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Jewish American and the Benign World-View by Dr. Abraham Korman
Jewish American and the Benign World-View by Dr. Abraham Korman

Volume 2 , Issue 3

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, Germany before and during the Third Reich was the most educationally and scientifically advanced nation in Europe. Prior to the advent of Hitler, its economic problems, while severe, were no more severe than those of other nations and many of the figures who were to become infamous as administrators in the death camps had professional and/or medical school training. Why, then, did the Nazi regime take hold in Germany? Environmental explanations are difficult to justify and because they are so difficult to develop, research studies by psychologists and other behavioral scientists of factors affecting the Holocaust and related instances of genocidal activities are virtually non-existent.

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 Israel and the continuing evidence of anti-Semitism in the United States and elsewhere. To answer this, we need to focus on two questions. The first question is a general one, i.e., how do individuals develop and maintain their own personal theories of human behavior? Why does one adopt one world-view rather than another or, in less extreme terms, why does one become more, rather than less, ?benign? in his or her view of human behavior? This is essentially a psychological issue, independent of any specific group characteristics. The second question is whether there are any particular characteristics of Jews, as a group, which may perhaps make them more likely than other groups to develop and maintain a benign view of human behavior? We ask both questions since it is conceivable that an understanding of the first may shed some light on our approach to the second.

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 entering Shanghai during World War II) that thousands should be slaughtered in order to impress upon the Chinese the need to obey the Japanese authorities. Certainly, it would appear that any Chinese individual who had knowledge of this event would find it difficult to accept the notion of a benign view of mankind. Yet, it is clear that some Asians, in spite of such experiences that ?should teach them better?, do adopt a benign view, either individually or collectively. To illustrate, one might argue (although I confess the argument would be a somewhat muddied one), that even the Chinese Communist regime held such a view for years, at least in part. Why else would they have spent such enormous resources in imprisoning individuals and attempting to ?reeducate? them? Why else, for example, would they attempt to reeducate the protagonist of The Last Emperor, a man who was clearly a traitor to the Chinese government by any criterion one might reasonably hold? Clearly, it would appear the need to hold a benign view of human behavior is a very deep one, despite all the objective transcultural evidence that human beings are not all that wonderful and never have been. Evidence and history notwithstanding, the benign world-view continues to be held, particularly among members of the Jewish faith, a group that has suffered more at the hands of others than any group in history. With all that, Jews continue to profess such faith in human capability, human growth and human development. For them, and for others, the benign world-view remains a guiding light, one to which they hold very dearly, even at considerable cost. Why or how can this occur?

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 Scarsdale. Consider, also, the physical evidence of the success and power of American society and culture (jet planes, tall buildings, massive computer networks, etc.). How is it possible for an individual surrounded by this concrete evidence of the ability of people to grow and develop and prosper, to even consider anything, but the principle of benign human motivation? This is what he is witness to, and, for the most part, he does not witness the opposite. The Holocaust, the massacres in Cambodia, child and wife abuse in the ghetto, etc.; these have all occurred and continue to take place but not within his direct view. Such acts of evil may exist (and he may have even heard of them existing behind the closed doors of the beautiful home next door), but surely they cannot be intrinsic to human existence. They are either aberrations, never to be repeated, or they must be a function of environmental influences, influences which are inimicable to the natural human propensities which have generated the beautiful, strong and benign physical environment which surrounds him/her in Great Neck, Scarsdale and the United States in general.

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 Baruch College. His book, The Outsiders: Jews and Corporate America, was recently published by Lexington/ D.C. Heath and Co., Lexington, Massachusetts.



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