Jewish American and the Benign World-View by Dr. Abraham Korman
Volume 2 , Issue 3 (Feb, 1989 | Adar I, 5749)
A world-view is a belief-system about people, including oneself and others, and their motivational characteristics. Its importance is that it serves to direct our interaction with others and the characteristics we may attribute to them. The benign world-view is such a perspective. It involves the belief that human beings are capable of and essentially motivated toward continuing positive growth and development for themselves and others, that people essentially mean what they say and behave accordingly, and that if bad or evil events occur, it is usually a function of environmental factors that influence the individuals involved and not a function of the individuals themselves.
Saying Desirable Things
One characteristic of individuals who hold a
benign world-view is a ready willingness to accept those who say ?desirable?
things and to see them as more desirable than those who say more ?negative?
things, regardless of the actual behaviors involved. People who maintain a
benign world-view will be more likely to support leftist ideologies and
governments as opposed to those of a rightist slant, regardless of actual
policies and behaviors, because of the humanistic rhetoric of the left-wing and
because people with a benign world-view equate rhetoric with actual behavior.
Similarly, their belief in environmental determinants of bad or evil behavior
(since people are inherently seen as good and therefore incapable of engaging in
such acts on their own volition) leads to a tendency among those with a benign
world-view to repress knowledge and cognizance of those bad events which are
difficult to explain on the basis of environmental determinants alone. To
illustrate, while there has been considerable research on the victims and
survivors of the Holocaust, there has been almost no concern or research
interest among psychologists on the factors that led to that event as an act of
aggression. One reason for this lack of interest is the inexplicability of the
Holocaust on the basis of environmental factors alone. For example,
Another manifestation of the benign world-view is a belief in the growth potential of people, a belief which leads to the development of psychological and sociological theories which emphasize both the desire and likelihood of individual growth and development, regardless of the empirical validity of such frameworks.
Among those psychological theories which fall into this category and which continue to be assumed as valid by those with a benign world-view, despite the lack of evidence for the theories' claims, are those of Maslow (self-actualization theory), Rogers (humanistic psychology) and Kohlberg (moral development theory). Similarly, there is continued support among those with a benign world-view for social engineering programs which have the benefit of ?good rhetoric? behind them (i.e., they ?sound good?) and which promise ?social improvement? despite any negative evidence to the contrary. Regardless of such evidence, it is the continuing belief of those with a benign world-view that programs espousing such rhetoric must be supported since, eventually ?they will do good?.
The Dogma of Cultural Relativism
Somewhat related to the above and further reflecting the benign world-view is the adoption of a historical perspective in creating programs of conflict-reduction. Underlying the development of such programs is the belief that since all people are basically good, their specific historical values and cultural characteristics are irrelevant in planning a program for reducing their conflict with others. In other words in an a historical approach to conflict-reduction all parties are equated as morally similar and, of course, ?good?, despite possibly significant differences in cultural and religious ideology and despite any conflicting evidence that may exist with respect to their moral equivalence.
The major issue that should concern us here
is why so many Jews continue to develop, maintain and hold fiercely to a benign
world-view in spite of the experience of Jewish history and despite current
world attitudes towards
Adopting a View of Human Behavior
Let us consider the first question I have proposed. One would think that a key factor in the adoption of a view of human capabilities would be the objective evidence that one sees around him/her. That is, if one sees much evil and much horror and much evidence of man's inhumanity to man, the likelihood would be that one would develop a non-benign theory of human behavior.
To support this, we might think to cite many of the Asiatic peoples,
groups who have suffered for thousands of years at the hands of their leaders
and whom we would think would quickly ridicule as worthy of institutionalization
any individual who would profess a benign world-view. In the movie The Last
Emperor, reference is made to the comm4nd of the Japanese government (upon
It would appear that several factors may be involved, each of which may operate in interactive fashion with the others.
Narrow Life Experience
One contributing factor may be a particular type of concrete, albeit
narrow and limited, personal life experience. Consider, for a moment, the
physical environment surrounding the affluent Jewish ?success story? living in
Great Neck or
A second factor which may interact with this pattern and further reinforce it is, paradoxically, a basic freedom we value in our society i.e., the freedom to choose the information that one pays attention to. The problem is that information seeking is often selective and designed to substantiate previously formed opinions. The more that one has freedom to choose one's friends, information sources, etc., the more one can and does substantiate one's beliefs about human nature. Hence, the affluent Jewish suburbanite seeks out those individuals who believes as he or she does, and rejects interaction with those who do not. The more freedom that one has and is encouraged to have, the more freedom that individual has to seek out only those who agree with him and to reject information/input that disagrees with his belief system.
