Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices. Especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. (Merriam-Webster)
Bigotry is on the rise all across America. Our increased attacks against each other based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, lifestyle, politics, values, etc. are hard to deny. While President Trump is often blamed for this increase, bigotry is a bit more complicated than that. Yes, Trump certainly pushed many of us over the edge, but the groundwork had been laid well before he came onto the scene.
Shying away from those who are different than us is a very natural and long-standing subconscious survival instinct, as is our attraction to those who are similar to us. Bigotry, however, is often cultivated by factors within society that cause our subconscious to greatly exaggerate our differences to the point of creating perceived threats — something our subconscious also does not handle well.
It is important to understand how our behavior is influenced by our subconscious, which by definition, means that we have no clue it’s going on. If you’re wondering why so many people (including family members, friends, and co-workers), once being perfectly reasonable, have now gone off the rail, it is most likely because their subconscious has been hijacked. Below is a cursory overview of some of our psychological behaviors that, when intertwined with decades of harmful policies, politics, and punditry, laid the groundwork not only for bigotry, but also for many of us to be pacified, tricked, and even controlled. It is recommended that these behaviors be explored in more detail here.
- Without realizing it, prolonged fear or angst makes us retreat to the safety of the people who are familiar to us. Importantly, it therefore also pushes us away from anyone that is different than us — not just the initial source of our fear. Because fear is responsible for keeping us safe, it makes us highly reactive, reducing our ability to reason and properly evaluate our world. We become defensive and begin to see “others” as evil and even as existential threats.
- Having low self-esteem causes us to subconsciously look down on others in order to feel better about ourselves. Low self-esteem and fear work hand-in-hand — when we have low self-esteem we are more susceptible to fear. When we believe there is more to fear then our self-esteem is further diminished — a dark and dangerous spiral.
- When we suffer from low-self esteem we can become vulnerable to charismatic leaders who promise us that they will fix everything. They can easily fan the flames, making us even weaker and driving us even more toward them. They satisfy many of our subconscious needs so we see them as our savior, we emulate them, and we ignore their evil ways.
- Fear and low self-esteem can also drive us to associate ourselves with groups of people like us or who are suffering as we are. Groups often become part of our identity and give us meaning, and because of this, we are constantly conforming to the group in order to maintain our meaning.
- Research has shown that those that self-identify as conservatives are more likely to have a more active amygdala (our brain’s physiological fear processor) resulting in an exaggeration of all of the above.
- People often double down on their position when presented with opposing information or ideas (typically referred to as “motivated reasoning”). This tendency is exacerbated by fear, low self-esteem, and attacks on our beliefs, leaders, groups, etc.
Of course, bigotry can also be passed along to us from our families or communities that embrace it or by those elements of our society that promote or condone it. This can span generations. To some degree, the origins of much of this hand-me-down bigotry can also be traced back to fear, low self-esteem, charismatic leaders, and group identity.
Each of these can take its toll on us individually, but unfortunately, all of them align with the last 50 years of policies, politics, ideologies, and the combined impact of biased media, social media, and social engineering. The combined impact on our individual subconscious and our behavior has been devastating to all of society.
Why Psychology Matters
An environment for bigotry in America has been created by decades of wealth-inspired policies and ideologies that tilted the playing field and left many of us behind with deeply injured self-esteem. That made us vulnerable to the accompanying fear-mongering and scapegoating from conservative media, pundits, and politicians. By the time Donald Trump showed up, our subconscious was in desperate need of a charismatic leader to save us. He easily swooped in and made it all worse. Trump grew even higher in the eyes of his followers as all levels of the Republican Party bowed to him and eagerly supported his racially motivated policies. All of this contributed to bigotry (via fear, low self-esteem, and charismatic leaders) that is deeply embedded in many of us. The fact that these forces are still active today will make it much more difficult to unwind.
Unfortunately, the situation can be made worse by providing countering facts, challenging entrenched beliefs, or attacking adored leaders — all of which only makes people dig in their heels and increase our divide. Democrats are often counterproductive as their actions and words not only activate bigotry-inducing subconscious fear triggers but also provide a steady stream of talking points for Republicans to exploit for years.
In other words, the Left often pushes people away while providing more ways for the Right to lure people in. If we don’t know how to push back against bigotry then we are probably making things worse. Each election cycle will be more critical and more emotional for each side, and therefore, more desperate and dangerous. Elections will be more about a vengeful power grab and not about policy. Each election will be challenged, the hatred will grow, and our ability to navigate the challenges before us will be destroyed.
If Democracy is going to survive then we must start bringing folks “back to the table”. We need to look for ways to start restoring their self-esteem and reduce their perceptions of threats. Once that is accomplished then discussions about bigotry and inclusive society can be had in a less combative and more constructive manner — as they deserve.
What to Do
Many Americans are repulsed by bigotry and they don’t need further convincing by the often emotional discussions about an inclusive society. At the same time, it is much more important for other Americans to hear these discussions in a less emotional manner so that fear triggers are minimized. It is important to remember that these folks, at least for the moment, have been convinced that an inclusive America will exclude them.
