When the Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists march in your town, should you go to the counter-protest? People have made reasonable arguments to stay home and to join the counter-protests. Many of these arguments are based on fundamental psychological principles. If you stay home, you may avoid giving the white supremacists the attention they apparently crave. If you go, you can speak with your feet about the importance of being in favor of racial equality. As Charlottesville demonstrated, participating in a counter-protest is not risk-free. People were attacked and beaten. A woman was killed when a racist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. Violence appears to be a goal of many racists when they prepare for their marches. Ignoring that risk would be unwise as you make your decision.
In this post, I want to speak to two opposite pieces of advice based on solid principles of psychological research.
The first comes directly from the classic work of behaviorism. Remove the responses that are rewarding the behavior. If the racists are marching, then something is rewarding to them for those activities. Many have suggested that the attention and publicity is important. When counter-protestors are there, it gives them an enemy, someone to yell at, and better images for TV and the internet. By showing up to the counter-protest, you may provide oxygen to fan the flames of their hatred. Tina Fey, in a skit for Saturday Night Live, provided an comic version of this argument. She suggested that you should avoid the racists and instead engage in a form of protesting she called ‘sheet-caking.’ Stay home, yell there, and eat a complete sheet cake as a form of personal protest that deprives the racists of the feedback and attention they seem to desperately crave. And sheet-caking is easy. You don’t have to march or take a position. You can do this protest in the comfort of your own home while eating something delicious. You can just make a Facebook post.
Of course, this argument depends on two flaws. The first is that everyone will avoid the counter-protest (which is unlikely). And the second is that the most important rewards for the racists are the attention of counter-protestors. I suspect you aren’t that important to them – that they instead get other rewards from being surrounded be similarly bigoted individuals. Staying home may make the presence of like-minded racists easier to see and conversely provide greater rewards for the white supremacists. This leads me to the other possible response – go to the counter-protest.
Showing up for the counter-protest may dispel a false consensus effect. The racists may be suffering from a false consensus effect of believing that their views are widely shared. Everyone experiences false consensus effects. We have our views about a variety of problems and political topics. Are humans contributing to global warming? Should healthcare be considered a basic human right? Should the minimum wage be raised? We know our views on these matters. But we don’t know how widely our own perspectives are shared in the general population. Instead, we tend to believe that our views are much more widely shared by others than they actually are. This is the false consensus effect – we all generally believe that more people agree with us than actually do.
There are probably several reasons we experience false consensus effects. I suspect one critical feature is that we hear about people who agree with us but seldom see evidence that many people disagree. Some of this is basic human nature in social interactions. We don’t like to confront others by stating to their faces that we disagree with their views on something they seem to care about. When we say nothing after someone states an opinion, they may assume that we agree.
I also suspect that false consensus effects may be more problematic in the age of the internet. We have all created our own information bubbles. Our news sources repeat beliefs that we already have. Our Facebook friends tend to agree with us (or they cease to be our Facebook friends). We follow people on Twitter because we like the things they say. Every day we swim in an information stream that confirms our beliefs. In this situation, it is easy for everyone to falsely believe that their views are widely shared. False consensus effects reflect the limited feedback we receive.
Racists live in similar information bubbles. They have their own networks with whom they interact. They have their preferred sources of news. Their views will reliably be reflected back to them. They know other people hold different views, but believe those people are simply a vocal minority (much as I hope that the racists are a vocal minority). They probably believe that there is a large number of quiet people who agree with them but who are afraid to make politically incorrect statements. And remember, they have a US President who has regularly made statements they interpret as supportive. People who support their positions have been employed in this administration. In this situation, they could easily have a false consensus about how widely their white supremacist beliefs are shared.
This is why you should attend the counter-protest. You will not change the minds of the racists who are marching. But you will impact the false consensus for people who are there and for those who see the news. I was amazed at what has happened in several cities after the horror of Charlottesville. In Boston, there were probably 1000 anti-racist counter-protestors for every racist who showed up. The pictures were compelling. In San Francisco, the racists cancelled rallies in the face of large counter-protests.
I also believe it is possible to attend, be safe, dispel false consensus, and still deprive the racists of their oxygen. To make this work, the counter-protestors need the support of their local government. As happened in Boston, the groups should be kept widely separated to forestall violent interactions. And the media needs to accurately show the relative sizes of the two different groups. Doing this allows everyone to speak. Doing this keeps people safer.
Speaking with your feet is crucial. Show up. Attend the counter-protest to the Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists. March. By showing up you can disprove someone’s false consensus that their racists views are widely shared. Instead, the racists may be forced to acknowledge that hate and bigotry do not belong in your city. They may realize that most people are not like them and do not share their hateful beliefs. Be safe and nonviolent when you march.