Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Thinking About vs. Facing (or Confronting) the Mosque Matter

Thinking about reactions to the proposed mosque near Ground Zero

See you in September. College students are returning to campus across the country. My classes begin early next week. I am quite confident that among the many current events that are attracting attention these days, one will stand out: The proposed mosque that may be built proximate to Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Tempers are flaring. Feelings are raw. Mayor Bloomberg and Dick Cavett find themselves frothing about in the same mix with Rush Limbaugh and various politicians trying to stay in or get elected to office. President Obama is trying to stake a sort of moderate position (good luck). Bellicose rhetoric, self-righteousness, cynicism, patriotism (real and faux), genuinely anguished feelings, passionate upset, and---mostly, I think---confusion coupled with a sort of free-flowing anxiety about the issue abound. Freedom of religion meets political opportunity meets (to many people) unfamiliar others and their little-understood religion. (Pause for a deep cleansing breath. Weren't we just enjoying summer, beaches and barbeques?)

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People who might not normally become drawn in by religious-political-social policy matters are finding themselves listening to, reading about, or being confronted by walls of words regarding the rightness or appropriateness or wrongness of putting a mosque there. I hesitated to blog about this topic precisely because so many people have already done so (will do so) and because the issues involved are complex---too complex for quick analyses, quick answers, or less than a thousand or so word missives like this one. But, I did wonder how psychology teachers might tackle this issue because many of them will be asked to do so---and soon.

Here is one suggestion for discussing some of the psychological issues wrapped up in "the issue". I am not so foolish---or naïve---to offer a quick teachable fix or worse, "the answer"; instead, here is a way to broach talking about the mosque issue, Muslims and non-Muslims, and public versus private attitudes, if not "right" and "wrong."

Once upon a time in 1930s America, a professor took several pleasure trips up and down the coast of California, as well as back and forth across the nation. He was not alone. Accompanying him were a husband and wife, a young Chinese couple. The professor was White. In the course of their travels, the three boarded at numerous hotels, guesthouses, and camping grounds. They also dined at many restaurants. In fact, all told, they went to 251 such businesses--and only one place refused them service. This solo refusal is actually quite surprising because there was a considerable amount of prejudice and discrimination focused on Asians in the US during those years (not to mention later, during World War II, when Japanese Americans from the west coast were interred in government camps). Indeed, before the professor, Richard LaPiere, set out with the young couple, he worried that he and his friends would not be treated very well during their journeys.

Here's where things get really, really interesting: That single prejudiced encounter intrigued LaPiere, so six months after all the trips were completed, he wrote all the establishments they visited previously indicating that he and some young friends would be traveling through soon. Along with the letter, LaPiere enclosed a questionnaire asking whether "members of the Chinese race" would be welcome as guests (please forgive---but take note of---the dated language, but think about words being bandied about regarding Islam). As the many replies arrived in LaPiere's mail, over 90% of them said no---they would not offer any service to Chinese guests. The remaining responses were uncertain ("depends upon the circumstances") save for one single reply--only one--that said yes, Chinese guests were welcome to drop in.

Let's repeat that score: Only one place refused them service (face-to-face) when they actually visited on a trip. Only one place welcomed them (on paper) when they said they would be dropping by on a subsequent trip. Wow, talk about reality checks. Social psychologists and sociologists point to the LaPiere story as a classic example of a collective situation where prevailing attitudes did not predict actual behavior. Take a moment and see how many explanations you can think of to explain why all those diners and motels welcomed and happily served the trio face-to-face but declined to do so on paper and in the mail.

Done yet? Well, the possible explanations are many and neither I nor LaPiere (he wrote about this experience in a 1934 research article) can give you the definitive answer. His study was not a controlled experiment, so a causal accounting is not possible--but that is not the point we should be focusing on just now. Instead, consider that reflecting on the imagined stranger--the unfamiliar other--is a very different thing than dealing with the person one encounters directly. Expressing prejudice directly ("I don't like trust those people") or acting in a discriminatory manner publicly ("Nope, sorry, you can't eat or sleep here---move along") is happily a relatively rare thing.

Admittedly, LaPiere's experience---or more to the point, that of his young friends---is a far cry from our contemporary problem, the mosque near Ground Zero. But we might pause and wonder for a moment if some of the opposing arguments and opinions being bantered (and battered) about are all as solid as they appear. People we imagine are not always like people we actually meet, get to know, come to work with, live near, forge ties with--you know where I'm going here, as you've experienced more than your fair share of social course corrections in your daily life (you changed your mind, you got to know someone, you came around, you were wrong in your initial judgment). I think LaPiere's story carries some teachable elements psychology teachers and the rest of us can use to encourage pause and reflection before knee-jerk conclusions are made or regrettable statements are uttered. No, this historic example does not provide the answer to the problem, but one day the mosque matter will be history, too. But what sort of teachable moment will it be for psychology and for civil rights---and civility---in our nation's history?

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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