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Dialing down rage in America

On November 2nd, 2018

I read and weep about the rage and division poisoning America right now, particularly on the eve of the most fiercely battled mid-term elections in my memory.

My worry is that all this anger and division, now being stoked by both political parties, is fomenting the recent violence we’re seeing – the bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, the slaughter in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, the recent shootings of two black men – and we haven’t seen anything yet.

Infectious hate speech

Psychiatrist Richard Friedman, who recently wrote about the neuroscience of hate speech in the New York Times, said that ‘repeated exposure to hate speech can increase prejudice, as a series of Polish studies confirmed last year’ largely because it "normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior."

He also quotes Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychologist, who has shown that distrust of an ‘out-group’ – someone not like you – is linked to a greater tendency toward anger and violence: people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers or receive approval from authority figures to do so.

One of the most famous studies of the individual’s relation to the dynamics of groups in an authoritarian environment is the Stanford Prison Experiment carried out in 1971.

Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo created a mock prison in which a group of middle-class young men, especially screened to be the most psychologically stable of all those who volunteered, were randomly assigned the roles of guards and prisoners, with Zimbardo assuming the role of prison supervisor.

The experiment quickly got out of hand. The ‘prisoners’ were given prisoner “uniforms,” referred to only by number, and made to follow arbitrary orders and punishments in order to mimic the dehumanizing aspects of prison.

The guards became more and more demanding and aggressive in creating and enforcing rules, finally subjecting the prisoners to degrading and even pornographic tasks, and the prisoner students accepted their humiliating treatment (even though they knew they could leave at any time during the experiment).

Zimbardo himself had gotten so drawn into his role of prison supervisor that it took an outsider — a student visiting the experiment — to alert him to how badly the situation had deteriorated. The truthsayer eventually became Zimbardo’s wife.

This pivotal study has been cited in psychology classes ever since as proof positive that groups have an automatic Lord-of-the-Flies effect, causing people to shed their moral judgment, even their humanity, when subjected to a strong authority figure.

Another take on the experiment

In 2002, two British social psychologists, Alexander Haslam at Exeter and Stephen Reicher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, wished to revisit these ideas by recreating the Stanford University experiment. Funded and filmed by the British Broadcasting Company (and eventually shown on TV as The Experiment), the two psychologists created an elaborate prison, and again randomly assigned a group of men the roles of either prisoners or guards.

Over eight days, the experimenters witnessed stunning developments. Although the prisoners were initially demoralized, the group dynamics shifted over time.

As the prisoners began to develop a sense of shared identity, they began to function effectively as a group and also enjoyed improved morale and mental well-being.

This shared identity also led to improved health profiles; the prisoners experienced a lowering of cortisol – the hormone pumped by the body in times of stress.

As the experiment carried on, the prisoners became stronger, happier, and empowered. The guards, on the other hand, who had not bonded as a group, became increasingly dispirited and powerless, exhibiting high levels of cortisol. Eventually the prisoners staged a breakout and the authority of the guards collapsed.

Even as a beleaguered group, the BBC prisoners remained robustly immune to treatment by the guards — so long as they could connect with others in the same boat. In fact, the more they were oppressed as a group, the stronger they became.

Social psychologist Willem Doise suggests that one way that we can come together and overcome our differences is by “cross-cutting categories” — attaching ourselves to more than one group.

That practice not only reduces the prejudice against “out” groups but also tends to stop people from making comparisons. It reduces our need to relate to just a single factor — religion, sexual identity, or politics or even socio-economic background — in order to feel that we belong.

As psychologists put it, people who belong to many groups create a “superordinate” identity for themselves, which in itself has been shown to reduce prejudice and fear.

In a study of religious diversity, American Grace, Robert Putnam discovered that America is becoming increasingly tolerant of religious diversity and far more disposed to having family members marry outside their own church.  Contact and familiarity between dissimilar groups did in fact breed acceptance, even if ethnic or political diversity does not, at the moment.

That suggests that acceptance and cooperation can be cultivated – and restored.

The same is true of our political alliances as Americans.

Want to stop creating hate and division in your town and neighborhood? It’s very simple. Create a bowling league, or a book group and invite Democrats and Republicans. Or start a Neighborhood Watch and invite both sides.

