Pride and Prejudice and Projected Self-Hatred
Far too often in the course of human history, we have seen innumerable examples of religious hatred. Such prejudice has sparked a horrifying amount of abuse, war, and genocide that has plagued our species’ past and has led many to question what similar situations will await mankind in the future. At the root of such scenarios — ranging from the Crusades to the Holocaust, to especially the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict — we often point the finger to excessive pride. The Nazis, in particular, indulged themselves in their Aryan blood, and this proudness fueled their contempt for anyone who didn’t fall into their so-called “superior” race. In turn, the supposed lesser beings — the inferior, the “other” — were victimized and dehumanized. Many of them — particularly, the Jews — were eventually exterminated by Hitler’s followers. The Nazis were not shy to exploit and celebrate their religious animosity.
However, less ostentatious but arguably more lethal are the other kinds of haters. There are those who hate out of religious envy, and still there are others who carry out actions primarily out of religious self-loathing. These people appear to be ten times as intolerant, infinitely more contradictory, and perhaps even more dangerous than members of the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, even ISIS. Because animosity fueled by jealousy and self-hatred are less obvious to the eye, the complexity of these people deem them almost impossible to figure out, thus foiling any attempt to, say, predict their next outburst, their next hate crime, their next murder. I will refer to Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work Disgraced, Henry Bean’s 2001 film The Believer starring a virtually unknown yet inarguably compelling Ryan Gosling, and Christopher Durang’s play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. All three works ask the question, Where does such profound religious hatred come from?
But an even more important dilemma to be answered: How can we stop such animosity before others are threatened, harmed — even killed? To understand an extreme degree of religious jealousy and self-hatred, one must investigate the hater’s roots. Only by the rigorous study of history can we prevent further displays of human contempt in our species’ future.
To put envy and self-contempt in conversation with each other, the former is really an inadequate view of oneself, yearning to be more like someone superior. Thus, any degree of jealousy is really a form of self-dislike. More specifically, envy is a projected self-loathing onto another, a clear indication of one’s insecurity and the undermining of self-credibility.
I would argue that, ironically, religious self-hatred is indeed a contempt of the self, but not necessarily a loathing of one’s religion. Rather, it is an unfulfilled narcissism involving the very faith that one appears to despise. The exploitation of religious self-loathing is the ultimate level of religious fanaticism: the pride of one’s faith is often the only source of self-approval, but such pride has crossed every boundary of reality that would deem one’s behavior acceptable or even safe. Thus, those that indulge themselves in self-loathing are the most deadly because they are the most mentally unstable: their devotion to their religion and nothing else in life has warped their logic, especially when it comes to their relations with others. I would even go as far to say that the characters in Durang’s play, Akhtar’s drama, and Bean’s movie are prime examples of those that have the greatest faith in what they were brought up in, but the manifestations of their respective belief systems have been contorted. Years of denial, self-dissatisfaction, and insanity have prompted these characters to spread their beloved religion, but their means of doing so often involve antagonizing the weaker members of the faith. These characters believe that, in order to move their precious religion forward, they must get rid of anyone in the same faith that allow themselves to be victimized. Their superiority complex is rivaled only by their self-hatred.
To first understand hatred against a certain faith, we must first specify what a religious group entails. In an article entitled “Freedom of Expression and Hatred of Religion”, Simon Thompson provides a formal definition for us:
In Section 74(7) of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, such a group is ‘a group of persons defined by reference to their:
a. religious belief or lack of religious belief;
b. membership of or adherence to a church or religious organization;
c. support for the culture and traditions of a church or religious organization; or
d. participation in activities associated with such a culture or such traditions’.
Perhaps no other character in the Western dramatic canon exemplifies all four of these points better than the eponymous lead of Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. From the first page to the simultaneously hilarious and haunting ending, Sister Mary is full of Catholic pride, exuding her proudness onto the audience and most certainly projecting it towards every other character in the play. She rouses us with her endlessly passionate teachings of God and Our Savior Jesus, and she’s relentlessly adamant that we follow her mindset.
And yet, while she does turn out to be a cruel, sociopathic middle-aged nun, though we may disagree with her musings, we cannot help but recognize her sheer dominance over others. When four of her ex-students, now young adults, revisit Sister’s Catholic school in an attempt to humiliate her, it turns out that one of them, Diane, has brought along a gun in order to kill Sister. By the end of the play, Sister Mary has used that very gun to fatally shoot Diane and another of her ex-students named Gary, has permanently scarred Philomena with a ruthless psychological assault, and has exploited and entrapped the weakling Aloysius. Sister Mary always seems to know people better than they would ever want to know about themselves.
