Some months ago, I visited South Dakota for the first time. Like most San Francisco Bay Area residents, my understandings of the people of South Dakota were limited to three generalities: They are politically conservative, overwhelming white and heavily descended from German immigrants. With that as my limited mental map, I arrived at my hotel and immediately this enormous chandelier in the lobby.

After a double-take moment, I did what the overwhelming majority of people would do, namely I assumed there was something I did not understand. I asked the nice lady at the counter and found out that yes, there was indeed a crucial bit of information without which I would have drawn the wrong conclusion: I was looking at a pre-WWII Native American symbol with no connection to Adolf et al.

Moments like this one are common in a diverse society: We confront a behavior, symbol or word that could betoken prejudice but could also have no malicious intent. As a psychologist, I have long been interested in why we sometimes assume the best in such situations versus the worst. Why do we give some people a second chance to explain their true intent whereas with others we immediately go ballistic and protest their apparent racism/sexism/insensitivity?

A substantial number of misunderstandings in such situations stem from deep pain in the perceiver. In the history of the hotel in South Dakota, I have to imagine there was at least once a guest who survived the Holocaust and was deeply upset by the symbol to the point that they complained, maybe even accusing the owner of anti-Semitism. Similarly, the controversy over a civil servant’s use of the word “niggardly” some years ago largely divided those who had had the scarring N word directed at them at some time in their life, and those who had not. One of the things we have learned from clinical and research work with traumatized people (e.g., soldiers wounded in combat) is that when a stimulus is ambiguous (e.g., a sudden noise that may or may not be a gunshot) they are more likely to interpret it as threatening than are people who haven’t had similar suffering inflicted on them. In those situations where someone had been beaten up or down by prejudice in the past and may have misinterpreted something as a result, there is some basis for honest discussion and resolution if the parties have the desire and maturity to seek it (Including an apology on one or both ends, as appropriate).

Unfortunately, sometimes there is no basis for resolution because the denouncement of alleged insensitivity is driven not by genuine pain but by the adrenaline rush one gets from catching someone else out as an apparent moral midget. Whether we give in to this selfish motivation depends in part on how our role models act. I attended graduate school at the height of the campus p.c. wars, during which some professors modelled civil discourse and others modelled sanctimony. I am embarrased to say that I sometimes emulated the latter group, casting myself as the one, special, truly sensitive person who recognized that the word “cromulent” is offensive to left-handed Lithuanian wheelchair-using transgendered Episcopalians. My better professors helped me break that awful habit by showing another way to approach discussions about racial/ethnic/cultural sensitivity, namely as a chance to connect with other human beings rather than put them down.

Those memories make me dread the primary election season which is rapidly descending upon us, because I know candidates of all parties will be gearing up their fake outrage machines: “Senator Smith’s comment that we should ‘rub noses like the Eskimoses’ is an insult to hard working Inuit-Americans who lost their noses serving our country in wartime, I am outraged at his racism!”. The press tend not to declare shenanigans in the face of such calculated upset because they too fear being labelled insensitive; instead they pass along a bad example with minimal skepticism This style of taking offense for cynical advantage is then cycled and recycled through the media and punditocracy, giving each of us a vicarious, dangerous taste of the drug of self-righteousness. Brace yourselves, and yield not to the onslaught.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.