Rolf Reber Ph.D.

Critical Feeling

How Political Correctness Propelled Trump to Presidency

Here's why.

Posted Dec 04, 2016

This blog post is inspired by a recent study conducted in Chris Crandall’s lab at the University of Kansas that measured prejudice and expression of prejudice before and after the election. While the level of prejudice in these voters remained stable, the willingness to express prejudice increased. Apparently, expression of prejudice depends on social norms and has become more acceptable after Trump was elected with the support of alt-right voters. 

Although this is an important finding, it does not answer the question of why Donald Trump was elected in the first place. While the social norm to suppress prejudice has benefits for society, it comes at a personal cost for the individual.

Ample research showed that suppression of thoughts, including prejudice, bounce back as soon as they can be freely expressed. What we experience now may be an overshoot from suppressing prejudice. An important lesson we have learned from this election is that suppressing prejudice does not eliminate it.

An unanswered question is whether voters who have to suppress prejudice are more susceptible to voting for politicians who promise to change the social norm. From what we know from research in social psychology, such voting behavior could be plausibly explained.

First, people rarely like to be told that they are wrong. We do not need psychologists to confirm that. Moreover, it is right to tell people that they are wrong where we have strong reason to assume that they indeed are. All this would be no problem if political correctness opposed a tiny minority of white supremacists. I think every decent person would turn away from such vitriolic racism anyway.

The problem is that political correctness has interfered with the beliefs of ordinary people. For example, stating that there is a difference between black and white, when uttered by a white citizen, has been seen as subtle racism. To discuss problems of immigration has become a sign of xenophobia. Asking whether some gender differences in payment could be justified by economic reasons is frowned upon as sexism. Questioning adoption rights of homosexual partners is homophobic. And being religious is a sign of superstition and stupidity.

Being stamped as racist, xenophobe, sexist, homophobic, or a backward religious fundamentalist generates a tension in a man or woman who did not yet think of themselves in those terms. This tension is called cognitive dissonance.

Ordinary people asking ordinary questions or stating ordinary beliefs have a choice how to release the inner tension.

They may agree that their question or statement, even though uttered in the best intention, has been racist, xenophobe, homophobic or sexist and that their religious beliefs are fundamentalist and stupid. As a consequence, they change their beliefs and behavior.

I do not think that this is the most frequent response to exaggerated political correctness.

There is little research on the dynamics of partisan identity depending on the classification by others. However, there is much reason to assume that more probably than changing their political opinions and behaviors, these ordinary people defend their right to express their worries and think that their questions and beliefs are correct. Hence, they accept that they are outside the political spectrum covered by proponents of political correctness.

They accept that they are conservative or fundamentalist, and vote candidates who do not denigrate them for their political opinions and religious beliefs. All of a sudden, people who never think of themselves as racists or sexists or fundamentalists find themselves in the same boat as most extreme people on the right.

The problem of political correctness may be analogous to speed limits. The only guarantee that nobody is killed by cars is a speed limit of zero. The alternative is not unlimited speed but to set a speed limit that at first seems arbitrary (should it be at 20, 25, or 30 miles per hour?) but has proved itself in practice.

Political correctness, taken seriously, might be compared to a zero-speed limit while unlimited freedom of speech may unleash hatred and violence. It is therefore wise to set limits somewhere in between. It is a matter of discussion where this limit should be – should it be forbidden to make derogatory remarks or only to explicitly incite violence.

The law is not here to regulate morality in its details but to set boundaries that are as wide as possible. What is lawful is not necessarily morally good but what is unlawful is generally recognized as morally bad.

While the outright racists and other haters make up a small proportion of the population, the proportion of people who ask questions, notice differences or are religious cannot be neglected. The lesson we have to learn is that in a democracy, you cannot exclude almost half of the people (given that Donald Trump got almost half of the vote).

The progressives may have to learn that there is a difference between outright denigration of another race or the other sex and stating differences and asking questions. I admit that stating a difference might be done with racist intentions and questions might be asked to make a sexist point.

However, these possibilities of subtle discriminatory remarks should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This means it should be possible to state differences, to ask inconvenient questions, and to confess religious beliefs without being sidelined.

Such statements, questions, and beliefs are open to discussion. There is no reason to discriminate the people who utter them, as has been done for decades and finally has led to a president-elect who promised them that they will be forgotten no longer. What all people need is respect – the recognition that their opinions merit serious consideration, and that their worries as real.

This piece is an extension of critical feeling: 

Reber, R. (2016). Critical feeling. How to use feelings strategically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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