Axel Honneth: “Racism as a Socialization Defect”

*This interview of Axel Honneth by Krasimir Stojanov originally appeared in Critique and Humanism 16 (2/2003), in Bulgarian. It was published again in Critique and Humanism 22 (2006), in German and Bulgarian. This version is reposted from the German version as reproduced by Eurozine, translated automatically through Google Chrome. 


Racism as a Socialization Defect

A conversation between Krasimir Stojanov and Axel Honneth

Krassimir Stojanov: Mr. Honneth, my first question relates to your thesis that racism is to be understood as a deformed perception manner. At the same time, I would like to refer my question to your discussion with Nancy Fraser. So, if I have understood your basic theory correctly, you argue that racism is mainly due to socialization deficits and deficits, which is why educational and political measures can hardly influence him. Nancy Fraser accuses you of psychologizing political and social problems and conflicts. She would probably interpret this claim as an example of psychologization. Do you consider this a reproach or do you think that social and political conflicts and struggles are basically due to psychological structures?

Axel Honneth: This is obviously a complex issue. I already assume that an underestimation of the psychological impulses in social and political conflicts is a mistake. With regard to the phenomenon of racism, the basic consideration is that we should not explain racism simply as the assumption of primitive theories and ideologies – a dominant pattern of explanation here – or as a result of the constraints of economic disadvantage – a different pattern. Both of these explanatory patterns I consider to be flat and, in fact, underestimate the socializing dynamics of racism. On the other hand, I assume that we should understand racism, by the way, similar to Sartre, as a phenomenon that determines the overall behavior of a personality. Therefore, as you have said, he is to be regarded as the product of socializing deformation. So the young man who has racist convictions today does not have it because he has been impressed or influenced by any theories, but because he has not adequately learned not to perceive all men according to their skin color, but as equal, equal . This implies, of course, a certain reservation against the political and pedagogical conceptions of the fight against racism prevailing in the Federal Republic. These ideas are concentrated in the Federal Republic on human rights education programs, which, according to my assumption, fall short. I believe that racism is a socialization defect, a whole habit (which is roughly the wording used by Sartre for the anti-Semite), which can not be transformed or changed by pedagogical conviction. This, of course, does not rule out the need to think about pedagogical and policy measures which, after all, have acted upon such attitudinal syndromes and behaviors. However, they should not be understood as a pedagogical event in which a false doctrine is replaced by a proper doctrine. One would rather think of a change in the direction of socialization – in the sense of a post-corrective socialization. I believe that the overcoming of a racist behavior, a racist perception pattern must somehow be presented as a process of conversion. How this process can take place in events of a pedagogical nature is largely left to the imagination of the educators. I think back to the times when a great deal was invested in the consideration of a different type of educational process that was not organized according to the pattern of mere theories of theories, but rather by way of exemplary analysis and practical participation of the young people in the educational process. This means that through forms of practice, through forms of organizing practical activities of cooperation, such perceptual patterns may be changed in a longer-term perspective. This is a different notion of what the pedagogical measures against racism can do and the forms in which they can afford it.

Now I would like to return to the initial question, namely to the accusation of Nancy Fraser of a certain psychologization. I believe that this accusation is wrongly placed at this point. In the tradition of the Frankfurt School it was always possible and self-evident to see the close connection between politics and psychology. This motif begins very early with studies on authoritarian character, and it continues to Franz Neumann’s analysis of anxiety and politics. Thus the connection between political will formation, political reactions, political behavior patterns and socializing experience, socializing processes, was always present in this tradition. The little I have contributed to the analysis of racism is a kind of reminder of this close connection. I believe that the reproach of psychologization has a different subject, namely the anchoring of normative principles in a psychological theory. Here, too, I feel protected, because psychology is only one element among many others; An element in a genuinely normative reasoning. My own normative justification is not more psychological than that of John Rawls when he speaks of self-respect. A psychological argument, a certain psychological notion of the integrity of the human person, and of the form in which humans can develop their autonomy, is also strongly centered on Rawls; An idea in which the idea of ​​good and the idea of ​​righteousness should also be backed up.

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Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock is a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Boston College. He is also the Director of the Critical Theory Research Network. His research interests include critical theory, infectious disease, and discourse analysis; as well as epistemology, bureaucracy, age norms, and film and media studies. His recent work has appeared in Social Theory & Health.
Jeremiah Morelock

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