Like overlapping molecules, we can learn to connect again and reclaim our natural way of being by creating a larger, all-embracing identity, a bigger definition of who “we” are. The more groups you can label as part of yourself, the more people you will embrace.

Comments

comments

9 responses to “Dialing down rage in America”

  1. Fantastic article, Lynne. Thank you for all you are doing to help us come together and discover the innate power we have within us to create a peaceful world.

  2. Dori says:

    I’ve admired you for years. I am really disappointed in your bothsiderism about the hate speech, when the vast majority of it is coming from the White House and Republican candidates. The Democratic Party is focusing on health care, social security and Medicare being retained. They are not stirring up fear and hate about immigrants and people of color, nor are they chanting to lock up anyone who disagrees with them, or calling the free press the enemy of the people. Your opening statement is making a false equivalencey.

    • Donna says:

      I guess hatred is in the eye of the beholder, Dori. I lean right at this time, although I haven't always, and see way more hateful speech and acts coming from the left than I do from the right. Lynne is right on, and her "bothsiderism" as you call it is the only type of viewpoint that stands any chance of bringing this country back together. You need to follow Lynne's advice and join some groups that welcome folks from both sides so you are not isolated within groups that share your hard left viewpoint, preaching to the choir so to speak and only becoming more radically incensed and offended. You only see the good the left is doing and are blind to the bad, and just the opposite for the right. If you socialize with people on the right you will learn that the right is composed of many good people, not just the few haters that the media focuses on.

  3. Lynne McTaggart says:

    Hi Dori, while a majority of divisive speaking has come from the Republicans, the Democratic politicians have attacked people with ideas different from theirs too (remember 'basket of deplorables'?) My point isn't pointing the finger, it's trying to remind people that united, we stand, and I'm appealing to ordinary Americans to stand together. After all, all of us are being manipulated to be divisive.

  4. Jeane says:

    I don't see your blogpost as sanctioning hate speech; quite the contrary. And isn't encouraging conversation between both sides, whether political or religious or whatever, the point of it? Thank you for this post, Lynn.

  5. For me Lynne takes a very important mindful and wise point of view showing where we all can grow at the moment...it is on neither side right to point to "the others" and just blame on them, even if we think we are on the right side. Of course I do not agree at all with the aggressive and dangerous way to politicize of the current American presidency, and we have to stand strongly for a democratic world for everybody. But for me the question for "us" on the "right side", and even more if we are on spiritual path, is: - can I reach out to bridge the differences? How can I depolarize? And if everything is connected -how can I stay in love with "the enemies"? Maybe that's our very important contribution at this decisive point, to stay in inner and outer connection with everybody, to enable that we can meet in the middle, and feel more and more of our common ground to build on a cooperative, wholesome future.

  6. Pippa says:

    Brilliant article, thanks Lynne.
    It's difficult to do the 'Us and Them' way of thinking when we're all sitting around the table, enjoying a meal together.

  7. Nicole says:

    Thank you for this article. I was just sharing in a group I have on Facebook to notice how we are “being manipulated to be divisive.” I like your choice of words.
    I appreciate this article and sharing it. I see fear growing in the division and desperate people can take desperate actions I need this kind of information to stay in check myself and my desire for US to do better.

    Oh and the whole slogan LOVE Trumps HATE when that was going down didn’t help US aim high.
    So thanks for Sharing some wisdom.
    I am expanding my circles and it helps plus I am introducing the power of 8 to my women’s circle.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you Lynne. I understand, and also understand Dori’s concerns. I too am concerned about the false equivalency that Dori speaks about. It is in our journalistic blood to try to balance sides. Living here in the US points up the trouble journalists are having in this arena. Incitement of violence and invitations to a base to attack the others is very different than a description. Protests and disagreements, even strong ones, are very different than a sitting president abusing his power at the expense of those without agency. I write to share this only because we are in such a struggle here, and so many of us are trying so hard to keep this fascism from burgeoning, and I thought yourinternational audience might like to know. We must work on the level of intent, even as we risk everything to stand with the oppressed for justice in the world we see. Thank you for you important work.

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