Fixing Bigotry

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 our 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. Trump certainly pushed many of us over the edge, but the groundwork was laid well before he came onto the scene.

As an ancient instinct for survival, we all feel safer by avoiding things that are unfamiliar to us and avoiding people who are different than us. Likewise, we feel safer in familiar surroundings and with similar people. These behaviors are exaggerated when we are experiencing fear or anxiety as our brain goes into “fight or flight” mode or assumes a highly suspicious and defensive posture – again, this is all normal human behavior. 

Psychology and DemocracyBigotry, however, is often cultivated by actors within society who manipulate us to greatly exaggerate our differences to create a greater perceived threat. These folks use the tried-and-true exploitation of anxiety, low self-esteem, group identity, and our own biases to pit us against each other and control us. Reading this article is strongly recommended to understand how these can deeply affect us and increase bigotry and also to better understand the motivation behind this article.

Anxiety and low self-esteem are key drivers of emotional vulnerability and they are abundant in today’s society, coming at us from multiple directions: 

  • From real-life challenges (often the result of conservative and wealth-driven policies) such as trickle-down, a massive wealth gap, offshoring our jobs, climate change, the pandemic, etc. In general most of us feel things slipping out of our control and are well aware that we are a pink slip or diagnosis away from financial disaster (if we aren’t there already).
  • From prefabricated and bogus issues that have been continuously delivered right into our living room via Fox News and other conservative media sources for years. Examples include the steady “reminders” of the “Left’s attack on Christianity” or pop-up issues such as Critical Race Theory and “grooming”.

This has created an environment for bigotry. It has wreaked havoc on our minds, making us instinctively recoil from anyone unfamiliar to us and making us highly vulnerable to exploitation – a dangerous combination. Many of us have allowed our values, beliefs, and biases to be manufactured and spoon-fed to us. This has been made far worse by conservative voices telling us exactly who to fear as well as by the ease with which we can further isolate ourselves from “the others” by finding groups of folks “like us” on social media – both of which confirm those artificial biases.

Bigotry Magnifiers

In the past, it seemed sufficient to simply push back against bigotry as progress, though slow, was being made toward an inclusive society. Today, we find ourselves in a country where divisiveness and bigotry are being actively promoted from all levels of Republican officials, all corners of conservative media, and from the shadows of conservative dark money, think tanks, and political organizations.

Unfortunately, in this environment, and because of our pesky confirmation and group biases, the situation is made worse when the Left starts countering claims, challenging entrenched beliefs, or attacking adored leaders. Each of these only makes people dig in their heels, retreat to their safe havens for reaffirmation, and further increases our divide. Democrats are often counterproductive as their words and actions trigger our destructive subconscious reactions while simultaneously providing a steady stream of talking points for Republicans to exploit for years.

In other words, the Left often pushes people away while simultaneously 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.

What to Do

Each election cycle will be more critical and more emotional for each side, and therefore, more desperate and dangerous. 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”. The motivation for the below is driven by the need to find 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. 

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 way that minimizes fear triggers. 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
  • Immigration
  • LGBTQ

Hopefully, improvement to these issues will be an end result of calming people down, 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 us all. 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 to 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 ours.
  • The big secret? it’s really about rich vs. poor – they just want you to think it’s about black vs. white.
  • The only people taking your money are millionaires, billionaires, and Wall Street.
  • The economy will not work if wealthy people take all the money and don’t pay their share in taxes.
  • The billionaires are forcing more and more of us to share that last, shrinking slice of pie.

If we can improve self-esteem in folks then we will reduce their sensitivity to fear, their vulnerability to the Trumps of the world, and their need to belittle others. People will come back to the table if they see things are heading in the right direction – they just need to see that there is a way out.

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 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.

The same goes for playing with each other. We need to provide more opportunities for people to physically engage with society again. Public events or festivals that celebrate the community as a whole (not a particular group) can bring people in and reconnect them with society (something their subconscious already deeply desires).

Other proven techniques to reduce anxiety and bigotry include practicing kindness, gratitude, and humility. Efforts to provide reminders, examples, and exercises that will rescue these human traits from the abyss would be very useful. In a deeply divided society, it is important to be reminded that we are social creatures.

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 helpful at all. The following, as everyone already knows, are recent examples of what not to say or do:

  • 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 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. Pull them in and make them part of the decision or at least make them feel valued, not attacked.
  • 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…

Summary

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…