Can Racists Be Reasoned With?

I’m fortunate to have a lot of pretty smart friends, who give me plenty of material for thought (and thus eventually for writing, since that’s how I generally try to organize my thinking). Just yesterday, a friend of mine posted this article, which argues rather convincingly that the cause of many of America’s current ailments is what the author describes as “an abandonment of reason”. He gives numerous examples of this, from climate change denial to sex education. And while I find the argument a good one, I think that there is little cause for optimism of the triumph of reason in this or just about any other case.

In his excellent book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt shows how reason is consistently subjugated by emotion. He uses the very descriptive metaphor of an elephant and a rider, where reason is the rider and emotion / intuition the elephant. The rider can try and guide the elephant, but in case of conflict, the elephant is going to win. Our cognitions, our very deeply held beliefs, are largely the result of post-hoc reasoning rather than sound logistical deduction. We experience a feeling in reaction to something, and our minds come up with a seemingly rational explanation for why we felt that way.

Because of this, I would say that focusing on reason alone is a poor approach to work towards solving problems such as racism. Certainly, racist beliefs generally cannot stand up to the lens of logic, but for someone who holds them this matters little. As he was engaged in his murderous rampage, the suspect reportedly stated “…you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over our country.” This sounds exactly like an appeal to two of Haidt’s six moral foundations, namely those of “Sanctity” and “Authority”. To a racist, those of different racial backgrounds are corrupting the very moral fiber of their nation, threatening the orderly boundaries of society. I have not searched for studies on the matter but I would surmise that these come from deeply seated intuitions, some of which may even be genetically based. As such, anything trying to contradict them is likely to be summarily dismissed.

So is all hope lost? Is there no way to affect change in the minds of racist individuals? There may be a glimmer of possibility, which we glimpse in another friend’s thoughts on the matter:

How do we change their thinking from a young age? Unfortunately most have parents with warped views who are their driving influence, but can we as a community step-up and be just as influential? Would arranging for greater exposure at a young age to those children seemingly different from themselves, in race, religion, etc. be the most effective? Providing the opportunity to internalize the commonality of all humanity by having these relationships when young seems about right to me.

Much like the character of Derek in American History X, organic exposure to other cultures and ideas may be the best hope. Even so, I don’t know that any top-down effort to accomplish this would be effective. Rather, it would only be seen as yet another invasion of culture. Combine this with the media’s continual efforts to polemicize their constituents for the sake of ratings, and sadly I remain rather pessimistic of any kind of large scale resolution to this problem.

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