Because we want to calm people down, care should be used when talking about bigotry. In fact, for the near term, and in certain (geopolitical) situations, consider not talking about it at all — few people will change their minds. Once the perceived threat is decreased (and replaced with more constructive ideas) then these discussions can be revisited with the energy that they certainly deserve. Topics to discuss carefully include:
- Inclusive society
- Racial equality
- Religious freedom
Hopefully, improvement to these issues will be an end result of this approach, but for now, they need to be carefully addressed. It is more constructive to approach these issues by changing the conversation to be about working together for positive change or working against the actual forces that are hurting so many of us. Folks need to be constantly reminded of the existing common issues that are impacting all of us. Working together on these issues will not only measurably improve our world and our self-esteem, but it will also create a sense of community and camaraderie that has been proven to reduce our prejudices. Below are some simple examples of reframing certain conversations with certain demographics — these are notional ideas, intended only to provide context:
- America has always done better when we work together
- The great thing about our Democracy is that none of us lose any of our rights if the guy across town has the same rights as us.
- We need as many people as possible contributing to our economy to keep money flowing through our communities and create jobs.
- The more of us that are better-off, the more of us will spend money — and that’ll help out on Main Street.
- A handful of billionaires are taking our money and power while they tell us to blame each other. We need to work together to take back what was once ours.
- The big secret? it’s really about rich vs. poor — they just want you to think it’s about black vs. white.
- Other people around the country aren’t taking your money — millionaires, billionaires, and Wall Street are taking it — and there’s not much left.
- The economy will not work if wealthy people take all the money and don’t pay their share in taxes.
- The economy will not work if wealthy people keep their money out of the economy and stash it away.
- The billionaires are forcing more and more of us to share that last, shrinking slice of the pie.
What not to do
The biggest obstacle to bringing folks back to the table is that conservative voices will be continuing with their manipulative and divisive rhetoric. One thing that can be done to at least reduce this is to stop providing them with talking points. There have been some obvious and very unintentional gaffes from Democrats in the recent past. These are the” gifts that keep on giving” for conservative media and they will exploit these for months and years. It is important to know that these are more than just “talking points” gifts for the right — for many Americans, they are seen as existential threats, and this is not useful at all. The following, as most everyone already knows, are examples of what not to say along with some alternative language:
- Basket of Deplorables — That was received by many as a direct attack on their intelligence and character. While not directly related to bigotry, this pushed many vulnerable people away from Democrats.
- Allowing non-citizen immigrants to vote — There has never been a greater gift from Democrats to Republicans. For every one vote gained in local New York elections, Democrats lost thousands of votes in swing states and gave Republicans years of talking points.
- Defund the Police — Quickly, robustly, and continuously reverse course on “defunding the police” — the police provide safety, thus reducing fear and opportunities for those highly damaging fear-mongering talking points. The message is to refund organizations that can actually help or unburden the police.
- Takedown the NRA — No, just takedown those that committed the crimes at the top. The NRA has millions of responsible and long-standing members and the majority of them want some sort of gun control.
- Confederate Statues — As good as tearing the statues down may make you feel, leave them alone. Things were better before these symbols were not being ripped down. The time will come — pick your battles…
Again, none of this would be necessary if our society wasn’t drowning in divisive and manipulative voices from the Right.
More things to do
Remember, by improving self-esteem in folks we can reduce their need to belittle others, reduce their sensitivity to fear, and reduce their vulnerability to the Trumps of the world. In other words, it flips things around and allows people to engage more with society. That’s pretty impressive, but it can take time for those people who've had their self-esteem deeply harmed by years of trickle-down economics and other wealth-inspired policies. These folks can be given hope, however — they just need to see that there is a way out and that their plight is being addressed. For many others, they have merely been convinced that they are losing everything and their self-esteem can more easily be restored with some gentle nudging back to reality. There are a few things that can be done to start repairing our self-esteem…
For the near term, Democrats need to continue producing tangible results on their working-class agenda and, importantly, keep getting the word out. They need to do this not only in terms of what they are doing but also what the Republicans are not doing — two things the Democrats seem unable to convey. It is important for Democrats to understand that only ramping up efforts during campaign season or touting a major accomplishment in a few speeches will never match the relentless 24/7 barrage from conservative voices who have a much wider reach.
Working together on common causes can increase self-esteem and has been shown to reduce prejudices. It really doesn’t matter what the common cause is — it doesn’t need to be related to bigotry. Bi-partisan activities at the community level can include restoring or improving medical services in rural areas, working to protect local natural resources from climate change, efforts to save Main Street, etc.
Other proven techniques include practicing kindness, gratitude, and humility — so efforts to provide reminders, examples, and exercises to rescue these human traits from the abyss would be very useful.
None of this is about giving bigotry a pass — there are plenty of cases where it must be addressed head-on. This is more about, to the extent possible, calming at least some people down and bringing them back to the table. We will never get them all, not even close — but we have to start or the divide will just get bigger and our society will degrade to the point that we will lose Democracy. This is only a matter of years, or months, away…