Interview with Wilhelm Heitmeyer on his project “Group-oriented Misanthropy”

[Does the social division of society produce misanthropic behavior? The Bielefeld sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer has focused on this question in his ten-year research project. E & W spoke with the scholar about his approach and the findings. This interview is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, ]

E & W: Mr. Heitmeyer, what has motivated you in this ten-year project?

Wilhelm Heitmeyer: Problematic attitudes toward ethnic, religious and social minorities in the population refer to certain groups – for example foreigners or homosexuals. There is a model of devaluation and discrimination toward different groups. This model can be transferred demagogically from one group to another. Our research highlights these connections.

E & W: What developments have occurred in relation to hostility to foreigners, anti-Semitism and racism?

Heitmeyer: There are inconsistent developments. For example, the classical pattern of racism decreases, the blood-and-soil ideology. Hostility to foreigners and discrimination against the homeless increase. Hostility to foreigners is measured on the background of the competitive situation for German employers. Thought-patterns like “send foreigners back when there are not enough jobs” increase.

E & W: What about anti-Semitism?

Heitmeyer: The classical forms of anti-Semitism have leveled out for years. We analyze new facets of anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitic remarks are publically transported on the roundabout way of criticism of Israel’s policy is an important discovery. This should not be misunderstood. Criticism of Israeli policy is not inevitably anti-Semitic. Nevertheless 51 percent of the interviewed compare Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians with the Nazi policy in the Third Reich toward Jews.

E & W: You have two great models for your research – Theodor W. Adorno’s study on the “authoritarian character” and Pierre Bourdieux’ “Misery of the World.” Bourdieux shows the suffering of individuals in the daily routine. What have you discovered?

Heitmeyer: We describe the development in society in a time period of ten years. Every year we interview 3000 representatively chosen persons and analyze how social disintegration affects the devaluation of groups. Fears of descent and the experience that many are similarly immobilized can intensify group-oriented misanthropy.

E & W: What is the intention of your project?

Heitmeyer: A self-reflection should be initiated in society about the inner constitution. Attention and sensitivity should be focused on the conditions of exclusion and discrimination before a chain of violent incursions takes place.

E & W: How do behavioral patterns of devaluation toward others arise out of hostile stereotypes?

Heitmeyer: First of all, attitudes like hostility to foreigners and anti-Semitism have a common core, the ideology of human inequality. From this core, parts of society – like the extreme rightwing – devalue others. In their basic model, anti-Semitism and hostility to foreigners are more closely connected than anti-Semitism and sexism. However all these phenomena in their basic models form a syndrome of devaluation processes violating the integrity of others. At the end, physical and psychic inviolability cannot be guaranteed any more.

E & W: Your theoretical approach is that of disintegration. What causes disintegration?

Heitmeyer: Disintegration has three central dimensions and starts when access to the functioning systems of this society becomes unstable. Secondly, people feel politically powerless and without influence in negotiating basic political norms like fairness, solidarity and justice. Thirdly, the subjective sense of stable social interdependence decreases. When emotional support and material security are endangered, people’s inner and outer orientations turn out negative. Through feelings or experiences of their own devaluation, they no longer feel committed to the basic norms like the equal worth and inviolability of people. The devaluation of others, especially weak groups, serves their own self-upgrading, the maintenance of their own positive self-esteem.

E & W: When does devaluation capsize in hostility to foreigners and racism?

Heitmeyer: On one side, there are fears or experiences of descent and on the other side models of discrimination already present in society and usually mediated by elites. To youth, models of hostility to foreigners are false and misleading. When age groups are compared in our research, many symptoms like anti-Semitism are much more strongly present with the older or middle generation than with the younger. Discriminating models are revived again and again.

E & W: Can you give an example?

Heitmeyer: One example is the term parallel society widely discussed in the supra-regional daily papers. The problems of migrants in integrating themselves are made a culpable reproach to them through this term – without adequately naming the social barriers. New hostile attitudes toward immigrants can develop from this term in parts of society.

E & W: Isn’t the environment’s reaction to these devaluations the problem?

Heitmeyer: Yes. Immediately opposing the devaluation models is important. This is more difficult the more homogeneous are the circles of acquaintances and friends and the more homogeneous are certain mentalities in a village or small town. Opposing the majority opinion of one’s social environment is much harder for the individual.

E & W: Let me pick out two case studies from your research. The first is the murder of a 16 year-old youth who was “made a Jew” by other youths in the village of Potzlow in Uckermark – although he wasn’t a Jew – mistreated and afterwards brutally murdered. This crime was only discovered through an accident. The village tried to cover up the murderous act. A second example is the expulsion of a Jewish merchant in Berlin. After opening a kosher shop, he could not remain in Germany on account of anti-Semitic attacks. These are examples of emotional and moral brutalization. Are they already normalities in Germany?

Heitmeyer: These thought- and behavioral patterns thrive in homogeneous contexts where no conflicts occur any more. For example, we must look closely at small East German towns or villages where high-achievers increase migrate. A downward social spiral can arise. The social conditions become increasingly homogeneous. Unfortunately, a homogenization of attitudes often follows. This can expand to a dangerous ignorance so devaluation of others is not opposed any more.

E & W: The question is raised: What does it mean when hostility to foreigners appears as a normal mindset that is silently accepted, as for example with the anti-Semitic attack on the merchant in Berlin?

Heitmeyer: We have in fact a growing problem regarding anti-Semitism. As we identified in the last survey, a large part of the population grieve whenever they hear of the German crimes on Jews, 62% of the respondents, many in the political middle. I regard this as a political problem. For a long while, anti-Semitic attitudes existed and developed more or less in the private sphere but were always outlawed in public. This is now changing because the parties want to win elections in the middle. Politicians try not to foment anti-Semitism but ignoring it is even worse.

E & W: Your second volume focuses on the emptying of democracy. What do you mean by this?

Heitmeyer: A very problematic development is occurring. Social forces are not attempting to abolish democracy as a system. Rather the consciousness of democratic values is lost in parts of society. The quality of democracy is injured when values like equal worth and inviolability of people are substantively undermined or put in question. Democratic substance can be lost through the gesticulations of politics when citizens are told they have no influence and are not needed.

E & W: Does racism arise out of the need to profile oneself as socially superior compared to others?

Heitmeyer: Let me give you an example. When someone has paid taxes for 30 years and finds himself in the Hartz IV category today with other social groups like the homeless, he feels degraded. Therefore he pays close attention to keeping a distance from those groups with whom he is categorized through his unemployment.