The other day, I was talking with a family member who told me about a conversation she’d had with a teacher. They were discussing the President’s State of the Union address, and the subject of Nancy Pelosi tearing up a copy of the speech came up. During the conversation, the teacher, I was told, had mistakenly referred to the House Speaker as Hillary before correcting herself and moving on.
I got a little bit of a chuckle from that because I immediately saw the psychological underpinnings at work. This person had obviously heard “Democrat bad” and “Hillary bad” for so long that she pictured a female Democrat and immediately associated the given characteristics with Hillary.
Later on, however, when I happened to talk to my decidedly non-political mother right after she’d finished watching Adam Schiff’s closing speech in the impeachment trial and she told me that hearing him had made her sick to her stomach, I took it a good deal more seriously.
What’s going on here is a well-known learning phenomenon known as stimulus generalization. It was made famous by the controversial “Little Albert” classical conditioning experiment and works like this: in order to condition a phobia into an otherwise mentally stable child (“Albert”), researchers made an alarming noise whenever Albert tried to touch a white rat that he had been given to play with. This soon led to Albert becoming emotionally upset not only at the sight of the white rat but at the sight of any furry objects, including pets, clothing, and even a Santa Claus mask with a white cotton beard.
This phenomenon isn’t an unusual one, and it commonly manifests itself in different ways. If you have a history of traffic violations, for example, you might feel a strong sense of anxiety if you were to hear a siren while driving down the road, even if the siren belonged to an ambulance or a fire truck. If you have been potty trained, you are probably able to use all toilets, not just the one you were trained with. It can be a perfectly normal part of the learning process.
But feeling ill because you heard someone of a certain political affiliation give a speech is not a perfectly normal part of any process. It is a programmed response, the result of careful conditioning, just like poor Albert and his aversion to fuzzy things.
Let’s look at how this happens.
This clip is from last Tuesday morning’s airing of Fox & Friends. Donald Trump Jr. is referring to Nancy Pelosi and her request to Facebook and Twitter that they remove an edited video the President had shared showing her ripping up his speech, except altered to suggest the ripping up of a new document each time an individual is mentioned during the speech. Trump Jr. concludes his analysis by saying, “They’re not just coming for your Second Amendment; they’re coming for your First Amendment.”
Now, we could unpack a lot here. For one thing, there’s the obvious hyperbole: Nancy Pelosi requesting Facebook and Twitter to remove a video is not a threat to anyone’s First Amendment rights. As a matter of fact, there are built-in ways of doing this on both these platforms (Twitter even keeps a list of requests worldwide). Then, of course, there’s the blatant hypocrisy. Don Junior himself came down hard on Facebook in 2019 for banning a number of prominent right-wingers and conspiracy theorists, calling for conservatives to “fight back” against the network:
And I could give a dozen other examples. But the most pertinent element here is the word choice. Trump Jr. doesn’t just say “Pelosi is coming for your First Amendment.” He says “they are coming for your First Amendment.”
This generalization is not accidental. It works in tandem with the hyperbole, first to elicit an emotional response – in this case, fear and anger – and then to cause the listener to relate that fear and anger with an entire group of people. The broad, imprecise nature of the resulting association makes the source of consternation less certain, not more, which in turn creates even more fear and anger.
Thus, the takeaway from this particular quip that ordinarily might have been “Pelosi shouldn’t have done X if she didn’t want Y to happen and so now she’s also having to do Z” is transmogrified into “The Democrats are coming for you, stop them at all costs.”
Now, that’s a lot of explaining for just one quote. And just one quote taken in isolation sounds silly from all angles. Silly for Junior to have said in the first place, silly for anyone else to think so much about afterwards. But they don’t call ‘em echo chambers because you only hear something once. Just take a look at this humdinger from Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in 2018:
Folks I have to tell you here, the Democrat Party is not just the country’s biggest hate group now, which I have said on previous occasions. Because that’s what they are, it is what they have become, they are a self-contained hate group. They have more hate than any extreme right-wing group they claim to be afraid of or opposed to than you could count. They have more hate than any of the hate that was at Charlottesville. They’ve got more hate for us — the difference in the world is that their hatred for us is somehow justified, and promoted.