Without question, these actions are clear indications of the sinister monster that is Sister Mary Ignatius. But we become fully aware of how powerful she is not just by what she does, but by how she performs such actions: she is always driven by her insane devotion to Catholicism. More specifically, it’s her extreme interpretation of the Catholic doctrine that makes her such a master of manipulation: throughout her life, she has refined the teachings of the Church into a point of view so strong that, against anyone, her gaslighting will always carry her on to victory. Her confidence in her system of beliefs and in herself is the driving force behind the play, even if many consider this work to be one huge bashing of Catholicism. Whether one is a devout Catholic or is the religion’s biggest skeptic, you cannot argue the fact that in Durang’s drama, Sister Mary ultimately wins.
Simon Thompson boils down a religious group to a community “with a concrete social identity rather than one just sharing a particular set of beliefs.” While race is something you are born into (and consequently can never really change or get out of), religion is a chosen identity. Thus, when a character like Sister Mary comes along — someone with a “distinct social identity” who has devoted an entire life to the encouragement (or destruction) of a certain religion — it’s never something to be taken lightly. Rather, when a person has a point of view so strong that nothing could make it waver, that’s the time to start worrying.
Sister Mary is as intelligent, stubborn, and frighteningly articulate as Daniel Balint, an anti-Semitic Jew in Henry Bean’s film The Believer. Balint is based off of a real-life person: Daniel Burros was a self-hating Jew who became a member of the American Nazi Party and a leader of the KKK New York branch, committing suicide after a New York Times reporter exposed him for his Jewish roots. Ryan Gosling, as Balint, plays an alarmingly convincing neo-Nazi. He goes around finding unsuspecting Jewish teenagers to beat up on the streets in plain daylight, he advocates the total obliteration of American Jews, he leads a group of fellow skinheads to deface synagogues, and he attempts more than once to blow up the holy temples.
But Gosling also manages to find the very Jewish — and very human — part of Balint, rather almost seamlessly, in conjunction to the anti-Semitic nature of the character. Balint, as a young Yeshiva student, was the star pupil of his class. He was unimaginably insightful and was so absorbed in his studies of the Torah that he eventually argued against his own teachers about the very foundations of Judaism, never afraid of confrontation. When his skinhead group vandalizes a synagogue, Balint saves a tarnished Torah and brings it home to fix up. He spends his free time teaching a lover (played by Summer Phoenix) Hebrew, as well as the Jewish way of life. And even with this more empathic part of his nature, his point of view in advocating Judaism is just as strong as his loathing for the religion. Balint’s social identity is an inarguably complicated yet still somehow clear portrayal of a person irreversibly immersed in a religion. It is the only thing he cares about — it is his pride while simultaneously his downfall. The source of unmerciful pride and unapologetic hatred.
How does such a startlingly unique combination come to fruition? When does a hatred of this level become so acceptable that someone like Balint can get away with almost all of it completely unnoticed? In a cover story named “Fear and Loathing in Manhattan”, Mehdi Hasan examines the rapidly growing Islamophobia present in New York. Tensions against the Muslim population, even through “the Iranian Revolution, the attack on the US marine barracks in Beirut, both Gulf wars and 9/11” were of surprisingly little threat compared to the 2010 period. It was an unavoidably politically-fuelled moment throughout the nation, particularly with the Republican candidates running in the 2012 presidential election:
Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, believes that this hate “isn’t just a few loud voices. It has spread into the mainstream.” […] Islam has become a target; a convenient method for rallying people on the right and getting attention [for politically-driven motives].
Blaming one religious group for an entire nation’s problems is not a situation previously unheard of. As the Republican candidates were promoting Islamophobic behavior while delineating their plans to improve the country’s situation if elected to the White House, we are reminded of Hitler’s anti-Semitic rallies in order to bring Germany out of the post-WWI shithole and into the Third Reich. Religion also happens to be the perfect scapegoat for one’s personal problems, especially if you claim to hate the very faith you were brought up in during your early life.
Enter Amir Kapoor, the central character of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. Once a young Muslim boy very proud of his heritage, he has grown to be a wealthy lawyer living on the Upper East Side with an unapologetic disdain for all things Islamic. Disgraced takes place between the late summer of 2011 to spring 2012, right at the heart of the aforementioned political frenzy that re-launched a more vigorous sense of Islamophobia throughout the United States.
