On Isms, Part 1

I see a number of recurring trends with some of the more pervasive social problems, and I can’t help but think they stem from the interaction of a few powerful subconscious processes. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

1) People generally want to think of themselves (and their in-groups) as being good people. Even when this does not hold, people still view themselves as better than out-group members.

2) The status quo is the normal state of affairs and is thus assumed to be correct (or the null hypothesis).

Add on to this the following proposition, and you can see how stagnation can take root:

3) A criticism of one’s in-group is often interpreted as a direct personal attack.

  • Because membership in a group conveys a schema, an attack on that group also becomes an attack on that schema, which has become part of a person’s self-identity. See again self-schema/self-image, linked above. Additionally, the individual may feel a need to respond to feelings of guilt-by-association—another fallacy.

Before you start writing up an angry response, these attitudes, and coping mechanisms aren’t universal. Don’t waste your time by whining, “Not everyone is like this!” I know. I just said so. But a significant number of people are, and this is why consciousness-raising is important. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the case with all people. Stay with me until the end. Keep reading…

* * *

All of this converges into the background necessary for motivated reasoning to take place. Wait, what? What is motivated reasoning? It’s a way of maintaining beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. Let’s see an example of one possible type of motivated reasoning (what follows is not the only possible process):

A: The American values of freedom and equality are founded on Christianity!
B: But it’s been used to justify all manner of atrocities that the US condemns. For example, the Bible specifically says that women are inferior to men.
A: Men and women are equal in the eyes of God, but they have different roles to play.
B: Timothy specifically says that women can’t have authority over men. That makes them subordinate.
A: You’re interpreting it wrong. A true Christian knows that (verse X) means that men and women are equal.

Because A identifies as a Christian, Christian is a salient self-schema. This label is at risk of being cast in a negative light; A’s Christianity being under threat makes A feel cognitive dissonance. This activates subconscious defense mechanisms to eliminate these uncomfortable, stressful feelings. In this case, this is accomplished by A’s attempt to shift the target of B’s criticism from Christian, which is part of A’s self-image, to Untrue Christian, which is not. Thus, A no longer feels threatened by B’s accusation. Note that it does not matter whether A’s claim is factually true; all that matters is that A believes it to be true, as this allows A to mitigate or eliminate those dissonant feelings. Believers and nonbelievers alike fall into this trap.

How many times does this conversation (or one very much like it) take place on the Internet every day? One rarely hears someone say, “Yes, the Bible does say that, but my church rejects that passage. We believe in equality regardless of whatever discriminatory things might be in our holy book.”

These processes play a role in any number of social interactions. Let’s look at two examples from the United States: is the US racist and sexist? (If you’re not an American, I might be about to bore you. Sorry about that.)

There can be no question that race and sex equality have not yet been actualized. Economic data show that Women make almost 20% less than what men make for doing the same jobs (Edit: Oops. That’s an oversimplification, and the figure may not be entirely reliable. Substitute instead “less than men in almost every single field“). Racial minorities are several times more likely to go to jail than their Caucasian counterparts, and when they do go to jail, their sentences are more severe (click the .pdf link for the original source). There is no good defense of this. This is not what equality looks like.

If you’re an American, that feeling creeping into the back of your mind is cognitive dissonance. Let me try to predict what you’re probably thinking.

Legally, there are defense mechanisms in place to prevent racism and sexism. The laws clearly indicate that discrimination based on race and sex are illegal; these are protected classes under the Constitution. The United States very highly values equality, and most people in society believe that we are equal with no regard to these factors. Thus, of course the US is neither sexist nor racist.

(See how much better you feel now?)

But do the laws actually matter? Can a law change someone’s belief? As I’ve mentioned previously, the answer is no (not directly, anyway*). Even though we can’t credit the law for your preference for equality, odds are very high that you’re not a racist or a sexist. I know you’re a good person, so we’re still cool in my book. (Besides, you’re still reading, so you just have to be a good person.)

The problem isn’t that individuals hold racist or sexist beliefs, however. The problem is that we’ve patted ourselves on the back because we had the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve stopped too soon! Yes, specific instances of explicit discrimination based on ~ism are illegal, but the structure of society—specific policies and the ideologies behind them—disadvantage members of these political minorities. Those disadvantages have long-term consequences.

In the sense that you didn’t create this social structure, it’s hard to blame you. At the same time, however, these systematic flaws that disadvantage minorities at higher rates only perpetuate as long as people don’t actively try to change them. If you’re not part of a social justice movement, at least nominally, it’s possible that you’re contributing to the problem. While you may not be trying to increase discrimination, you certainly aren’t helping.

But now it’s very possible that I’ve primed you for more cognitive dissonance. (I’m just not very nice, am I? Toying with you like this.) Savor those sensations. Study them.

I believe in social justice! I support equality!

Yes, I’m sure you do. I’m not trying to say that you don’t. I actually believe you. But now we’ve come to the crux of the matter, haven’t we? In suggesting that we’re not doing enough to fix the problem (because I’m just as much a part of society as you are, my words applied equally to me as they did to you—or did you think I hadn’t noticed?), I’ve very possibly caused you to experience the phenomena I laid out at the beginning of this article—and even if I haven’t, you can surely see how such a thing is possible.

I have challenged the status quo, and as such, I have accused the larger group (Americans) of inadequacy; in doing so, I have threatened your American self-schema. I have also directly questioned your status as a good person by suggesting some of the responsibility for these social problems rests on your shoulders. Yours. You specifically.**

Am I wrong? As members of a democratic society, we decide on our own laws (or at least the people who do so for us). Each of us has the power to shape the country’s legislative agenda, and the ideological landscape that disadvantages political minorities is a social one. The force necessary to change either of these things is the same—the will of the people.

If you’re one of the people working for a solution, then I thank you for your efforts. If you’re not, can you say that my charges against you are false?

I’ll be posting a follow-up piece to this one very soon, so stay tuned!


*  We get many of our values and beliefs from other people through social interaction. Thus, by seeing that
others obey the laws, it's possible to internalize the idea that the laws should be obeyed. In this way,
laws can shape your views, but I'd argue that they're still ultimately caused by people. (There's also some
biology at work.)

** Also me. It's my fault too. In a way, this article is an attempt to help fix things.

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