Horizontal versus Vertical Bigotry (somewhat revised but on point)

The national discussion about racism occasioned by Paul Henry’s ill-considered remarks have given me pause for reflection on the nature of bigotry. Although I claim no professional competence in the field, I offer the following by way of discussion points on theme.

Bigotry is the visceral attribution of negative traits to groups and individuals based on innate features, or the attribution of individual traits to perceptions of collective behaviour.  Most often, it is opprobrium directed at people for who they are rather than what they do. Racism is just one form of bigotry, which covers ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, sexual orientation, mental state, physical handicap and other physical or cultural characteristics. It also has an economic component, as evident in the animosity between rich and working class beyond their often antagonistic positions within production. It can work deductively, where traits collectively ascribed to particular groups are attributed to all individuals in that group (e.g. all Latinos are lazy or take siestas, or all Jews are Zionist money-grubbers). It also works inductively, where individual behaviour or attributes are assigned to a whole group (e.g., I was cheated by a Chinese person so all Chinese must be cheats. Or, Chris Carter is a troughing, entitlement-addicted vindictive gay MP so all other gay MPs are the same.  Or better yet, because some Muslims are terrorists, all Muslims are (potential) terrorists). Above all, it is an expression of irrational fear and distrust of “otherness” phrased as negative stereotyping that can or cannot be rooted in a sense of historical grievance or sense of superiority.

Vertical bigotry is located in social hierarchy.Often rooted in socioeconomic class status but generally based on the social dominance of some groups over others, it is the attribution of negative traits to groups located below or above a particular reference group in the social hierarchy. Although most often visible in dominant group contempt for subordinate group characteristics, it is also evident in the contempt of subordinate groups for their dominators. One example of the latter is the general resentment of some members of indigenous groups towards descendants of colonial occupiers, be these Spanish, English, German, French, Portuguese or Dutch, and the attribution by these indigenous actors of collective guilt and attitudes on the part of colonial descendants. On the other hand, and much more prevalent, is the attitude of contempt of dominant groups towards subordinate groups and the attribution of negative cultural traits  to them (e.g. laziness, backwardness, savagery, etc.). 

There is more to the picture of vertical dimension of bigotry, but the point is that it is a two-way street, however asymmetrical the flow of bigotry may be, between dominant and subordinate groups in society. This is as true for capitalist as it is for non-capitalist societies (for example, Burmese treatment of ethnic minorities today or Chinese treatment of non-Han before and after the transition to capitalism), although capitalism tends to reinforce the non-economic stratification of society and the vertical bigotry that comes with it. What is important to note is that, contrary to the claims by some that subordinate groups cannot be racist or bigoted because they are historical victims of oppression, my view is that both dominant  and subordinate groups are quite capable of bigotry. Blaming historical oppression for “reverse racism” is just an excuse for but not a negation of it. Being justifiably aggrieved does not justify being bigoted.

Horizontal bigotry, in contrast, is the negative stereotyping between economically or socially similar groups. As classic case is the traditional loathing of Jews amongst Catholic and Protestant elites in Europe and North America, in which relative economic status of Jews did and does not preclude the use of pejoratives by Christian elites to characterise Jewish culture and modes of social interaction. Another example would be the animosity felt towards Europeans (read: whites) by Asian elites in a variety of countries, even though Europeans have been instrumental in the rise of the Asian “dragons.” Although this Anglophobic loathing may have its origins in 19th and 20th century Western imperialism, it defies the current state of global economic and political affairs, which has seen a reversion of the historical model and the evening of the socio-economic, cultural and political playing field between East and West. And yet it persists: whites are loud, hairy, dirty, smelly, promiscuous drunkards with a penchant for fighting (it would be tempting to insert some wisecrack about Ozzies or Poms here but I shall desist).

This form of bigotry is not confined to elites. Consider the animosity between African-Americans and Latinos (particularly Mexicans and Cubans) in the US, or the mutual prejudices of Maori and Pacific Islanders in NZ. Although it may be the case that such horizontal bigotry is not a generalised sentiment in any of these populations, it should be recognised that it does in fact exist, and by the mere fact of its existence it reinforces and perpetuates the vertical dimension of bigotry that serves as a non-structural barrier to subordinate group advancement in society. And here again, it demonstrates that members of historically subordinate groups can and are often bigoted in their approaches to others, including members of other subordinate groups as well as the descendants of their common historical oppressors.

Less readers think otherwise, I am not saying that any one group is more prone to bigotry than others, although that may be a valid point of discussion. Nor am I attributing bigotry to the majority of any one group, although it is clear that in some instances whole populations are socialised with primordial hatred of targeted out-groups regardless of the historical record between them. Finally, I do not equate bigotry with good natured yet sharp comedic parody, self-deprecation or barbed humour. For me, bigotry involves malice and malice posing as “humour” is what Paul Henry was expressing  when he made his disparaging remarks about a number of people or groups (including Mexicans, as it turns out) during the course of  his tenure on Breakfast.

