What a week! First, there’s the revolting rant from right wing radical and the sovereignly exalted Cliven Bundy of Bunkerville, NV. Next we were treated to the rantings of the president of the National Rifle Association whose world view would have us all locked in our closets, terrified of strangers, neighbors, relatives… And, now there’s Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers telling his girlfriend he’d rather she not bring African Americans to ‘his’ basketball games.
We’ve gotten a spectacle ranging from the sordid to the insipid, from racist commentary and well-revised history to commercial paranoia. All of this magnified by the magic of television and the breadth of the Internet. All of this essentially predicated on fear.
There’s some hair splitting involved in discussing fear — the biochemical elements, the emotional elements, the origins and the psychological implications of fear and anxiety. [FutHealth] [MHuk] However, when we get past the age at which we want to pet the lion at the zoo but are frightened of the neighbor’s dog (maybe age 6) the fears are taught, such as our response to other people: “Our response will be based on how we have been taught to feel about the other.” [Bederman HuffPo] And, racism, once inculcated, is a sticky business:
“The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these despicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.” [PsychologyToday]
Thus for the Sterlings and Bundys of the planet there is something to be feared from these ‘others.’ They harbor, and nurture, the concept that there must be a hidden inner something which makes them who they are, and renders those unlike themselves undesirable.
So, for Bundy, whether he’s been in North Las Vegas once or fifty time, each time he will see himself as literally the white knight (positive) and the people sitting on the front porch shooting the breeze as evidence of his imagined “despicable traits. (negative)” All it will take is one exemplar of an individual who is otherwise capable of employment but who chooses not to work — or to find illegal forms of employment — to confirm his bias that ‘they’ all have an assortment of latent anti-social traits just waiting to emerge.
LaPierre’s patently commercial bias in favor of the proliferation of firearms dove tails nicely into the notion that there are all manner of evil people in this world and a person should be so fearful of them that it is necessary to be armed at all times. You never know when you might run into someone with ‘despicable traits.’ Of course, for the majority of Americans, as demonstrated by the statistics in the previous post, there is no reason to feel particularly fearful of anyone in just about any setting.
Needless to say, the NRA and other gun enthusiasts, were skeptical of reports that the number of U.S. households with guns is on a downward trend. [NYT] However, numbers are numbers, and there’s a high probability we’re seeing a decreasing number of households with an increasing number of guns. This would make the gun manufacturers afraid of the commercial trends, and the enthusiasts more likely to gin up reasons why we should all be so afraid of something, someone, that we’ll decide to purchase the products.
What could be easier than playing the dog whistle politics game and thereby stoking the fears of the already receptive? What’s the image in the mind of the Bundy-Sterlings when we say “thug?” Or, “carjacker?” Or, “Welfare Queen?”
We know that the face of welfare is really Caucasian, we know that most homicides are committed by people known to the victim, and we know the statistics demonstrate that gun ownership is more likely to cause harm than to prevent the completion of a crime. However, none of this will alleviate the fears among the fearful when they apply their toxic mix of essentialist thinking to their outgroup biases. There’s one other concept which may be added to the mix and could serve to explain other issues. Zero Sum thinking.
In the Zero Sum Fallacy it is held that for someone to win someone else must necessarily be losing. The individual receiving SNAP benefits is perceived as “taking” something from the person who is not. A longer perspective readily yields why this thinking is fallacious. The Zero Sum theory works, IF and only IF the recipient of the benefit hoards it and doesn’t contribute, or recycle, the benefit back to the economy or the society. This doesn’t happen in the real world.
If the person receiving the SNAP benefits spends the money at the local grocery the expenditure adds to the local economy. No one sews up SNAP benefits in the mattress. If a youngster receives an education at a state supported school his additional training will easily convert to greater productivity and employment opportunities, and everyone benefits thereby. If a department of transportation accepts bids from contractors for a new highway the tax dollars are recycled in the economy by the employees, and add value to public assets. And so it goes. [Gregg]
If essentialist thinking mixes with outgroup bias informed by zero sum thinking the problems are obvious. They, who are either evidently or latently (essentialist) less worthy people (outgroup bias), are out to take (Zero Sum thinking) something away.
The next time some conservative talker gets on a good rant, instead of yelling at the impervious electronic devise transmitting the broadcast, try identifying the (1) essentialist thinking — groups of people have intrinsic traits which are either obvious or latent; (2) outgroup bias — groups of people are ‘others’ and unworthy of the position in which the ingroup is held; and (3) zero sum thinking — if someone is getting something then someone is winning at someone else’s expense.
And the only thing we have to fear are those fearful people.