Learning a New Term: “Symbolic Interactionism”

I have recently begun reading the book Participant Observation by James Spradley. I suppose I should have read it years ago… but better late than never. In Chapter One he references Herbert Blumer (1969) and his work Symbolic Interactionism. Three premises of this theory are (in my own wording)

  1.  People act towards objects  (nouns of any type) based on the meaning these things are given (by us).

  2. These meanings do not come from these objects but are assigned to things based on the social interaction people have with their peers.

  3. Meanings are not static, but can modify as people interact with the objects they encounter.

I have seen this as I have been reading FB posts recently. Often I have wondered if I should stop reading them.  I have a melancholic temperament, and a lot of the social media of Christians is quite depressing. However, maybe instead of complaining at the freaky things people share on FB, I should embrace my involvement in terms of Partcipant Observation.

Recently, I was reading a thread on FB that was coming up with stronger and stronger language to speak against former US President Obama, and former presidential candidate H. Clinton. Eventually one conversant described Obama as the Antichrist and Clinton as the “Whore of Babylon.” I hope I don’t need to say that this is a huge abuse of Scripture and Scriptural language, Despite this, the person got quite a few “Likes” for the post. Since most all of the conversants in the thread would consider themselves Christians, and even use the label “Bible-believing,”  why would they say or like a statement that was, arguably, a heretical interpretation of Scripture (from a section of the Bible that appears to curse those who do just such abuses to the Word)?

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” While this is commonly applied to arguments, you will notice that Godwin’s Law doesn’t actually specify argument. When a bunch of people get together who share the same beliefs, there is often a tendency to play one-upmanship with each other making more and more radical statements.

For some Christians, Hitler (or other authoritarian abusers and killers) does not describe consummate evil. Rather, Satan, or demons, or the Antichrist would be the substitute for Hitler. The use of the term “whore of Babylon” is clever in that it sexualizes the insult— as seems to be always the temptation when men (or women) want to denigrate a woman. Of course, the “whore of Babylon” is a system and not a person (as, probably, is the Antichrist) but that is not the point. Both terms are symbols. Image result for the devil

For the FB discussion… Obama and Clinton represent a challenge to power— legal power, political power, social power. As such, they are seen as a threat to some people. Threats gradually lead towards demonization (or Hitlerization). In the case of Obama and Clinton, it is not so much who they are (they don’t seem to me to be worthy of much applause or castigation— they are just people who are involved in US politics). Rather, for those who see Obama or Clinton as threats to power, they symbolize something bigger.  When people attack them, they are attacking what they symbolize.

Of course, one does not have to be in a position of power to fall into this trap (and it IS a trap). Over here, the President of the Philippines occasionally states things that insult or attack the Roman Catholic Church— the largest religious group in the country. Many Evangelicals have applauded this. Why?  Again, the Catholic church has considerable power in the country, and as such, there is the temptation to see them as the enemy. (Of course, if they actually were the enemy, then we would have to embrace the teachings of Jesus and love them, not applaud attacks on them.)

But going back to the three premises of Symbolic Interactionism, none of this is inevitable. We connect to things (and people and concepts) based on the meanings we give them. As such, meanings are flexible… they can change. Today, I was in seminary chapel, and the speaker noted how wrong it was for Protestant Christians to applaud the attacks on our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are not without our faults so why express joy when their faults are exposed? And when politicians use religion to divide (and conquer), why do we yield to the temptation of predictability (standing by “our guys” uncritically, and attacking “their guys” uncritically). In the case of the speaker in chapel, he was seeking to work on the 2nd premise of symbolic interactionism. He was seeking to influence his peers so that the Catholic church is no longer given the label of “the enemy” by seminarians. I would like to think that he words will have influence.

Additionally, interacting with people different from ourselves can also help. This is the third premise. I find it valuable to talk to people of other faiths, other denominations, other theological persuasions, other races, and other political and national affiliations. Often, I find there is a lot of common ground. Even when we still disagree strongly on things, the temptation to stereotype them or “Hitlerize” them goes away. Rather, they are simply (in my opinion) “wrong.” More commonly, they are a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, admirable, and problematic. I find that picking up news from many sources reduces my tendency to embrace certain things as true and other things as fake based on how I feel about a certain subject.

While Symbolic Interactionism is a moutful to say (or type, I suppose), it expresses something of value for Christians.

  • We need to recognize the temptation to objectify— see people as symbols or objects, rather than real people. In fact, we do it automatically, but we can at least be aware of this.
  • We need to recognize our temptation to confuse our ethics and our aesthetics. We tend to think something is right and good, or dispicable and awful based on group feelings and stereotypical generalizations than on what what is truth. We “bless” our beliefs with Scripture verses, rather than drawing our beliefs from the (uncomfortable) whole of Scripture.
  • We can grow as people by interacting positively with those who are unlike us. And if we go in willing to grow and learn, the others might as well,.

And the last is perhaps the most important.

  • We can break Godwin’s Law cycle of devolving discussions by challenging the base instincts of our peers— helping them seek out God’s perspective rather than Groupthink.

