THE SUPREMACIST SYNDROME IN A NUTSHELL

by | Jul 4, 2021 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

The supremacist syndrome is an extension of generalized prejudice in which a person who is prejudiced against people from a variety of disfavored groups also has negative attitudes toward women and favors humans’ domination of all other animals and unsustainable exploitation of the environment.[1]

Initially, the term generalized prejudice referred to a person who was prejudiced toward members of several religious, racial, and ethnic groups. In a 1954 book that became a classic, Gordon Allport wrote about it, saying “If a person is anti-Jewish, he is likely to be anti-Catholic, anti-Negro, anti-any outgroup.”[2] Subsequent research has confirmed Allport’s impression and found that a common factor in the generalization of prejudice is support for a social hierarchy and the domination of “inferior” groups by a “superior” one.[3] Other studies have found that people who are prejudiced against many ethnic groups also tend to have sexist beliefs and attitudes.[4] More recent research has found that someone who supports the dominance of an elite group is more likely to believe in human supremacy[5] and humans’ domination of all other animals and the natural world.[6]

Research about the common features shared by different forms of group-based supremacism has led to discoveries about how these ideologies work. Among these insights are:

  • Dominant groups use stereotypes and other myths to establish, maintain, and promote their superiority in a social hierarchy. The myths vary from culture. For instance, Canadians who endorse group-based social inequality may believe that if indigenous Canadians are less well-off than other Canadians, it’s because they don’t work hard enough, Taiwanese may believe that the gods have favored the rich, and Israelis may believe that Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry (Mizrachim) are not as successful as those of European descent (Ashkenazim) because Mizrachim are not as intelligent as Ashkenazim.[7] These beliefs all support the idea that inequality and the privileges enjoyed by the dominant group are fair, legitimate, natural, or moral.[8]

 

  • Nationalism is a form of supremacism. Like other supremacists, nationalists believe that people from their group are superior and should be able to dominate those from other groups.[9] At times, nationalism can merge with other supremacist ideologies as happened with white nationalism in apartheid South Africa and the Nazis’ anti-Semitic ideology. Nationalist ideologies are supported by legitimizing myths that overemphasize the cultural and historical distinctiveness of the national group and its territory, exaggerate the threat posed by other groups and play down the costs of seeking national goals militarily, breeding conflict between nations.[10]

 

  • Sexism is a form of supremacism. Like ethnic, religious, and racial prejudice, negative attitudes toward women are established and maintained by stereotypes and legitimizing myths.[11] Although usually less lethal than the violence used to enforce other forms of group-based inequality, male supremacists often use violence and coercion to dominate women and secure privileges.[12] And, like racism, sexist attitudes and beliefs come in many different forms, some of which are more subtle and covert than others.[13]

 

  • The way people treat other people is often related to the way they treat animals. The link between the way people treat non-human animals and other people was first noted in the frequency with which people who were cruel to animals also engaged in domestic violence, child abuse, and other anti-social behavior.[14] Research regarding the interconnected or intersectional way different forms of supremacism are related has found that the link is broader than that. Programs that foster a realistic understanding of the natural world have led young people to have increased empathy for animals and for other people, too.[15] This may be because negative attitudes toward animals tend to go together with negative attitudes toward people from disfavored groups. Both are rooted in the supremacists’ belief that it is okay for those from a superior group to dominate their inferiors.[16] And the lesser value people give to animals also provides a foundation for human prejudice.[17]

 

  • A person’s support for dominance by a superior group can extend to support for human dominance over nature.[18] Consistent with the pattern mentioned earlier of different supremacist ideologies merging together, nationalism can merge with support for humans’ exercise of dominion over the natural world and lead someone to oppose actions to mitigate global warming because they believe they would impose unacceptable costs on their home country.[19] Donald Trump defended such inaction in 2016, saying that the Chinese were “burning everything they could burn,” which allowed them to undercut the price of products manufactured by American businesses.[20] Like other supremacist ideologies, support for humans’ ecological dominance is justified by legitimizing myths, including denials that global warming is occurring or that human activities have contributed to cause it.[21]

 

These discoveries about the interrelatedness of different forms of supremacism have made it clear that supremacist ideologies are even more dangerous than previously thought. Before that, it was known that tribalism could lead to exploitation and cycles of resistance, revenge, and retaliation that go on for generations. And that they sometimes lead to genocide. It’s clear now that those with Supremacist Syndrome can cause harms that extend beyond their most prominent prejudices, harms that are more widespread and longer-term.

