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U.S. Presidential Attitudes and Prejudicial Norms

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In a 2016 post-U.S. Presidential election post, I wondered about Donald Trump’s expressed attitudes towards immigrants, ethnic minorities, Muslims, and women:

Is he simply giving a voice to attitudes that are widely shared? . . . Or, with his public platform, will Trump instead model and serve to legitimize the demeaning attitudes, thus increasing their prevalence? Will he make bullying more widely tolerated? (Already, I have heard anecdotes of minority students experiencing harassment, but we need systematic evidence: Will intolerance measurably increase?)

As the Trump rhetoric has continued—in August with the White supremacist marchers in Virginia whom he said included “very fine people,” and recent retweeting of inflammatory anti-Muslim videos from a British ultranationalist—my question has lingered: Does exposure to prejudicial attitudes from high places legitimize such attitudes? Is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new report on “Hate and Extremism in 2017” right to presume that White supremacy and hatemongering is “emboldened [and] energized in the Trump era”?

Pardon my hesitancy to assume, before having supporting data, that the answers to these questions are yes. Bullying and hate speech anecdotes are not new. Dylan Roof’s 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, massacre, for example, predated Donald Trump’s campaign travels and presidency.

But now we have two new reasons to believe that the answers are, indeed, yes.

First, new data from two large surveys and one experiment confirm our suspicions that hate speech is socially toxic. University of Warsaw psychologist Wiktor Soral and his colleagues report that “frequent and repetitive exposure to hate speech leads to desensitization to this form of verbal violence and subsequently to lower evaluations of the victims and greater distancing, thus increasing outgroup prejudice.”

Second, as if to illustrate Soral’s findings, the U.S. FBI’s annual hate crimes report confirms that, yes, 2016 saw a 5 percent increase in hate crime incidents. Despite increased overall American acceptance of LGBTQ people, they—as well as ethnic and religious minorities—experienced an uptick in hate crime incidents.

Likewise, the United Kingdom experienced a jump in reported hate crimes following passage of the Brexit vote, fueled partly by anti-immigrant sentiments.

We should not be surprised. As social psychologists Chris Crandall and Mark White remind us: Presidents have the power to influence norms, and norms matter. “People express the prejudices that are socially acceptable and they hide the ones that are not.”

So, I now consider my question answered, and the answer defines a task for us educators and social psychologists as we work to encourage a more just and compassionate world.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).