As I noted in my last post, we have an innate tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroup and outgroup(s), and to apply different versions of morality to each. We associate the ingroup with good, and the outgroup with evil. There was no ambiguity about the identity of the outgroup when this behavior evolved. It was commonly just the closest group to ours. As a result, any subtle but noticeable difference between “us” and “them” was adequate for distinguishing ingroup from outgroup. Today, however, we are aware not only of the next group over, but of a vast number of other human beings with whom we share our planet. Our ingroup/outgroup behavior persists in spite of that. We still see others as either “us” or “them,” often with disastrous results. You might say the trait in question has become dysfunctional. It is unlikely to enhance our chances of survival the way it did in the radically different environment in which it evolved. In modern societies it spawns a myriad forms of prejudice, any one of which can potentially pose an existential threat to large numbers of people. It causes us to stumble from one disaster to another. We respond by trying to apply bandages, in the form of “evil” labels, for the types of prejudice that appear to cause the problem, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc. It is a hopeless game. New forms of prejudice will always pop up to replace the old ones. The only practical way to limit the damage is to understand the underlying innate behavior responsible for all of them. We are far from achieving this level of self-understanding.
Consider, for example, a “scientific” paper written by Daniel Hopkins and Samantha Washington of the University of Pennsylvania entitled The Rise of Trump, the Fall of Prejudice?, that recently appeared on the website of the Social Science Research Network. It came complete with all the scholarly trimmings, including 27 references to other papers. The authors present us with the happy news that a survey they conducted indicates that, in spite of the fact that Trump is a racist, racial prejudice among white Americans has actually fallen during his presidency. In fact, the paper is an excellent example of yet another manifestation of outgroup prejudice, in this case based on ideology rather than race, and affecting the authors of the paper rather than the population sample they studied. Like many other academics, the authors belong to an ingroup defined by unquestioning adherence to an ideological narrative. Like every other ingroup, this one has an outgroup, consisting of anyone who seriously challenges the narrative. Trump, of course, has done just that, and currently serves as the ingroup’s villain-in-chief. As such, he is deemed “bad,” and “immoral” after the fashion of all such villains – guilty of all the ingroup’s favorite sins, including, among others, racism.
This charge of racism cannot even be questioned by anyone who wants to remain a member in good standing of the academic tribe in question. I doubt that the authors have ever wandered far enough outside of their milieu to run into anyone who does question it. It is simply assumed. Thus, as the very first sentence of the paper, we find the following “scientific” statement:
In his campaign and first few years in office, Donald Trump consistently defied contemporary norms by using explicit, negative rhetoric targeting ethnic/racial minorities.
This rather striking claim seems to fly in the face of the explicit statements Trump has actually made condemning racism and racists. It is, however, a fundamental basis of the paper. If it is untrue, then the author’s claims are nonsense. In spite of this rather obvious fact, they do not appear to attach any great importance to backing up the claim. The evidence they present to support it is of the flimsiest. For example, we are told that Trump termed immigrants from Mexico “rapists.” In fact, he never said anything of the sort. He did say that some of the immigrants are rapists, but in view of the fact that there are millions of them, that statement must not only be true, but trivially so. The authors go on to claim that Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration, but that claim, too, is transparently false. He never called for any such thing. Continuing with their “evidence,” the authors tell us that Trump “initially declined to renounce a former KKK leader.” It is hard to see how failure to renounce a supporter can be construed as “explicit racist rhetoric.” Indeed, it is hard to see how it can serve as evidence of racism at all, since those who have not only not renounced but have positively embraced such notorious racists as Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan are not themselves considered racist as a result. As their final piece of “evidence,” the authors tell us that Trump said that,
…there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent confrontation between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In the first place, as anyone knows who has made even a cursory study of the affair, the claim that all those who attended were white supremacists other than the “protesters” is ridiculous. They were a small minority. As for the “protesters,” the authors somehow fail to mention that many of them were Antifa who came with the deliberate goal of provoking violence. In fact, Trump clearly excluded white supremacists from those he described as “fine people.” Here is what he actually said:
Excuse me, they (the attendees, ed.) didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people who were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group who were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come wit the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats – you had a lot of bad people in the other group too.
It would seem that, in view of the President’s actual remarks, in a paper that claims to be “scientific,” the burden of proof is on the authors to explain how that counts as “explicit racist rhetoric.” However, I doubt that they’ve ever even come in contact with anyone who dared to challenge this propaganda hoax. They simply swallow it as true because all of their colleagues have done the same, because it is presented as true in all the “news” outlets they are likely to read, and daring to challenge it would result in quick ostracism from their ingroup.
