Friday, October 04, 2013

The Only Thing We Have To Fear....

Kevin Drum links to an interesting study (summarized here; full-text is here for people who, unlike me, have access to these sorts of things) about why people listen to talk radio. The answer is it provides an affirming space where they can express their political opinions in a welcoming environment without fear of social sanction. And the reason conservative talk radio is so much more popular than its liberal counterpart is that conservatives are far more fearful of a particular type of social sanction: being called a racist.
In conversation with conservatives, liberals risk being called naïve or willfully blind to potential threats—not very pleasant labels, but not especially damaging ones, either. In contrast, conservatives risk accusations of racism—and “being called a racist carries a particular cultural force,” the researchers write.

“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the mind of conservative fans (we interviewed),” they report. Every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist, and did so without even being asked.

“What makes accusations of racism so upsetting for respondents is that racism is socially stigmatized, but also that they feel powerless to defend themselves once the specter is raised,” the researchers add. “We suspect that this heightened social risk increases the appeal of the safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs, and may partially explain the overwhelming conservative dominance of outrage-based political talk media.”
I think any White person at least feels a ping of recognition here. I didn't always have the views of race and racism that I do now, and I remember when I viewed the charge of "racism" in much the same way -- a bolt of lightening, wanton and capricious, impossible to predict, and terribly destructive. I try to remember that outlook because I remember who I was then: I wasn't some monster or Klansman in training, and (obviously) I was still in a position where I could eventually be persuaded to think more critically about the role of racism in contemporary American life.

That being said, one thing that I think often gets lost in these discussions is who is benefitted by viewing racism this way. Let's use Drum's discussion as an example:
It's obvious that race infuses a tremendous amount of American discourse. It affects our politics, our culture, and our history. Racial resentment is at the core of many common attitudes toward social welfare programs; our levels of taxation; and the current occupant of the White House. There's no way to write honestly about politics in America without acknowledging all this on a regular basis.

At the same time, it's also obvious that, in many ways, a liberal focus on race and racism is just flatly counterproductive. When I write about, say, the racial obsessions displayed by Fox News (or Drudge or Rush Limbaugh), it's little more than a plain recitation of obvious facts, and liberals applaud. Ditto for posts about the self-described racial attitudes of tea partiers. But conservatives see it as an attack. And why wouldn't they? I'm basically saying that these outlets are engaged in various levels of race-mongering, and by implication, that anyone who listens to them is condoning racism. That's such a uniquely toxic accusation that it makes any real conversation hopeless. Cognitively, the only way to respond is to deny everything, and that in turn forces you to believe that liberals are obviously just lying for their own partisan ends. This feeds the vicious media-dittohead circle, and everyone withdraws one step more.
Drum identifies a paradox: We have to talk about racism, but talking about racism renders conversation impossible. Racism is a "such a uniquely toxic accusation that it makes any real conversation hopeless."

But here's the thing: there's no reason why that has to be true. When we talk about homelessness, for example, and I argue that a particular political position is unfair to the homeless, it doesn't have this effect. Racism is different: to talk about racial justice at all is automatically translated into a personal attack on the target's moral character. And once that's the terrain of the discussion, we've insulated the underlying policy differences from critical review. All conversations about racism are converted into inquisitions into whether or not someone is a conscious bigot. Since they know they're nothing of the sort, the "accusation" is dismissed and the "accuser" is labeled a race-baiter. One may have noticed that even if one takes great pains to frame an argument such that it does not call anybody a racist, the stock response nevertheless will be "are you calling me a racist?!!?" Why are they so eager to make the debate about something so "toxic"? It's because that's actually very easy terrain to deal with.

Framing racism as a "toxic" accusation benefits the status quo racial hierarchy. Most obviously, it does so by insulating policies which have racial impacts from meaningful scrutiny. More subtly, it allows proponents of maintaining racial hierarchy to maintain their self-perception as anti-racist. This whole gambit depends on asserting the exceptional moral seriousness of racism (else how could it be so "toxic"?). One often hears the claim that a given charge of racism is spurious coupled with the assertion that such frivolous accusations "make it harder to oppose real racism" -- a reassertion of racism as something that is serious and does need to be opposed. The net result is that racism is so serious that nothing ever actually can be racist -- a neat equilibrium, for those who want to identify as non-racist but don't want to actually change anything about themselves.

For this reason, in Sticky Slopes I warn that ratcheting up the moral condemnation associated with "racism" isn't necessarily a good thing -- as we increase the seriousness of the norm, we decrease the range of behaviors people are willing to accept may be in violation of it. Racial liberals probably had a great role to play in giving "racism" its toxic reputation; but racial conservatives have powerful cognitive incentives to continue perceiving it this way.


EW said...

Allegedly the way to beat a rape conviction for your client is not to try to minimize the charge; to the contrary, you magnify it. What a rare, heinous deed! Only the most depraved monster could ever engage in such an act! You call to the jurors’ minds every image they’ve ever had about rape – an unspeakably violent act committed in a park or alley between strangers.

And then you trot out your client, the defendant – a nice college boy in a sweater, accused of forcing himself upon his ex-girlfriend and classmate in his dorm room. And now it scarcely matters what the prosecution can prove. The facts of the case simply do not match the images in the jurors’ minds. This articulate, even contrite young man simply does not fit the description of a monster; nor do any of the other circumstances conform to their expectations.

Evidence suggests that rape is a regrettably common act committed between intimate friends. But when we appeal to people’s opprobrium by constantly referring to the most appalling type of stranger rape – which is a much rarer event -- we desensitize them to the more common form of rape.

I sense the same dynamic applies to racism – only more so. The greatest harm of racism is almost certainly the harm of institutional racism: the myriad subtle messages that prompt us all – including people of every race – to draw assumptions about each other. Arguably, racism (and sexism and ageism and ….) is the human condition, a heuristic we adopt not for its accuracy, but because we crave information in an uncertain world, and racism lets us imagine that we have more information about each other than we really do. These preconceptions feed a psychological need, and thus will resist extinction probably forever.

We can always stir opprobrium against racism by evoking stories of lynchings and Bull Connor’s dogs and water cannons. But we can’t then be surprised that people rebel at the suggestion that we’re all prone to racism, or that racism is manifest in something as innocuous as unemployment statistics.

I read someone speculating about the day when we can treat prejudice as akin to innumeracy: something we can sheepishly acknowledge without a lot of sigma. “This restaurant never fails to impress. No, no, let me pick up the check. But Julie, would you work out the tip for Juan? You know how I am with math, not to mention how I am with Hispanics….”

David Schraub said...

The analogy to rape is one I've thought of as well (the Juan story is also quite amusing).