My grandfather served as a United States Marine in World War II and the Korean War. During World War II, he served at Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago region. He received a citation signed by Adm. Chester Nimitz for meritorious service. He is part of a rich history of veterans who personified the Marine Corps motto of Semper Fi and sacrificed much to protect the principles upon which our country was founded. One of these fundamental principles is equality.
As a nation, if we are to reach the lofty goal of equality, we must confront and transcend our tendency toward prejudice, a poisonous and insidious quality that is present in all cultures. I believe the core values of the Marine Corps help to dissuade Marines from espousing unfounded, negative beliefs and attitudes about culturally diverse individuals or groups. However, recent events suggest that even Marines are not immune from prejudice. This summer, for instance, the Corps discharged a 19-year-old lance corporal for allegedly assaulting protestors and demonstrating alongside white supremacists at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Early in my career as a mental health counseling researcher, I began investigating the underlying causes of prejudice, and I have learned a few things that I would like to share. It is difficult to understand and acknowledge what fuels our prejudice, and there are many beliefs and theories about how it occurs. I personally believe that prejudice is mostly a product of insecurity, fear and ignorance.
Alfred Adler, the psychologist who coined the term inferiority complex, hypothesized that all people are born with a sense of inferiority that can influence them in different ways throughout life. Some individuals express this feeling in the form of a superiority complex, belittling others — often vulnerable individuals and groups — in an attempt to escape from their own insecurities. If you recognize that you may be treating members of some groups more negatively than others, consider asking yourself where these attitudes are really coming from. Perhaps, it is a projection of your internal self-talk that is painting a group in a certain light. It can be difficult to answer this question honestly and face your limiting beliefs. This is where integrity and courage come into play.
Another propellant of prejudice is fear. While many theories have made this connection, Terror Management Theory, or TMT, ties it more specifically to our existential fear of death. TMT suggests that we protect ourselves from the concept of mortality by aligning ourselves more closely with our cultural worldviews. We may also instinctively see contrasting cultural worldviews as threats to our own immortality. This fear can lead us to defend our cultural worldviews in four ways: (1) belittling the other cultural worldview; (2) converting others to one’s own cultural worldview; (3) adopting threatening aspects of another group’s cultural worldview as one’s own; or (4) annihilating individuals who espouse contrastive worldviews. There are several ways to minimize these reactions, such as increasing self-esteem, engaging in mindfulness practices, and becoming more aware of and comfortable with the idea of one’s own mortality.
Ignorance is another common catalyst of prejudice. In the 1950s, Gordon Allport proposed an idea called the contact hypothesis, which proposes that negative attitudes toward culturally diverse groups can be disputed and reduced by interacting in meaningful ways with individuals within those groups.
I have a strong admiration for the Marine Corps and what it represents: integrity, honor, commitment to one another, and, of course, courage. The core values of the Marine Corps exemplify the very best of humanity. I believe Marines can apply these values in the war against prejudice, which has many battlefields — the most important of which is the battle within. May we all have the integrity, courage and commitment to increase our cultural awareness, reduce our prejudice, and grow closer to our goal of equality.
Dr. Nathaniel Ivers is the department chairman and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. His research interests include bilingual counseling; culture; terror management theory; existentialism; counseling with Spanish-speaking immigrants; and wellness.