 

Discoveries about how different forms of supremacism are related have also shed some light on how supremacists can be defeated. Supranational and international organizations can mitigate the harm nationalists inflict by adjudicating international disputes, mediating local conflicts, and coordinating efforts to solve problems that threaten each country but are beyond its power to solve, like pandemics, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Individuals can pitch in, too, and work with people from different groups to address issues of shared concern. And humane education programs can lead people to be more concerned about the welfare of the animals and other people, too.

[1] Akin to the concept of generalized prejudice, the supremacist syndrome can be understood as a condition of generalized supremacism in which a person believes that his or her group is an elite group superior to all others and also believes that humans are an elite species entitled to exercise dominion over the rest of the natural world.

[2]  Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Reading, Massachusetts:Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1979), 68.

[3] Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Heirarchy and Oppression (Cambridge: Cambridge Universirt Press, 1999), 84-87.

[4] Felicia Pratto et al., “Social Dominance Orientation and the Legitimization of Inequality Across Cultures,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 31 (3) (2000), 398.

[5] Kristof Dhont, Gordon Hodson, and Ana L. Leite, “Common Ideological Roots of Speciesism and Generalized Prejudice: The Social Dominance Human-Animal Relations Model (SD-HARM),” European Journal of Personality 30 (2016), 517.

[6] Taciano Lemos Milfont et al., “Environmental Consequences of the Desire to Dominate and Be Superior,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39 (9) (2013), 1134.

[7] Pratto et al., “Social Dominance Orientation and the Legitimization of Inequality Across Cultures,” 377-389.

[8] Felicia Pratto, Jim Sidanius, and Shana Levin, “Social Dominance Theory and the Dynamics of Intergroup Relations:Taking Stock and Looking Forward,” European Review of Social Psychology 17 (2006), 275-276.

[9] For our purposes, nationalism is defined as a form of national identity in which people believe that the country where they live is superior to all other countries and should be able to dominate them. See Danny Osborne, Petar Milojev, and Chris G. Sibley, “Authoritarianism and National Identity: Examining the Longitudinal Effects of SDO and RWA on Nationalism and Patriotism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43 (2017), 1036

[10] Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine, “Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas,” International Security 21 (2) (1996), 11.

[11] Pratto et al., “Social Dominance Orientation and the Legitimization of Inequality Across Cultures,” 398.

[12] Pratto, Sidanius, and Levin, Social Dominance Theory and the Dynamics of Intergroup Relations:Taking Stock and Looking Forward,” 274; See Heidi Stöckl et al., “Intimate Partner Violence Among Adolescents and Young Women: Prevalence and Associated Factors in Nine Countries: A Cross-Sectional Study,” Public Health 14 (2014), 751-765.

[13] Janet K. Swim et al., “Sexism and Racism: Old Fashioned and Modern Prejudices,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68 (2) (1995), 199-214.

[14] Frank R. Ascione and Phil Arkow, editors, Child Abuse, Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention, (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1999).

[15] Lynne M. Jackson, The Psychology of Prejudice: From Attitudes to Social Action, 2nd edition, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2020), 201.

[16] Ibid., 199.

[17] Ibid., 190.

[18] Taciano L. Milfont et al., “Environmental Consequences of the Desire to Dominate and Be Superior,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39 (9) (2013), 1135.

[19] Patrick Devine-Wright, Jennifer Price, and Zoe Leviston, “My Country or My  Planet? Exploring the Influence of Multiple Place Attachments and Ideological Beliefs Upon Climate Change Attitudes and Opinions,” Global Environmental Change 30 (2015), 76.

[20] Colin Campbell, “Trump: I was joking when I said the Chinese ‘created’ the concept of climate change,”  Business Insider (January 18, 2016) accessed on April 20, 2021 at https:// https://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-china-created-climate-change-2016-1

[21] Kirsti M. Jylhä and Nazar Akrami, “Social Dominance Orientation and Climate Change Denial: The Role of Dominance and System Justification,” Personality and Individual Differences  86 (2015), 110-111.