Inventing a New Sin: Personalism
I wrote this essay about compassion in 1975 at age 23. I was looking through old writing today and decided to post it, though it hasn’t much to do with Thanksgiving.
I still stand behind its spirit and intent and admire its earnestness and idealism.
I’m sorry to say that Dwayne was not a friend of mine. In fact, I doubt whether he had any friends. He was in the Monroney Junior High School Band with me, though I can’t recall what instrument he played. I do remember that he was very short, looked years younger than his age, and that he cried a lot. It was considered good sport by some to taunt him into a blubbering rage.
I don’t remember participating directly in hostilities toward him, but I smiled indulgently whenever I heard that he was crying again. After all, he was an immature crybaby who played only with elementary school kids, so he should expect to be teased.
I moved to a different area and school and when I returned three years later was informed that Dwayne had joined the Marines. Dwayne in the Marines, we all thought that was pretty funny. The next news I heard of him, two years later, was not so humorous. Dwayne was in jail. He had forced a car off the road and raped the woman driving it.
That news troubled me. As an aware young liberal I believed that crime was often a reaction to an oppressive environment, but up until this that idea had always been remote and stereotyped – an economically oppressed person holding up a store to keep from starving. I saw that Dwayne’s crime was a reaction to the particular oppression of his environment; he had been emotionally scarred, systematically denied friendship, and to keep from emotional starvation had tried to steal some love. I saw that I had been a part of the oppressive social environment that had driven him to make his desperate bid for intimacy.
Being a nice person, I didn’t like to think of myself as an oppressor. Why, then, hadn’t I befriended Dwayne, something he so obviously needed? Easily answered, he was not what one looked for in a friend; he was immature, strange, and unhappy, and anyone who befriended or even showed kindness to him risked becoming an outcast for associating with a person who everyone considered an asshole. Basically, Dwayne had no friends because his personality and other personal attributes were socially unacceptable. How had he become so different from the rest of us?
First, how is it that most of us stay on good terms with our peer group? A person in frequent friendly contact with others tends to improve his or her social skills and so remain acceptable to his age group as it matures. In contrast with this benevolent cycle of growth is Dwayne’s vicious cycle which inflated an early difficulty in socialization into a tragic crime. Dwayne’s initial socialization problem was probably due to personal troubles caused by being an orphan who was adopted late. His early unpopularity denied him the friendly social interaction that would have allowed him to develop the social skills that make one acceptable to one’s peers, and lacking which he remained unpopular. On top of this lack of social skills were the problems of loneliness, low self-esteem, and constant overt harassment by the more insensitive around him. His environment was overwhelmingly oppressive. In fact, he was as oppressed because of his personal characteristics as any human has ever been because of race, or any woman because of sex.
Dwayne’ s oppression is not unique; it is but an extreme example of a destructive element of our social system that touches us all. Dwayne was judged to be inferior and so excluded mainly because of his unacceptable personality, though no one really knew him. Whenever one person forms a poor opinion of another based on superficial knowledge much the same social mechanism is at work. Judgment based on insufficient evidence is called prejudice, and there is a prejudice based on personal characteristics, mental and physical, just as real and destructive as our prejudices based on race and gender. We are all familiar with racism and sexism, but most are unaware of personalism.
A technique often used to make people more aware of sexism is to draw parallels between it and racism, and in the same way it is useful to compare personalism with racism and sexism. The first similarity that hit me was that each prejudice has its own vocabulary of abuse: racism — nigger, wop, honky, etc.; sexism — chick, bitch, piece, etc.; and personalism — asshole, jerk, fuckhead, creep, bastard, etc. These terms serve to make an object of their target so as to obscure that person’s humanity.
Another parallel between the three prejudices is that they are learned, no matter how “natural” they might seem. In much the same way that one learns that members of certain races are inferior, and that each sex has its own limited role, one also learns that certain types of personalities and physiognomies are inferior. The three prejudices vary from culture to culture; sexual roles and the races considered inferior differ in each society, as do standards for judging personality and beauty.
Personalism, like sexism and racism, fosters a feeling of superiority in the prejudiced by labeling some people as inferior. And, most heartening of all the similarities between these three prejudices, there have always been some people immune to them: non-racist whites working for civil rights, non-sexist men working for female suffrage, and there can be no more profoundly non-personalist statement than Will Rogers’ “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
This statement is a good introduction to how personalism works in practice, for, as hate to racism and condescension to sexism, dislike is the active tool of personalism. (Dislike – not to like, “like” having a very revealing similarity to “to be like”.)
The criteria used for choosing who to dislike are much more complex than simply discerning the openly apparent signs of race or sex. Some “reasons” for disliking a person are his: intellect, too much or too little; opinions; dress; habits of speech; way with money; friends; moodiness; height; etc. There are limits on just about every personal attribute, to overstep which invites rejection, aversion, dislike.
Most of us are careful to conceal our socially unacceptable characteristics except from those who already like us, but there are those who won’t or can’t or are only partially successful in their attempt to hide their “defects”. Other more subjective “reasons” for disliking a person are; hearing bad things about him; meeting her under unpleasant circumstances; his possession of traits one dislikes in oneself; embarrassing oneself before her; feeling inadequate in his company. Yet all these subjective causes of dislike are usually ascribed to shortcomings in the other.
One would think that if a valuation of another person had to be made at all, it would be undertaken only after careful and unhurried deliberation. In fact, though, it is common practice to form an opinion of another quickly after very limited and superficial interaction, which is characteristic of all forms of prejudice. The way we judge people is so culturally defined, subjective, and done in such a haphazard manner that it is objectively meaningless.
