censorship), is forced to turn this hatred against minorities which, being harmless and weak, are easy prey. It should, however, be noted that family and upbringing have no greater significance than socioeconomic factors, but are placed within the overall model of sovereignty and values of a society.

5. Cultural interpretation

Since Renaissance and Reformation the differences (between geographical regions, towns, guilds, professions, “hierarchical ‘honoured’ privileges”) have been disappearing, a change that had both a democratic and an individualistic character and led in part to capitalism and the industrial economy. The cultural interpretation of racism focuses on the racist’s stress by the abolition of traditional differences in a democratic society: the “democratic levelling” unconsciously entails for racists a dirty mixing of different classes, strata and groups. So they repeatedly reproduce a demagogic, racist discourse, which is always addressed to the “dissatisfied” of society beyond class distinctions. They dream not of a future, but of a past where history has turned backwards and society is structured in a Trinitarian way: charismatic leader, static hierarchy, fans.

6. Psychoanalytic interpretation

The psychoanalytic interpretation of racism is based on the development of the primordial scene and certain individuals’ inability to recognise the existence of gender differences. The primordial scene is when a very young child (1-3 years) happens to watch the intercourse of his parents or of any other people or animals, which the child does not “understand” but subsequently gives “meaning” to, associating it with an act of violence, horror and exclusion. Watching others do something incomprehensible, in which the child cannot participate, the child imagines themselves as an “abandoned scrap” of the two actors. Overcoming this fantasy also means recognition of the existence of gender differences. In contrast, the fixation on the primordial scene leads to repression of sexual difference, fetishism and misogyny because women do not respond to the fantasy of the “phallic mother”. The elimination of this symbolic gender difference leads to the creation of a myth of “pure” conception and origin, of “Immaculate conception”, where all myths of divine and pure origin stem from, like the Aryan Race etc.

Racists get kindled and fanaticised easily, because they unconsciously get sexually excited when they notice the “other”, as each different person (different from the conformism of gender and group), reminds them of what is impossible and worrying for them – the existence of (sexual) Difference. Therefore, according to psychoanalytic analysis, the racist person has been involved in an unsolved dilemma, is trapped in archaic psychic states orbiting imaginary identifications with the other, whom they cannot accept as different.

So the other has either to become “themselves” (which is impossible) or get exterminated. So the relationship with the other is paranoid and fetishistic, that is, much more alienated than hysteria or neurosis.

Instead of an epilogue

In 1994, prefacing the tribute “Fascism and Psychiatry” Katerina Matsa writes: “Fascism, racism in any form, anti-Semitism, the exclusion of symbolic difference, the exclusion of the real other becomes again a nightmare to humankind today from which we need to wake up in time.” What was updated 20 years ago now becomes imperative, so that its theoretical analysis seems like luxury. The above summary clearly constitutes a brief and incomplete recording of different readings of racism. What unites these summaries of readings is the emergence of racism as something arbitrary and unreasonable. Whether it is the denial of scientifically documented biological evolution, a distorted analysis of Darwinism, a sexual perversion or unconscious reminiscence of slavery, phobia or desperate attempt for expression and integration of a hopelessly inhibited personality, racism invariably emerges as a mistake, an unsubstantiated rant. Therefore, says Lipovats, it’s impossible to refute a racist person through logical arguments, the same way it is impossible to refute someone who sees pink elephants. The crucial question is how the absurd can be contradicted, this error that is gaining ground, removing lives, getting politicised and is openly used as a tool by those in power and the State apparatus.

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The psychopathology of a racist by Thanos Lipovats is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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