Amir, as a self-hating ex-Muslim, creates a situation for himself that, should he choose to spend the rest of his life in post-9/11 New York, will always plunge him into a sort of internal ping-pong match. The major law firm he works at is mostly run by Jews; keeping his Muslim roots hidden, he believes, will allow him to rise to the ranks of his superiors. If he cannot change his skin color, he can at least start by changing his name and the way he presents himself to the world: Americanized, to the point where he even criticizes the Islamic faith whenever the opportunity arises.
As Hasan states in her article, “[fearing and loathing] Islam has become a target; a convenient method for rallying people on the right and getting attention.” And so, too, it becomes convenient for Amir to assimilate into an Islamophobic Manhattan: he builds his “distinct social identity” by not only refusing to acknowledge his Muslim past, but by also bashing on the religion as if it were the absolute bane of his existence. If problems arise in his professional or personal life, the easiest source of blame is the same excuse everyone else is using: the other. What can be the other for Amir? Muslims.
In Sister Mary Ignatius, Diane and the three other former students do the same kind of finger-pointing, only instead of bashing on Catholicism as a whole, they put the blame on one person: their teacher. Aloysius, though married with two kids, is a budding alcoholic, unhappy, and has recently started to hit his wife. He blames his depression and inferiority complex on Sister Mary treating him poorly during his childhood. While Sister was indeed cruel to him, it is apparent that Aloysius, along with the others, are projecting their unhappiness and lack of fulfillment with adulthood onto Sister; once they left Catholic school, they had the free will to make the most of their time, but all four of them are bitter in some way. Diane, in particular, represents this most evidently: “Because I believed you. I believed how you said the world worked, and that God loved us, and the story of the Good Shepherd and the lost sheep; and I don’t think you should lie to people.” Having had two abortions (one of the worst sins, according to Sister and the Catholic doctrine) after being raped and losing her mother to breast cancer, Diane takes out her self-loathing on Sister Mary, the latter character seemingly doing just fine for herself.
Though evil, Sister is not really responsible for all the things that have gone awry in Diane’s life. Diane even says so: “I suppose it is childish to look for blame, part of the randomness of things is that there is no one to blame; but basically I think everything is your fault, Sister.” This narcissistic tendency to blame anyone but the self for one’s own suffering is echoed in The Believer. After harassing Jews in a kosher restaurant, Balint and his skinhead crew are sent to sensitivity training, where they must listen to the experiences of Holocaust survivors. Balint, however, blames one Jewish man for letting the Nazis kill his son, accusing him of playing the victim and not fighting back. In fact, Balint’s main argument against the Jews is that they almost always allow themselves to be victimized: this is, he says, what defines Judaism, the comfort Jews take in being suppressed because they have become so used to it throughout history. Oppression has become their “distinct social identity.”
Making our way back to Disgraced, Amir’s wife Emily is an artist, whose main inspiration for her paintings is — ironically — Islam. She argues that it is a beautiful, peaceful religion, but she herself is a WASP. Amir, claiming he knows better, argues that there is nothing admirable about Muslim culture. Amir Kapoor — along with Daniel Balint and Sister Mary’s former students — exhibits an extreme narcissism in his approach to defying religion. This degree of self-absorption is examined in a Psychological Inquiry piece, written by Ryan P. Brown and Jennifer K. Bosson:
Why […] is the narcissistic self continually ‘under construction’? […] narcissists may be less like their mythical namesake, who eventually found the greatest love of all in his own reflections, than they are like Sisyphus, forever doomed by the gods to roll his boulder up the mountainside, only to be foiled by the pull of gravity before reaching the top.
In this essay, narcissism is debunked as little more than self-destruction. I would then place the source of this self-destructive arrogance in religious envy. Amir is jealous of Emily because she can express her love for Islamic culture without any serious repercussions (since the accusation of her Orientalism is nothing compared to him being shunned at work or potentially losing his job), while he himself cannot have that privilege because he is an immigrant — an inferior, a vulnerable Muslim living in an anti-Islamic setting. The climatic scene where he beats Emily was instigated by the revelation that she is a cheater, but the brutality has been fueled from day one: she has the religious freedom that he will never be able to possess. Amir’s truest moment in the entire play is the “bit of pride” he felt on September 11th. Why? “[…] we were finally winning.”