In short, what the authors have presented as evidence of Trump’s “explicit racist rhetoric” really amounts to a grab bag of ideological shibboleths derived from the narrative that defines their ingroup. Using an assumption based entirely on this threadbare “evidence,” they tell us that they want to “ask a straightforward question,” namely:
Did Trump’s candidacy, rhetoric, and positions on racially inflected issues influence non-Hispanic white Americans’ prejudice against Blacks or Hispanics?
They tell us their data for answering this question was acquired using,
…a novel, 13-wave panel survey conducted with a nationally representative population of American adults between 2007 and 2018. This panel’s demographics match those of the target population closely. Our panel enables us to identify individual-level shifts in white respondents’ prejudice and related racial attitudes.
A seemingly obvious problem here is the possibility that many factors other than Trump may affect racial prejudice. The authors seem to be aware of this objection, writing,
To be sure, changes in expressed prejudices in this period might be the product of factors other than Trump.
No kidding?! The very notion that one can simply assume that Trump has dwarfed all other influences on prejudice in what is supposed to pass as a “scientific” paper reveals the degree to which the authors’ leftist ingroup has become obsessed with him. During the period in question, there has been a massive increase in the use of such racially charged terms as “white privilege” and “white supremacy,” a series of savage punishments in the form of loss of livelihood and vilification in the increasingly ubiquitous social media for anything that can be construed as “prejudice,” and the use of the term “racism” to smear anyone guilty of virtually any heresy against the narrative of this ideologically defined ingroup that now controls the media and the entertainment industry as well as academia. And yet all these and many other potentially significant factors are hand-waved out of existence and ignored. Throughout the rest of the paper it is simply assumed that Trump is the only factor that matters. There is no metric for testing this assumption against the possibility that Trump is only one factor among many or, indeed, that he has had no significant influence on prejudice at all. For that matter, there is not even a convincing argument in favor of the claim that the questions asked in the survey are a valid measure of degrees or amounts of prejudice. Beyond that, the authors do not even entertain the possibility that the assumptions they make in the paper are actually expressions of their own prejudice, although they practically wear that prejudice on their sleeves. What they’ve composed isn’t a work of science, but a badge to identify their own ingroup.
Apparently, the authors are at least aware of the hypothesis that innate behavioral traits have something to do with prejudice. They write,
Extensive recent scholarship starts from the presupposition that prejudice is a fixed predisposition that can be activated. Here, we question that presumption by examining whether Trump’s rhetoric heightened prejudice or inter-group animosity among white Americans.
Here one can but shake one’s head. The stuff they have concocted about the supposed connection between Trump and prejudice is neither here nor there as far as the question of innate human behavior is concerned, because the fundamental assumption upon which it is based is false. As for predispositions, they are just that – predispositions. As such they are by the very definition of the term not “fixed,” as if they were rigid instincts. Indeed, the term only came into general use as a result of the bogus quibble of the Blank Slaters of yore that “instincts” referred exclusively to the rigid or “fixed” innate programming of insects and other simple life forms, even though that claim was pure nonsense. In other words, it was a response to the Blank Slaters’ “genetic determinism” strawman. We may be predisposed to act in certain ways in response to given situations, but our “genes” do not force us to act one way or the other. We can and regularly do override our predispositions. It is this fact that is responsible for the very existence and common use of the term. Predispositions cannot be “fixed,” and I know of no serious scientist who claims that they are “fixed.” They do not program us to have certain forms of prejudice throughout life, based on our early indoctrination. Given the reasons the underlying behavior evolved to begin with, one would expect the opposite – that ingroup/outgroup behavior itself is innate, but that the cues by which we distinguish between the two are malleable, and can change in response to changes in the nature of the groups we happen to be in contact with or are aware of.
In short, if this paper is any indication, we are far indeed from achieving a useful level of self-understanding as far as the issue of prejudice is concerned. We will continue to flounder in the dark, playing the futile game of slapping “evil” labels on each new version of human prejudice as it arises, remaining blind to our own prejudices in the process, until we finally understand what lies at the root of the problem. However, as can be confirmed by consulting your search engine of choice, that hasn’t stopped anyone from using this “scientific study” to prop up whatever narrative they happen to prefer. Steven Pinker has cited it as yet another triumphant vindication of his mantra that, “every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.” Others have cited it as proof that the bad orange man’s attempts to promote white supremacy have failed, that prejudice was worse under that bad Obama than under Trump, etc. I personally feel something more akin to despair over the realization that anyone can take this kind of stuff seriously.