Saturday, April 07, 2007

What's In A Word? The Power of Hate Speech and the Big Lie

In the process of working on my book and examining the reasons why people vote the way they do, I've been reading a lot of Dr. Bob Altemeyer, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba. He has written extensively on authoritarianism, and was a major source of material for John Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience. In the interests of finding out as much as I can about the authoritarian personality, I bought his textbook, The Authoritarian Specter, from Harvard Press, and came across some interesting data.

Most people have heard of the Milgram experiment, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. When told to administer 'electric shocks' (which were not real - the 'victims' were in on the experiment) to people behind a one-way glass if they flubbed 'test questions', there were many subjects who, after being assured complete anonymity , administered horrific 'shocks' to the 'victims' after being given stern orders to do so by the 'experimenter'. If you haven't heard of this study, I urge you to look into it. It was one of many studies undertaken since WW II to find out if what happened in Nazi Germany could happen here.

Dr. Altemeyer, as a psychology professor, has done many, many studies on authoritarian behavior to assess people' s tendencies toward or against what he calls 'Right-Wing Authoritarian' thinking (he uses the terms 'High RWA' and 'Low RWA' instead of 'conservative' and 'liberal' to de-politicize it) and the book is fascinating reading. The chapter that I found the most disturbing, however, was one entitled "The Effects of Hate Literature". It puts forth an unsettling question about freedom of speech (which, for the record, both Dr. Altemeyer and I believe in, whether it's convenient or not.)

This chapter focused on tests of how subjects responded to questions about whether the Holocaust actually happened before and after they read an article 'debunking' the Holocaust, written by an ex-SS officer who was stationed at Auschwitz. In this article, Thiess Christopherson asserts that there were no gassings, that the prisoners there were treated kindly, fed well and were allowed to walk around freely. There were movies. There were church services and a theater group. The medical experiments were 'humane and beneficial'. Along with the article were many photographs of him and his wife strolling about the grounds of Auschwitz on a 'second honeymoon', having dinner, women inmates contentedly working in the fields. He claimed that there could not possibly have been a Holocaust because there were supposedly 'more Jews in Germany after the war than before'.

What were the results of this test, before and after reading the article? I was astounded to find that the number of people who believed that the Holocaust had occurred was cut in half after reading that article!

Cut in half.

Just stop and think about that for a minute.

One short and ridiculously fabricated article.

Not only was it cut in half, but, what's even more disturbing to me, it was cut in half in High RWAs and Low RWAs equally! This means that liberals and conservatives were equally susceptible to the Big Lie.

Next, Altemeyer chose an article containing the confession of Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, detailing at great length the atrocities committed there. He divided the study group into three groups - one which received Hoess' confession, one which received the Christopherson denial, and one which received both. The group who received the confession remained relatively unchanged in their belief in the Holocaust. The second group, who recieved the denial piece, dropped significantly in their belief. And the third group, who received both, believed Christopherson; even having read Hoess' confession, their belief dropped only slightly less than the group who read the Christopherson account only.

Altemeyer also conducted some studies of the same type regarding attitudes toward feminism and homosexuality. Hostility toward both increased with the reading of articles attacking them. Even when coupled with a statement by the professor administering the test denouncing the articles, both High RWAs and Low RWAs were distinctly less likely to support women's and gay rights after reading these articles.

This is a frightening statement. It shows that, when confronted with two opposing ideas (one false and one true) many people will believe what they are already prone to believe or wish to believe, rather that what is factually accurate. And it's not just conservatives, either, as these studies show.

Dr. Altemeyer concludes, and I have to agree, that the Big Lie works. Even when put forth alongside the truth! I was aware, as many of us are, that a lie repeated enough times will be viewed as the truth. But I was not aware that a lie, next to the truth, can beat the truth, if people have some need to believe the lie. Whether it's fear, or greed, or a combination of both, this has been shown to have a devastating effect on our society.

So, how to combat this? For one thing, we can't let the Big Lies go unchallenged. The truth will have an effect on some people, and we cannot let these lies have the final word. For another thing, we need to examine how our students are being taught to think. Dr. Altemeyer says. at the end of this chapter (from his point of view as an educator):
"We have to do a much, much better job teaching people to think critically. If the students we have taught fall for absurd arguments, ridiculous reasoning and ersatz evidence - including even the Low RWAs - then we should have to give back part of our salaries. For we have failed worse than they. I think we have to make strenuous, positive efforts to tell the truth. if we do not, we leave the field to those who would destroy all we have struggled to accomplish, while they tell the Big Lie that they are trying to protect democracy."

Pretty sobering when you think about it - especially since this book was published in 1996, before the Kowboy Koward of Krawford and his murderous posse trampled over our democracy to lasso and hogtie our government, without a peep from the sheep.

Yee haw.

For more up-to-date work from Dr. Altemeyer, check out his new online book, The Authoritarians.


Yoga Korunta said...

Yes, Alicia, I remember reading of this experiment while a psych major. Viewers should know that the severe man in the film is not Stanley Milgram.

opit said...
Needlenose started me on this not that long ago.

Alicia Morgan said...

I didn't see the film, Yoga, but I saw pictures. Absolutely chilling.

Excellent point, opit! I was just reading about the Overton Window the other day. I think we do need to 'go left' loudly - it's the only way to counter the right and move the center back our way.

Jolly Roger said...

There are studies that show that a good many Chimpy "Conservatives" were people who were picked on early in their lives. Much like Chimpy and Der Rovesmarschall, these people tend to make decisions that are more revenge-driven than anything else. They're literally "sore at the world" and in Chimpy, they've found the perfect vehicle for transporting their inner hatreds all over the world.

They try to mask their true intentions behind the crosses of Jesusistan-but they reveal themselves all too easily if you ask them about liberals, Muslims, women, Unitarians, or any of the other "evils" they see all around them. And about 1 in 8 Americans are gripped by this pathology.

Ron said...

Hi,Alicia, saw you on FDL-while reading about Milgram, I ran across this thing called the "Stanford Prison Experiment". Anyone interested in the authoritarian impulses of human beings would benefit from reading this.
Love the Site!

Alicia Morgan said...

Oh yeah, Ron - I've read about that one too. It is truly chilling. Have you seen the site that documents it, along with the pictures and video? Brrrrrr!