It is the same concept that makes The Believer a poignant work of art: in the wrong hands, Balint’s unbelievably articulate musings on the destruction of Judaism could spark terror of unimaginable proportions. But thank God for Ryan Gosling’s acting — his truest moment is not any of his anti-Semitic rants or when he inflicts violence on Jews (or his fellow skinheads). It is in a flashback where he envisions himself in the previously mentioned Holocaust survivor’s memory. Balint first is the Nazi soldier killing the Jew’s infant son, but later on, he replays the flashback, this time in the role of the Jewish man. As the neo-Nazi, he still very much hates Jews (how they let themselves be oh so comfortable in the role of victims), but as the Jewish man, he lets himself express his love and pride in his religion, his devotion to Judaism.
What makes the three works I have chosen worthy of further examination is that their authors are willing to push past comfortable boundaries and present the truth — the raw, often unpleasant truths of mankind and what religion can drive people to do. Sister Mary Ignatius was criticized for so blatantly satirizing Catholicism. No major film studio was willing to pick up The Believer for release, and it took Ayad Akhtar over a decade to feel comfortable — and confident with himself — to write Disgraced. Akhtar, along with Durang and Bean, took the risk to present what people don’t necessarily want to hear about, but rather, what people of this era need: a rude-awakening, a change in mindset about organized religion and self-faith, and a telling of the truth without the burdening chains of censorship (so prevalent in post-9/11 America).
In his Viewpoint article “Overt Censorship, A Fatal Mistake?”, Jean-Loup Richet muses:
[…] it has been clear that in many ways overt censorship has always served to stimulate interest in the forbidden material. In the case of samizdat, this forbidden material became strongly fetishized in such a way as to make its contents immediately appealing, and immediately accepted by many sections of the population as truth.
Often, the truth is controversial, and so much so that those of a narrower mind are unwilling to accept it. The article deals with Twitter blocking a German neo-Nazi account that advocated anti-Semitic agendas. But, in turn, many Tweeters became more aware of this account after it was blocked, sparking interest in something that really should not have garnered that kind of attention. Smart people are aware of this pattern, and the narcissists of the world use it to their fullest advantage. Balint will always “win” in situations because, when with his skinhead posse, he possesses an unparalleled anti-Semitic intellect in addition to his knowledge of Judaism. You cannot hate something unless you really know it, front to back, top to bottom. When around his Jewish family and friends, on the other hand, he can always outsmart them, not only because he was the brightest yeshiva student, but because he knows how to make the Jewish culture and community crumble — metaphorically, and later, quite literally.
Amir Kapoor knows that it is absolutely, positively, one hundred percent wrong and forbidden to express even a blush of Islamic pride for what terrorists did on 9/11. And yet he does it anyway, simply to win an argument in the room at the time, to assert his narcissistic intellect, and to prove how, no matter how much you study Islamic art and culture, no one knows Islam better than the guy who was raised Muslim — the same guy who excelled in the art of hiding it and choosing with free will when to let it come to the surface.
But perhaps no one does it best than Sister Mary Ignatius. The “forbidden fruit” in Richet’s article is exactly what Diane, Aloysius, Gary, and Philomena end up eating. They have gay sex, they get abortions, they have children out of wedlock. It is a Catholic nun’s worst nightmare — but Sister Mary is no ordinary nun. She may not have expected her former students to turn out so terribly anti-Catholic, but she never seems less than prepared for it. Richet concludes in his article: “The process of overt censorship here only served to elevate the censored material to a sacred status. It is clear that it also serves to expose a government’s intentions, and in many cases to undermine the government’s credibility.” What the sins in the Catholic doctrine expose about Catholics is that they are very much insecure and afraid of all of these forbidden actions: sex out of marriage, killing fetuses, homosexual relations, etc. But, reiterating, Sister Mary, while clearly devoted to Catholicism, does not let her religion overpower her. Rather, it is Sister Mary who controls and commands Catholicism — taking it into her own use to propel her own objectives (as what Balint does with Judaism and anti-Semitism, as what Amir does with Islam to counterattack his critics and seemingly unenlightened friends).
Thus, even though Catholicism may not have won in the end of Durang’s play, Sister Mary most certainly did. Diane and company thought that exposing their sins to Sister would make her feel embarrassed, but the only thing that is revealed to us is how fucked up these former students have become because they were not devoted to Catholicism enough to have a happy life, and if they were so adamant about rejecting their faith overall, they wouldn’t feel the need to come back to Sister to rub it in her face, now would they? Again, the religious envy comes up: Diane, Gary, Aloysius, and Philomena do not have the unwavering strength of their faith or point of view as Sister Mary does. They do not love Catholicism nor hate it enough to stand up to Sister, and thus, their jealousy ultimately results in their self-loathing — and, eventually, Diane and Gary’s death, along with Philomena and Aloysius being abused, victimized, and thrown away like garbage.