As prejudice is always disruptive to communication between people, blinding one to the complete and complex humanity of another by focusing attention on a fragment of her whole, dislike is a barrier between humans. You can never really know a person unless you like him, for only to a friend can a person reveal herself without fear.
Dislike feeds itself, rejecting that which would tend to undermine it; any action performed by someone we dislike usually tends to confirm our low opinion of him, though the same act done by a friend might be interpreted favorably or laughed off. Once dislike enters a human relationship it distorts all interaction and communication. Once A begins to dislike B he notices mainly B’s unacceptable characteristics, ignoring attributes he might admire in another. B soon notices A’s attitude towards him and this alters his behavior around A, confirming A’s low opinion of him. B resents A’s attitude, begins to notice A’s disagreeable features, and soon they dislike each other equally, effectively shutting down any meaningful communication between them.
A person can’t really know someone she dislikes, and it also seems that one can’t really dislike someone she knows. Intimate knowledge of another person, no matter what “defects” he might have, leads to a sympathetic understanding of his problems and a diminished awareness of his departures from our culture’s ideals of personality and beauty. Most people have at least a few friends who they know well enough to overlook characteristics that might be reasons for disliking a stranger. And we don’t dislike the mentally ill and the cognitively handicapped, though they have in abundance the characteristics that in small quantities might inspire dislike, for our sympathies are engaged and we wonder not what we can do to avoid the person, but what can be done to help them.
Surely the most important consideration, as it is with racism and sexism, is whether getting rid of the prejudice might be a good thing, for both the prejudiced and the oppressed. Personalism is as damaging to everyone involved as are racism and sexism. A person who is rejected, to whatever degree, feels hurt by the rejection and tends to be less open for fear of further rejection. Continuous personal rejection can aggravate personal problems. The use of personalize standards in relating to others encourages a lack of empathy and even cruelty.
Personalism disrupts interpersonal communications, contributes to the tension in our society, and fosters unhappiness. It is an unkind method of dealing with others.
What, then, would be the consequences if personalism were eliminated? People would be respected no matter what their problems and would have a greater opportunity to work out their difficulties through friendly, supportive interaction and communication without fear of rejection. Cruelty would be reduced because it would be harder for a person to think of another as an object. Getting rid of personal prejudice would not mean that everybody would have to be best friends; attraction and shared experiences and interests would still be necessary to establish a really close relationship. Personal differences from the norm would be not only tolerated but welcome, further encouraging interpersonal openness. The heavily judgmental nature of our present social environment, in which some are treated as if they were less than fellow humans, would be transformed into an environment of mutual respect and empathy. Personalism is a relationship of human surfaces, empathy is the relationship of human centers.
What this transformation would take would be a large change in our motives for relating to others. Right now we are friendly toward those who make us feel good, those whose company is prestigious, and those whose friendship might be useful to us, all relatively self-centered motives, as well as toward those with unacceptable characteristics who we know well and sympathize with. We can internalize and use the fact the that friendly interaction can help a troubled person deal with his problems; respecting outcasts purely because kindness is a generous and helpful way of treating any person.
Dislike is destructive; being friendly toward someone can be more than a matter of attraction; it can be a constructive effort to help him grow. Friendly social interaction is the most effective preventative therapy.
In talking of the destruction and oppression caused by personalism my purpose has not been to promote guilt for damage already done, but to promote awareness of the nature and consequences of our behavior by providing a new and useful analysis of our social system in hopes of encouraging benevolent change. The ideas basic to this analysis are not new or original, but as ancient as the golden rule and the injunction to love your enemy, as widespread as “I’m OK, You’re OK” and modern schools [ed: 1975] of humanist psychology.
Perhaps the most useful aspect of the idea of personalism is its timeliness. It capitalizes on our present heightened awareness of racism and sexism by drawing parallels with them and using similar arguments – extends that awareness to include a prejudice until now unlabeled as such, and it may be able to draw on the same idealistic hope that motivates those who work against racial and sexual prejudice, the hope that all people will be happier when we eradicate destructive prejudice.
Only through awareness can personalism, or any prejudice, be attacked. With personalism it will have to be the aware, rather than the oppressed, that lead the effort to spread awareness, for at present the prejudice is so great that the assholes, the jerks, and the unpopular are most probably not going to organize to point out the injustice of their situation as women and blacks have done.
During the time I was writing this essay I came across a penetrating portrait of a victim of personalism in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (Scribner’s, 1929). In his description of a schoolboy, Edward Michalove, fictional counterpart of Dwayne, he shows remarkable insight into the destructive processes of extreme personalism:
At twelve he was a tall slender lad, with dark amber features, and the mincing effeminacy of an old maid. He was terrified in the company of other boys, all that was sharp, spinsterly and venomous, would come protectively to the surface when he was ridiculed or threatened, and he would burst into shrill unpleasant laughter, or hysterical tears. His mincing walk with the constant gesture of catching maidenly at the fringe of his coat as he walked along, his high husky voice, with a voluptuous and feminine current playing through it drew upon him at once the terrible battery of their dislike. They called him “Miss” Michalove; they badgered him into a state of constant hysteria until he became an unpleasant snarling little cat, holding up his small clawed hands to scratch them with his long nails whenever they approached, they made him detestable, master and boy alike, and they hated him for what they made of him.
2011: I still fight personalism when I come upon it. I refuse to let people call another “asshole” in my presence any more than I tolerate someone saying “nigger” to insult another.
The recent movement to stop school bullying is encouraging.
Every living thing is holy. Especially holy are sentient beings.
This world is more than enough for us to appreciate in our brief lives and we are blessed to experience what portion we do.
Love is the only reasonable goal.