In the case of the FB thread I was describing earlier, perhaps it would have only taken one person to jump in and note that both Obama and Clinton (regardless of whatever flaws they may have) are God’s creations, worthy of love and concern— and appear to sincerely seek to live out their political life in line with the ethics that their particular Christian denominations hold. As such, they are worthy of a certain amount of admiration even if one does not ultimately agree with them on some issues. I am not sure everyone would suddenly embrace, but perhaps that person could at least have short-circuited the road to the Antichrist and Whore of Babylon.

Cultural Labeling and “Motive Glasses”

A fascinating study done by David Rosenhan of Stanford University illustrates the impact of psychiatric labeling. Rosenhan and several colleagues had themselves committed to mental hospitals  with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia.” After being admitted, each of these pseudo-patients dropped all pretense of mental illness. Yet, even though they acted completely normal, none of the researchers was ever recognized by hospital staff as a phony patient. Real patients were not so easily fooled. It was not unusual for a patient to say to one of the researchers, “You’re not crazy, you’re checking up on the hospital!” or “You’re a journalist.”

To record his observations, Rosenham took notes by carefully jotting things on a small piece of paper hidden in his hand. However, he soon learned that stealth was totally unnecessary. Rosenhan simply walked around with a clipboard, recording observations and collecting data. No one questioned this behavior. Rosenhan’s note taking was just regarded as a symptom of his “illness.” This observation clarifies why staff members failed to detect the fake patients. Because they were in a mental ward, and because they had been labeled schizophrenic, anything the pseudo-patients did was seen as a symptom of psychopathology.

As Rosenham’s study shows, it is far better to label problems than to label people. Think of the difference in impact between saying “You are experiencing a serious psychological disorder” and saying, “You are a schizophrenic.”

-Dennis Coon, “Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior,” 9th edition. pages 556-557

Labels are often seen as giving stereotyped characteristics. As an American, some people may make assumptions about how I am supposed to act, think, and feel. But perhaps more insidious is the tendency to affect one’s assumptions on motives. In the above quote, staff workers were not stereotyping behavior, but making assumptions on motives. Non-schizophrenic researchers were behaving very much different than typical schizophrenic patients. Instead of questioning the label “schizophrenic” based on new facts, the staff questioned motives… The individuals must be imitating sane researchers because they are schizophrenic, and schizophrenics must seek to behave like people they are not.

The danger with labels is that they can make stereotypes incontestable. After all, if one has the stereotype that a certain racial group is lazy, it can be quickly challenged on a fact level by meeting a person in that race who is not lazy. But if one accepts the label on a motivation level… one will never meet a “non-lazy” member of that race. Rather, one will come across deceptive manipulators who try to appear hard-working to “trick” others, disguising their own laziness.

I first took time to think about this problem back decades ago when I was living in the US. I liked to listen to talk radio while I was driving (never really enjoyed listening to music much on the road… or off the road). This was during the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was labelled as a Democrat and as a Liberal. The talk show hosts were typically Republican and Conservative (all within the American political definitions of these terms). I began to notice that when President Clinton did something that the talk show hosts disliked… they would attack him for his words and actions. However, when he did or said something that they would normally approve of, rather than commending him, they would attack his motives. He is try to pander to a certain political block… he was doing it to garner financial support, seeking to fool conservatives, etc. To be quite upfront here, I never cared for Bill Clinton as a political leader and that is unlikely to change any time soon… but I did see that the labels he was given as a Liberal Democrat had gotten to the point that it would be nearly impossible have either label removed. Everything he did supported those labels since people were wearing “motive glasses” and saw all behavior springing from motives consistent with the labels.

<Remember, it took a divine prophecy to get the church of Damascus to remove the label from Saul of “Killer of the Followers of Christ.” Labels are not easily removed.>

Of course, “motive glasses” can also work for you. Many saw Ronald Reagan’s actions in ending the Cold War with the USSR as courageous. A different president may have been viewed “giving up” or as acting in accordance to “commie inclinations.” Either way, motive glasses make it difficult to learn and grow.

In Missions, “Motive Glasses” are particularly dangerous. We need to constantly learn and grow while motive glasses impede learning. Additionally, since motive glasses come from labeling and justifying labels, in the end, they perpetuate the myth that individuals are lost in cultural groupings. While there are many values to studying cultures, it is dangerous to ignore the uniqueness of each person. Finally, motive glasses tend to demonize some people or groups and provide absolution for others.

Cultural Anthropology can be seen as flawed in that it can, at times, perpetuate stereotypes because it often focuses more on group characteristics (labeling) than individual uniqueness. However, as long as it remains open to learning, the process of the study has value. But when labeling begins to lead us to “see” motives clearly, we most likely have crossed into a dangerous area.

Personhood and the Escalation of Conflict. Part 1


A few days ago, the “Islamic State” or “ISS” or “ISIL” made a statement (or its leadership made a statement) that it was okay to enslave and have (non-mutual) sex with non-Muslim women and girls. It is hard, as an outsider, to fathom why a group that claims to be acting for a righteous cause, would make a statement so obviously evil. It seems that three things must have happened:

#2.  A legal analysis of the issue was presumably done from the standpoint of their own religious regulations.