They are the biggest threat to civil liberties, they are the biggest threat to freedom of speech, they are the biggest threat to the second amendment, they are the biggest threat to the innocence of unborn life, they are the biggest threat to anybody who is not one of them. They are the biggest threat to prosperity. They represent the biggest threat to private property. They represent the biggest threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that exists in this country today. The Democrat Party is that. That is what they have become.
They are a bigger hate group than the KKK which is always been the military, quote-unquote, wing of the Democrat Party anyway. There isn’t a right-wing group that can hold a candle to these people. The entire Democrat — there is no grandfather, there is no reasonable place to go in the Democrat Party where you get some wisdom. There are no adults in that party telling these kids to stop behaving this way. They’re all on the same page now.
Their attitude, their views on abortion and human life is just shocking. There isn’t any comparison to the pro-life view and the pro-abort view that the Democrat Party has, and if you’re going to assign hate to one of those groups, you’re not going to find hate on the pro-life side. By definition, you can’t. But you can certainly find it on the so-called pro-choice side.
They seek control over life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and they do so from a position of rage and anger. They are angry that the concepts of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness exist. And their mission is obviously to shut them down.
Rush Limbaugh, 6/28/18
Try to read that one without feeling an emotional reaction. I dare you.
Yet that’s exactly what people inside the rightwing filter bubble – Bubbleheads, if you will – hear on a daily basis. What’s more, for most of them, it’s all they hear. All the hyperbole and overgeneralization in that one sentence from Don Junior gets stretched out, sped up, amplified, and repeated over and over, louder and louder every day as people plunge in to Fox & Friends and Varney and Limbaugh and Hannity and Dobbs and Levin and Carlson and Hannity and Ingraham for three hours, six hours, nine hours, twelve hours at a time and fill their ears and their brains and their hearts with images of not one or two people but thousands and thousands of people coming for their jobs, their rights, their freedom, and their country. It’s no wonder listening to a Democrat speak for half an hour is enough to cause them to become physically ill.
All the world’s evil gets heaped up into a pile of straw and molded and shaped to vaguely resemble whichever member of the Democratic Party happens to be prominent at the time, all day, every day. So when the President’s son posts a tweet comparing Pelosi to Satan, no one on the right takes any notice except maybe to agree because it is very much familiar territory for them.
This repetitious pounding desensitizes people inside the bubble to this type of rhetoric and thus establishes a new definition of deviancy, new standards of right and wrong – a malignant normality wherein individuals outside the bubble become evil and inhuman without even realizing it.
I’m not wearing partisan goggles, either. This has been to varying degrees a problem for both sides. For over eight years, it seemed like very few in the left-wing media could brook any criticism whatsoever of President Obama from conservatives without accusing them of racism or bigotry. Rather than listen, the left chose instead to make its enemies evil because you don’t have to listen to evil people.
And that’s where the core of this issue lies. The media, left and right, wants to give people its own specialized definitions of right and wrong, subject of course to change with each administration. One side tries to convince people that politicians in one party want to take away their healthcare or their education or their housing and are therefore evil. The other side tries to convince people that politicians in the other party want to ban all their guns or flood their country with criminals or take away their hamburgers and are therefore evil.
But here is the truth, the whole point I’m trying to make in this longwinded and seemingly pointless rant, one single fact that has been buried underneath mounds and mounds of flying partisan excrement for decades upon decades:
Political views do not make someone a bad person. They do not make someone a bad person any more than they make someone a good person.
Yes, it’s true that people can have abhorrent political views. I find abortion, for instance, to be particularly egregious. But does that mean the people who support federal funding for it are evil? Is there no room for simply being wrong or misguided anymore? If being wrong on a political issue is grounds for being declared an evil person, then I’m afraid we’re all in for some bad news.
This should be obvious. However, it has been twisted and distorted by so many people who would have their followers shut their ears and see faithfulness and apostasy only in terms of who agrees with them. But no one ever completely agrees with anyone. As long as people are unique, there will be differences of opinion. But disagreement is a healthy thing. It’s what marks us as creatures of free will. As we move forward into the upcoming election season, it’s critical that we remember that.
In the end, it’s not all that easy to tell who is a bad person and who isn’t. That’s why it’s not our job in the first place. The best we can do is judge a person’s works, not as a group but as a single individual, and determine whether they demonstrate hatred, selfishness, pride, greed, dishonesty, boasting, wrath, scorning, or mercilessness. If the answer is no, then you should be willing and able to hear what that person has to say – and question the motives of anyone who tells you otherwise.