Back in June, which was approximately four years ago, I talked about a study that found that people tend to be turned off by “extreme” protests. I pointed out that first of all, history shows us that protests are never popular but they do still work. And second of all, “extreme” wasn’t a very good adjective to use in the popular press because the tactics they looked at included things like Black Lives Matter protesters chanting “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.” Not, say, looting or engaging in actual violence, just chanting something cheeky.
Now there’s a new study done by a different group of psychologists looking at how people determine what protest tactics are extreme. They had 950 people read a news story about a protest, with different groups reading different scenarios. The protesters were either “Americans Against Racist Policing” (a traditionally liberal cause) or “Americans Against Illegal Immigration” (a traditionally conservative cause), and their protest was either “(holding) up placards and shout(ing) slogans, some laced with profanity; block(ing) a nearby highway, bringing traffic to a standstill; or (throwing) rocks and other objects at the building.”
They asked the subjects to describe how violent the protest was, and then quizzed them on their feelings about whether protesters “serve democracy,” whether they should be arrested, and whether the government should crack down with anti-protest laws.
They found that Democrats tended to see the protests as equally violent whether the protesters were against police or immigration. Republicans, though, were significantly more likely to label the anti-police protesters as more violent than the anti-immigration protesters.
It’s worth noting that even though Democrats didn’t find conservative protesters more violent, they were more likely to say that the anti-police protesters were not violent at all, compared to the anti-immigration protesters. So Democrats were more likely to assume nonviolence for the cause they supported, while Republicans were more likely to assume violence for the cause they opposed.
So now I kind of get that previous study! I used to think, who would possibly categorize that BLM chant as “extreme?” Well…Republicans. That fits in with a lot of previous research that tells us by and large, Conservatives tend to be afraid, and to base many of their beliefs and practices on that fear. I know, I know, the irony that the guys who love to call liberals “snowflakes” are the ones who are in fact terrified, but it’s true. Conservatives have a “stronger physiological response to startling noises and graphic images,” they are more likely to be scared of new experiences, and they focus more on negative images than positive images. A 2003 meta-analysis of nearly 23,000 cases across 12 countries confirmed that “several specific motives relating to the management of fear and uncertainty are associated with the ideology of political conservatism.” They found those motives were death anxiety, fear of instability, dogmatism, fear of new experiences, fear of uncertainty, need for order, rejection of other people’s perspectives (i.e. integrative complexity), and fear of threat and loss, and low self-esteem. The researchers conclude “The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.”
We can even see that process, where fear leads to conservatism, in real time. After 9/11, researchers saw a notable shift toward conservatism among Americans. Those same researchers also took a bunch of subjects, liberal and conservative, and gave them a test where they had to judge in-group members and out-group members. This is a common psychological tool to measure conservatism. Liberals tend to be unbiased and judge out-group members the same as in-group, while conservatives tend to be biased against out-group members. When the researchers first presented liberals with a description of systemic threat in the form of an unfair case in the criminal justice system, the liberals immediately became more conservative and biased against out-group members.
Decades of research point to this: conservatives are terrified people. They’re scared of looking weak so they refuse to wear a mask; they’re scared of low probability violence so they carry guns around; and they’re scared of losing their privileged position in society so they whine about people fighting injustice. And along with that, they’re very, very scared of the people fighting injustice, which is why they think Black Lives Matter protesters are being “extreme” and “violent” even when they’re just chanting, holding signs, or blocking traffic. And that’s why it’s probably not worth listening to the people like Claire Berlinski who are claiming that protests are going to scare conservatives into voting for Trump — they’re already scared. That’s why they’re conservatives who are finding comfort in fascism. Even if all people are doing is asking politely for their humanity to be recognized, conservatives will be scared into voting for Trump. The answer to that isn’t to tell people to stop demanding rights or systemic change. It’s to educate and expand the horizons of white moderates to the point that they understand and are able to empathize with people in the “out-group.” It’s to educate people like Berlinski that she is actually the problem. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, she is the white moderate “who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” King knew what science is beginning to confirm: there will never be a “right time.” You will never placate fascists into handing you rights. The best you might hope to do is educate moderates that they need to stop inhibiting social progress.
So I’m not saying that conservatives can’t change. Just like you might be able to scare a liberal into supporting an unnecessary war in Iraq, you may be able to educate and raise the self-esteem of a conservative enough to get them to support Black Lives Matter. That and a little empathy could change the world.