And now, after discussing the definition of religion, the root of narcissism, and the cause of religious envy, we can finally solidify our last point, and probably our most important dilemma: the manifestation of religious self-hatred. Manu Bazzano in “Magnificent Monsters” offers a wonderful summary of how hatred is the biggest indicator of an inferiority complex:
[Knut Løgstrup] defines hatred as perverse intimacy. If I hate someone, I am implicitly admitting my inferiority towards that person. We hate those who would defeat us if we were to openly challenge them in open, honourable combat.
Unlike anger, whose fire is pure, hatred is simulation. We refuse to own up to our helplessness, so we project it on the other, thus succeeding in maintaining a peculiar proximity with our opponent.
As stated before, Sister’s ex-students hate her because they feel inferior to her unshakable faith and consistent self-confidence. I find Bazzano’s “[…] defeat us if we were to openly challenge them in open, honourable combat” bit almost laughable because that is precisely what happens in Durang’s story. When it comes down to Sister Mary vs. her students, the latter never won in their childhood, and never once stood a chance in their adulthood.
Amir hates Islam because he can never escape his roots; he hates himself for not finding some sort of liberation to express his heritage. His self-contempt rises with Emily’s continuous religious freedom. Amir feels proud of his faith only during occurrences like 9/11, because that’s when his people appear to be winning — finally, his fellow Muslims are fighting back. Finally, they are no longer the victims. They are capable of showing their prejudice and pride.
Daniel Balint — and, most likely, as with the real-life Daniel Burros — hates Judaism because he himself does not want to be associated with victims. He unleashes his self-hatred by almost begging others to destroy him: when he beats up a random Jewish boy on the street, all he wants is for the boy to hit him back, just as he accuses the Holocaust survivor of doing nothing to fight back against the Nazis. In a sick way, Balint victimizes Jews in hopes that one day, one of them will prove him wrong and fight back — mercilessly. Gosling’s self-hating Jew wants a self-loving Jew to stand up for himself, for his “distinct social identity”, and for Judaism as whole.
And, wrapping it around once more to Durang’s play, the ex-students could never hate Sister Mary as much as they hate themselves. Sister Mary was the one who made their childhoods a living hell, but, ultimately, they could not keep the honor of Catholicism through with adulthood. They have no one to blame but themselves. To take a very twisted perspective, Sister Mary killing Diane and Gary and scaring the shit out of Philomena and Aloysius were real blessings. Diane’s life was one tragedy after another; she could never be redeemed or satisfied by anything. Gary was naïve and, after sleeping with hundreds of men, was carelessly ruining other people’s lives just for his own sexual pleasure. Philomena’s rude awakening could propel her to turn her life around, and Aloysius might actually stand up for himself after the play’s events. Sister Mary is by no means a saint, but to say she is the devil is not completely correct, either. In her very fucked up point of view, she truly does work for the greater good of God’s “plan”.
Sister Mary’s agenda, thus, is none too different from the likes of Daniel Balint or Amir Kapoor. The excessively proud, judgmental, narcissistic, and self-loathing religious fanatics of the world all, deep down and to the core, want one thing: to further their religion. Whether it be — respectively, Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam — the self-haters yearn to get rid of the weak, the unbelievers, and the ones that may mean well but ultimately lack full devotion to their faith.
Akhtar, Ayad. Disgraced: A Play. New York: Back Bay, 2013. Print.
Bazzano, Manu. “Magnificent Monsters.” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis 25.2 (2014): 203–13. EBSCO, Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Brown, Ryan P., and Jennifer K. Bosson. “Narcissus Meets Sisyphus: Self-Love, Self-Loathing, and the Never-Ending Pursuit of Self-Worth.” Psychological Inquiry 12.4 (2001): 210–13. JSTOR. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Durang, Christopher. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Christopher Durang Explains It All for You: Six Plays. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. 167–214. Print.
Hasan, Mehdi. “Fear and Loathing in Manhattan.” New Statesman. EBSCO, 1 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Richet, Jean-Loup. “Overt Censorship: A Fatal Mistake?” Communications of the ACM. EBSCO, Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
The Believer. Dir. Henry Bean. Perf. Ryan Gosling and Summer Phoenix.
Fireworks Entertainment, 2001. DVD.
Thompson, Simon. “Freedom of Expression and Hatred of Religion.” Ethnicities 12.2 (2012): 215–32. SAGE Journals. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
NOTE: this essay was my final paper for Theatre & Religion, a class I took during my sophomore year at NYU Tisch.
Thank you for reading! Peace & love.