Prove It! Birthers and the Presumptuousness of Prejudice

When prejudice trumps accomplishment

Posted Apr 29, 2011

Previously, I wrote about an interview in which Edie Falco was asked whether it made her sad that she has never been married. Her answer included the following:

"...if the main centerpiece of all of this is supposed to be love then I am living in a deluge of it-the friendships that I have that are, on the average, 30 years old, my family, my children. In my household there is an insane amount of laughter and celebration. My kids have never seen me scream at anybody. They've never seen an argument. There's never been even a cold silence."

No, Edie Falco was not sad to be single. Her answer was clear. But the interviewer was having none of it, and asked variations of the same question over and over again.

Edie Falco is, well, Edie Falco. The interviewer was someone I had never heard of. Yet he was the presumptuous one, who seemed to assume he knew more about Falco's feelings than the actress did herself. The interviewer, though, did have something on his side - the conventional wisdom of our time, that says that if you are single you are sad. It doesn't matter if you have had great successes and a full life that you love - if you are single, you are presumed to be miserable.

I think of this example of conventional wisdom as not just a belief that happens to be wrong, but a prejudice. It puts down its target. Perhaps it also gives its perpetrators a boost. Presuming that getting married makes people happier is part of a worldview, a way of understanding that offers up a measure of comfort and control. (See here and here and here for some research on the psychology of clinging to the mythology of marriage.)

I thought about this as the drumbeat of birtherism forced the most powerful man on the world stage to walk into a briefing room with a copy of his long-form birth certificate. None of the people clamoring for the document were Barack Obama's equal. But he is the Black man, the "other," the target of their disdain and their fears. So they felt entitled to demand of him, with a full measure of presumptuousness: "Prove it." Show us that you really were born in the USA. Show us, even though you've already told us. Show us, even though relevant documents have been available for years. Show us, even though both Democrats and Republicans from your home state have vouched for the authenticity of the documents.

The insult to the President was far greater than that to Edie Falco. The psychology, though, is likely much the same. Those who are motivated to maintain a disparaging belief about another person or group (whether it is racism or sexism or singlism or heterosexism or ageism or any of the other isms), and who have found a like-minded community of believers, will continue to issue the demand, "Prove it."