Dr Glenn McLaren


Whenever I think of racism I think of insecurity. We all battle with our insecurities. For some of us they are debilitating and prevent us from realizing our potential. For others, they can be highly motivating as weaknesses to be overcome. But I am thinking in particular, of the type of insecurity which engenders arrogance.

There was an arrogance about the police officer who killed George Floyd, as well as those who watched on without intervening. There was a sense in which they felt empowered to do whatever they wanted, to whoever they wanted, without impunity. I wonder if they were actually shocked when they were eventually charged in connection to the murder. I suspect, however, that the expression of absolute power that we saw from these police officers masked a deeper expression of their own fears and insecurities; the types of insecurities that have been so destructive in human history.

Some good research has been done by psychology on the nature of insecurity and its links to arrogance. It has also been a particular focus of my own research. Psychology has long been divided on what it can control and what it cannot. British psychologist, Steve Taylor, in an article in Psychology Today titled, ‘The Psychology of Racism’, in which he argues that racism is a sign of a lack of psychological maturity and integration, reveals this divide.

Taylor begins his article by questioning the views from Evolutionary Psychology that we are genetically hardwired to be racist due to it having a survival advantage. Evolutionary Psychology has a history of justifying all sorts of uncivilized behaviours on the grounds that they enhanced our reproductive success. The field has come under criticism for making up stories about the past based on their own prejudices. Their main problem however, is that they tend to be deterministic in arguing for behaviours and psychological structures that we have no ability to change.

Alternatively, Taylor argues that racism is rooted in psychological traits that we do have some agency over; that we can change. But then, Taylor has no deeper historical explanation of how these traits emerged and developed, but like much of psychology, is more focused on what presents to him now. My view is that the truth lies in understanding the relationship between both and it is those who dogmatically entrench themselves in one view or the other, who provide an insight into the nature of racism and its link to insecurity.

Taylor theorizes that racism is a defence mechanism generated by feelings of insecurity and anxiety. He identifies this with Terror Management Theory in psychology which looks at our responses to confronting reality and its disturbing truths, such as our mortality. He argues that: ‘Research has shown that when people are given reminders of their own mortality, they feel a sense of anxiety and insecurity, which they respond to by becoming more prone to status-seeking, materialism, greed, prejudice, and aggression.’

According to this theory, there are five stages we can move through which become more and more extreme. First, we address our insecurity by seeking to become part of something bigger than ourselves; become part of a bigger story that extends beyond our own lives that gives us an identity and meaning. As the philosopher, Georg Hegel put it, to overcome our finitude we need to become part of the infinite. This is a positive move in helping overcome insecurity, but it can lead to a second stage in which your strong identification with the one group or institution which helped you leads to enmity towards others. Further development of this enmity can then lead to a third stage in which empathy is withdrawn from other groups; where cruelty and violence towards others can be justified from within your group. This can then escalate to a fourth stage where others are homogenized; where individuality is dissolved into generalized prejudices and assumptions.

It is in the fifth stage, which Taylor describes as the most dangerous and destructive, where problems of arrogance, narcissism and paranoia emerge. Here we see such psychological flaws and personal failings being projected onto others. As Taylor says:

Other groups become scapegoats, and consequently are liable to be punished, even attacked or murdered, in revenge for their alleged crimes. Individuals with strong narcissistic and paranoid personality traits are especially prone to this strategy, since they are unable to admit to any personal faults, and are especially likely to demonize others.

What Taylor is describing is a process in which our efforts to address our insecurities can lead us to some dark places. It is probably fair to say also, that there are complex evolutionary and genetic factors that make some more susceptible to getting to stage five than others. But Taylor’s main point is to say that we are not all pre-determined to be racists. Those who are psychologically healthy, as he describes it; ‘having a stable sense of self and strong inner security’, are generally not racist.

Now you don’t have to be a psychologist to observe that this is not Donald Trump. Trump’s latest efforts in dealing with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, reveal further evidence of his narcissism, growing paranoia and arrogance; a classic stage five. In fact, if you follow Taylor’s logic, then Trump being in stage 5 makes him racist by definition. But it is not only other races that threaten Trump’s defence mechanisms that protect him from his own well-documented insecurities and fragile sense of self, it can be any adult in the room who reminds him of his inherent weaknesses. This is where so much of the danger and instability lies in having someone like this in a position of power.