Which brings up a very thorny question. Could it not be that Mr. Henry’s remarks evidence his anxiety about the vertical dimension of  NZ  bigotry becoming a horizontal contest of bigoted equals?

In any event, what I have merely tried  to do here is clarify my thoughts on the subject in light of my observations and experience in the hope that it serves as food for thought for those who may interested in such things.

7 thoughts on “Horizontal versus Vertical Bigotry (somewhat revised but on point)

  1. You would benefit from reading Jared Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel. In addition Bernstein – How Trade shaped the world.

    I respect the Northern European and Chinese propensity for hard work. That stems from a climate history whereby you work hard to store food or you die when food is unavailable. In contrast abundant food and a temperate climate meant that Polynesians did not need to work as hard to survive.

    Does recognising those geographically based impacts on culture make me a bigot?

    Does respecting the positive aspects of a culture make me a bigot? Is it bigotry to generalise on the basis of evolved historical fact?

    The Western desire for Chinese silk and porcelain lead directly to the Opium wars. There was no other way to pay China as it had limited demand for what it considered to be inferior Western goods. That increased anglophobic loathing but was certainly not the origin. The origins lie much deeper in the development of an attitude of superior Chinese civilisation and the later recognition that its isolation had caused it to fall behind the rest of the world.

    The antipathy towards Jews is still embedded in Catholic doctrine that is repeated every Sunday is churches around the world. Historic bans on landowning and being part of the aristocracy turned Jews towards transportable skills like education and financial services.

    Generalisation allows us to make decisions more quickly. It does not make us right all of the time but it does not necessarily make us bigots.

    Paul Henry is an entertainer playing to an audience. Nothing more and nothing less. There is no political significance to his actions despite what some might say. There is a peculiarly destructive liberal angst that recognises only Western flaws and indulges in a kind of guilt ridden self flagellation.

    Our Western culture of capitalism democracy and tolerance is superior because it recognises and emppowers so much individual self determination.

    The impact of that self flagellation is both positive and negative. It reinforces our tolerance but it also makes us weaker in the eyes of those who disagree with us. The discussion and condemnation of bigotry is simply one example of that.

  2. Phil, if you dig a little deeper into the fields Diamond touches on, like anthropology and geography and the sociology of technological advancement, you’ll find that his rendition of the material is a little bit … shall we say, simplistic. And often quoted in the sort of self-congratulatory tone you remark upon by old-fashioned essentialists looking to rationalise their dominance in terms more complex than, “we’re just better”, but who ultimately mean just that.

    (Haven’t read the other chap so I can’t comment on him.)


  3. Geez Phil.

    You strike me as a smart and fair conservative, but now you are giving me the “warm port/tropical versus temperate climate/opium war theory of bigotry? Talk about canards!

    BTW, since you are into book of the month recommendations, let me just suggest that you look up two phrases: “Kalman Silvert” and “Mediterranean (or Iberian) Ethos.” Diamond is not original or innovative in his views.

    Above all, I think that you missed my point. Bigotry has two dimensions, is fueled by malice born of irrational fear or a sense of superiority that may or may not have to do with historical grievance, and is common to both dominant and subordinate groups. End of story.

  4. Paul Henry is not simply an entertainer – he was a former candidate for the National Party in an election.

    This reeks of “Orewa” politics.

    This was about identity politics – Henry was being a white male mate of the PM and the inference that was that after the past two GG’s (a woman and a man of non European immigrant origin), it was the turn of a white (National Party) man like themselves.

    The political concept that white men (and the establishment represented by the National Party) are the natural and proper leaders of the country was being stated between mates …

    Looking and sounding like them, meant of course being a GG (white male) chosen by a National government and refecting the sort of people that once led an empire over locals (Maori and immigrants such as Indians).

    It was pre bi-cultural nation New Zealand (where the Treaty was taken seriously) and pre multi-cultural society New Zealand.

    The whole point about the dog whistle identity politics is how very Tea Party it is – how much it is of recent trends in American politics. Which is why, while so many are offended, it has nascent appeal to the right wing establishment that uses prejudice (divide and conquer politics) against minorities to manage the electorate.

    It is linked to the whole “war against terrorism as a defence of the West against an external threat to our society” meme. The need to defend western society against “them” becoming a call for a nationalist revival as a war time call for unity of the Western European peoples. When identity and security become connected, inter-group conflict is exploited for political purposes.

    Thus what Henry was doing is linked to political developments in Europe and the USA of late, it’s about the political right exploiting identity and difference to remain relevant while western capitalism is in crisis.

  5. There is no political significance to his actions

    absolutely spiffing! interviewing the PM on breakfast television and asking him, in a discussion about his choice of the next GG, whether he would choose someone who “looks like a real NZer”, is oh so apolitical. how could it possibly be any other way? eh, what-oh. i say. oh, such entertainment! more bread and circuses! bravo, chaps. what.

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