Impact of the College Environment
Related to this as a factor influencing the beliefs of the individual are the social/cultural patterns within which he or she participates. For the suburbanite, such social/cultural patterns have generally included college experience (for most have been to college) and the values of a college environment. These values have generally included a positive view of the philosophies of secular-rationalism, moral relativism and egalitarianism. In most college settings, a value and tolerance for ?others? is encouraged, regardless of what those others might be. The concept of ?absolute morality? is rejected as antithetical to the values of a pluralistic, multiple- group society, as are the values associated with the world that one does not know (i.e.. the world of openly-seen evil, the world of openly-evident cruelty, etc.). The conceptual underpinnings are clear, i.e., All are to be valued and, hence, all must therefore be ?good?. Evil does not exist and, if it does, it can be environmentally manipulated away. Furthermore, with the freedom of information seeking and retrieval one has in the college setting, one need not seek out and interact with anyone other than those who agree with and further reinforce the values one has already developed.
So far we have outlined three factors that might be considered in understanding why some Jews hold to a benign world-view despite the history and experience of the Jewish people as a whole. These three factors are: a) personal exposure limited to the positive nature of mankind: b) an information base about human nature which is under the control of the self in a free society; and c) the nature of the values encouraged by one's social and cultural experience.
Self-Focus and High Anxiety
Each of these, I believe, is relevant to the development of a benign world-view. However, there are two other factors we need to consider in order to have a complete model. One is that individuals who develop a benign world-view tend to live in cultures which emphasize a ?self-focus? in evaluating the nature of experience as opposed to a more intellectualized abstract focus (i.e., ?don't tell me what happened to somebody else forty years ago ? l am only interested in what happened to me today, and if it didn?t happen to me today, then it hasn?t happened). Also important as a factor in generating the benign world-view is the impact of a continuing high level of anxiety. Such anxiety generates a need to view human behavior in a clear and simplified manner. One who maintains a benign world-view does not want to be made anxious with intellectualized caveats and limitations to his view that man is essentially good.
Given these consideration, we arrive at the following conclusions:
One's personal theory of human behavior is a function of one's experience in a concrete manner, the freedom which one has to seek out only those information sources with which one agrees, the norms and values of the social environmental context within which one has been socialized, the degree to which the culture encourages the focus on the self as a nexus of information and the level of anxiety one has concerning the position of one's self in society.
To apply these conclusions to the question of belief systems among Jews, we would predict, given these considerations, that Jews who are most likely to hold a benign view of human behavior are those who a) live in affluent suburbs; b) have been to college and majored in social and behavioral sciences; c) read voraciously and are active in their community affairs; d) are either totally secular in their beliefs or members of Reform/Revisionist congregations; e) have never been to Israel; and f) have never experienced, either personally or vividly through family interaction, the impact of the Holocaust or other evidences of extreme human cruelty. On the other hand, the more that a specific individual does not meet or fall into these categories, the less likely it will be that he/she will adopt a benign view of human existence.
Jewish Predilections Towards A Benign World-View?
The second question we have posed is whether there is anything intrinsic to Judaism, as a religion or as a culture, which generates in Jews an even greater willingness than members of other groups of similar socio-economic characteristics to accept a benign world-view. In other words, holding socio-economic characteristics constant, are Jews really different from others?
One possible factor differentiating Jews from others may be greater levels of disappointment once success is apparently achieved. The affluent Jewish suburbanite who has taken great pains to reject his heritage in order to enhance his material comforts and standing in American society often finds that his efforts have really not mattered much and that he is still viewed as an ?outsider? in American life. The reality of such rejection becomes so threatening and so demeaning to the life that he/she has chosen (and in such contrast to the obvious physical signs of his/.her ?success?) that a dissonance or rationalization effect sets in and the individual attempts to justify even further the life he has chosen and the ?essential? goodness of people. It needs to be noted, however, that while this rationalization effect may have some value as an explanation for the behavior of some American Jews, it has little to do with Judaism per se. Rather, it reflects the meaninglessness of a secular-materialistic definition of ?life success?, a meaninglessness from which Jews suffer but which is clearly not unique to them either as a religion or as a culture.
A second possible explanation for the existence of a benign world-view in the Jewish suburbanite is that he comes to view his material goods/success as continually under threat because of his position as a weak ?outsider? in the American scene. As a result, he protects his ego from acceptance of such self-perceived weakness by downgrading the threat from others and distorting his perception of others by turning them into ?benign? individuals. However, it needs to again be emphasized, that while this type of explanation might be shown to have some validity for explaining the behavior of many suburbanite Jews, such validity would certainly not be unique to them, and might also explain the actions of other newly-affluent outsider groups in American society.
What, then, might be unique to Jews, in explaining the existence of benign world-views amongst them? Is a search for unique Jewish reactions worthwhile once we understand the importance of other more general factors? The question is clearly an open one at this time. One possible procedure in developing an answer may be to examine the experience and attitudes of other outsider groups. If these other outsider groups are not as susceptible to the benign world-view but behave in a manner more in keeping with the need for self-defense and for the right to live in an assertive manner, then the search may indeed prove worthwhile; for then there might well be something unique to Judaism and Jewish culture which leads to a greater frequency of Jews adopting a benign world-view. In brief, it may be that we will not be able to determine why some Jews do not learn from experience and retain benign world-views, unless we obtain a comparative understanding of the behavior of other outsider groups.
Dr. Korman is the Wollman
Distinguished Professor of Management at