With this understanding, the development of a stable sense of self and strong inner security should be the first pre-requisite for anyone being elevated to positions of power. Looking at many of our world leaders at the moment, our global failure in this regard should be a primary concern. But the problem of insecurity is not a recent discovery by psychology, even though they may claim it to be. It has been a core problem in philosophy for thousands of years and philosophy itself has fallen prey to destructive narcissists.

Insecurities in philosophy manifest themselves in those thinkers, many of them revered, who have feared openness and complexity and have sought to over-simplify reality in ways that make it more controllable. The analytical tradition in philosophy is mainly responsible for this led by that famous narcissist, Rene Descartes, whose dualism and mathematization of reality set back our understanding for centuries. In the 20th Century, philosophy was poisoned by the arrogance and insecurity of analytical philosopher, Gilbert Ryle.

Ray Monk, in an article titled, How the untimely death of R G Collingwood changed the course of philosophy forever, tells the story of how the premature death in 1943 of one of British philosophy’s most open and eclectic thinkers, Robin Collingwood, opened the door for Gilbert Ryle to succeed him and take his highly influential chair at Oxford University. Over the following decades, Ryle proceeded to become the Generalissimo of British philosophy, by strictly determining and controlling its narrow analytical course and rejecting more complex, holistic approaches to philosophy such as those from the Continental Schools. Just as Trump’s insecurities have diminished the reputation of the United States, Ryle’s insecurities and need for strict control, have diminished the reputation and status of philosophy right up to the present.

Ignoring the destructive distractions of those such as Descartes and Ryle, the major story of philosophy has been its goal to teach us to overcome our fears and insecurities and feel at home in the universe. My main purpose as a teacher of philosophy is to develop the strength and understanding in my students and help them develop humility and overcome the insecurities driving their arrogance and anxiety. This involves taking them to the first stage of understanding themselves as part of something bigger, but then further expanding their worlds rather than reducing them to one that is against the rest. This is how you avoid the spiral down to stage five.

My method is to teach dialectical thinking which is triadic rather than dualistic. Dualism can lead to monological thinking where deduction can eliminate one side leaving just one true position which is in opposition to all others, which are false. In dialectical thinking, I encourage students to understand the relationships between opposing views which can be synthesized to generate new triadic relationships. The focus is on understanding reality, not by process of elimination as in analytical philosophy, but through creating further relationships. This also creates the often uncomfortable and empathetic realization that their thinking is not as far removed from opposing views as they think and that opposing views often express aspects of their own complex character.

As an exercise, I will put an iphone on the desk and ask students to tell me what it is. In analytical philosophy the perfect answer would be to deduce that an iphone is an iphone (it is, what it is). No poets these analytical philosophers. My students, however, will identify multitudes of relationships. An iphone is this and this and also that, in a seemingly endless play of creativity. What this teaches them is that nothing is just simply what it is. Everything is always so much more and often beyond our capacity to express in language.

For insecure control freaks, this is very confronting and some can choose to slip back into their comfortable narrow spaces as a defence (such as the Whitehouse Bunker). But in my experience, more often than not, this revelation of the vast complexity of reality generates curiosity and a willingness to take on the challenge of exploring broader horizons. By taking on this challenge, students begin to question their ignorance and feel more at home within a multiplicity of larger worlds, from communities to nation states to the human race to Gaia and eventually to the universe. A sense of humility in the face of this becomes the condition for creating a sense of self strong and stable enough to appreciate the complexity, uncertainty and diversity that are the conditions for healthy life.

This, I believe, is how we deal with racism. I would like to think that my students are able to appreciate that George Floyd is so much more than his murderers believed. That by expanding their worlds and feeling at home in the universe, they have developed the understanding and humility to appreciate that the George Floyds of the world have value as complex, living communities of relationships within multiple other communities of relationships, including theirs and not just, as seen by the insecure, a threat to white supremacy.

Image credit: Pug50 via flickr

About The Author

Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.