Lisa Keating: ‘How do we heal ourselves in a political world that doesn’t want us to?’
November 7, 2008
Most of us are guilty: age jokes, racial slurs and sexist comments, even if we don’t consider ourselves bigoted. As I reflect on the 2008 election and our current political climate, I find myself wondering what it is about this election that seems to have elicited these unbecoming behaviors from us in more public and extreme ways? I relied on social psychology, and my older relatives (Democrats, Republicans and an Independent) who have survived 70-plus years of politics, to shed some light on this topic.
Perhaps it is the newness of it all: an African American candidate on one ticket and a woman on the other. While we should be proud that as a country we have become more open-minded and progressive, change is always uncomfortable and comes with growing pains. My mother, Joy Keating, noted, “I’ve been thinking about this campaign. It reminds me a lot of when John F. Kennedy ran for president. It was the first time the person running was not from a Protestant religion, and let me tell you it was a huge deal, probably as big as Barack Obama being a black man. Just like today, many people didn’t care how eloquently he spoke, or how brilliant he was, or what he believed in. In my opinion, many people vote their prejudice rather than the more important qualities of the person.”
Perhaps it is the savvy of politicians these days: Politicians distort facts, scare us, and make us angry with half-truths designed to create our more extremist views. My Uncle Bernie Keating noted, “The extreme partisan politics of both the Depression era and post-war era recessions were different than today. They weren’t personal; they were primarily economic as people struggled for their piece of the pie. Perhaps our present day climate has some of that, but I think the new major factor that did not exist in prior times is TV. As a communication medium it is made for extremes, and often seeks the least common denominator.” Similarly, Social psychologist David Myers wrote, “An extreme communicator on one’s side of an issue tends to be perceived as more sincere and competent than a moderate. Hello, talk radio.”
Perhaps it is our desire to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” argues that for the last 30 years our social groups, neighborhoods, churches and clubs have been sorting themselves into politically like-minded groups. When we are around like-minded people we can say off-colored comments because we know they will fall on approving ears. And when we make these types of comments, the group becomes more consolidated in its more extreme view.”
As Mr. Bishop noted, “College kids who join a conservative fraternity move to the right during their four years in college. Liberals from Boulder asked to discuss some issues of the day, such as global warming and gay marriage, are more liberal at the end of their discussion than before. Racists brought into a room to discuss race grow more intolerant. When rulings from three panels from the U.S. Court of Appeals were reviewed, they found that when the panels consisted of all Republican or all Democratic appointees, the rulings were more extreme than when the panels had members of both parties. Mixed panels produced more moderate judgments.” Social psychologists have conducted scores of these “group polarization” experiments and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.
Growing extremism, racism, and sexism surely isn’t the way we want to move as a country. But how do we heal ourselves in a political world that doesn’t want us to? Veronica Miller, author of the article “God Don’t like Ugly,” suggests that we need to remember that jokes are funny, but many of the “jokes” people have been telling come from an ugly place. Don’t tell them yourself, and don’t respond when other people do. Surround yourself with diverse thinkers; when we are in diverse groups we are much more careful about what we say and we are exposed to opinions other than ours. Remember, the best decisions are made from a collective of differing opinions. Gather information based on facts and research, coming from all points of view.
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My father, Will Keating, suggested, “Over the years, it seems that negativity has become a scourge on the whole campaign process. The sad part, which doesn’t speak well for you and I, is that it must work. It is hard to believe that the “junk” we receive from both candidates would sway anyone’s vote, but it must or they wouldn’t be engaging in these smear campaigns. It’s disheartening to think that we are so gullible. Maybe next time what we should do is save all of the negative political mail we receive, and on the day before the election we should separate it by the candidate who mailed it. Whichever candidate has the most poundage, vote for his or her opponent.”
Perhaps we all just need to remember that ‘God don’t like ugly.’
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.