#3.  Presumably an ethical analysis was done to see whether the behavior is in line with what a good follower of their god would do. (After all, many things may be legal, but not appropriate for a faithful adherent.)

The big concern however is #1.

#1.  There must have been members of their group that desired to enslave and rape and so sought to be given the “thumbs up.”

Since, I am not a member of their religion, I don’t particularly care about #2 and #3. But I do care about #1. How could people get to the point where such horrible mistreatment seems like a nifty idea?

For me, I have to think that a lot of this goes back to the issue of personhood and of conflict escalation (and, YES, human evil is always in the mix… but that is not my focus today). Generally, when a group of people want to do something horrific to another human, they first make a determination that that other human really isn’t a human. He or she is not a person, but is sub-human. In some cases, the determination is that the individual IS a person, but has lost the rights (or privileges) of being a person. This may include murderers who are placed on death row, or (in some prisons of the recent past) experimented upon or tortured.

But often what is done is not to assume someone has lost their rights as a person, but he never was a person in the first place. History, has had slavery based on race. In arguments over emancipation, economic and political issues may be argued… but commonly underlying these arguments is a foundational issue of personhood. Some believe that people of a different race are sub-human… not a person… and so enslavement is okay. It would be wrong to enslave a relative… a fellow human… but someone who looks different and has a different nationality is something less.

Abortion rights boils down to the same issue. Some try to argue the issue over practical issues. The foundational issue is personhood. Some argue that abortion should be permitted because women should have rights to do as they wish with their bodies. (Of course, no person on earth has unlimited rights to do whatever they want with their bodies.) What is really meant is that the unborn child (or the less “person”al term… fetus) is not a person. If he/she/it is not a person, than he/she/it lacks basic rights of personhood, and so he/she/it may be deemed simply part of the mother’s/woman’s body.

In recent years there has been a move by some animal rights groups to designate certain animals (such as apes or dolphins) as persons. I don’t know why they feel relative intelligence should be a the determining of value as a person. But the move is obvious. If certain animals are designated as persons… certain rights logically become theirs. My personal fear, however, is that such a move may not elevate the animals, but devalue personhood… but who knows?

Okay… back on topic.  ISIS appears to devalue a person for not sharing their religious viewpoint/ideology, and then further devalues them for not sharing the same gender as the leadership. Perhaps the religious test is more important since, presumably, leaders of ISIS would not be quick to acquiesce to female members of their own clan being raped and enslaved.

It seems likely that such logic doesn’t not come out of careful ethical consideration, but out of the emotions of conflict. The torture (and yes, it sure sounds like torture to me) of “the enemy” by the CIA in the first decade of the 21st century was justified based on conflict.

Consider an escalation of conflict. Although described for church conflcts, the list of stages in “The Escalating Stages of Unresolved Church Conflict” by Ken Newberger seems informative.

Stage 1. (Sometimes) an Uncomfortable Feeling. Something is wrong but not sure what.

Stage 2 A Problem to be Resolved. Problem identified. <Issue-focused>

Stage 3. A Person to Differ with. (Other person-focused) Sides are determined. Discussion changes from what is the best solution, to who is right and who is wrong.

Stage 4. A Dispute to Win. <Issue-focused with greater intensity> Collaboration breaks down. Other issues begin to add to the conflict. Feelings get hurt.

Stage 5. A Person to Attack. <Other person-focused. Greater intensity>. Battle lines are drawn. Stereotyping of the other side occurs with the worst thought of adversaries.

Stage 6. My “Face” to Save. <Self-focused. Greater Intensity> Things get personal. Protecting one’s image and character become dominant. Things are seen as black vs white, good versus evil.

Stage 7. A Person to Expel, Withdraw from, or Ruin. <Other person-focused, Greater intensity> All or nothing battle. Someone or a whole group must go.

You will notice as the stages go higher, the problem becomes more personal, but the other side loses personhood. What starts out as a problem to resolve becomes by Stage 7 a time where people who have another opinion must not exist (at least within their church) or must be shamed or shunned. That is personal. Yet by stage 5, stereotyping begins to dominate. That is, the person on the other side no longer really matters… what matters is that he or she is one of THEM. And as one of THEM, he or she has horrible traits and motives, so unlike people who are part of US. With stage 6, nuances are lost. If someone is not with us… he is against us. Not just one of THEM… but the ENEMY. By stage 7, not only are THEY the ENEMY, but their thoughts and views are unworthy of consideration, and even their presence is at best grudgingly tolerated, and at worst, to be ended.

By stage 5, the personhood of those on the other side of an issue is being replaced by group labelling. By level 6, the group has been labelled as BAD. By level 7, the group is rejected… a problem to be gotten rid of. Personhood has been effectively removed (at least on an emotional level).

The 2nd post will look at this from a missional perspective (believe it or not).