Fact-Checking Is Largely Irrelevant Because Deceit Is Not What’s Causing Moral Outrage, Clinton’s Gender Is

If truthfulness mattered, this election would be over today.
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Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the first presidential debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016.
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the first presidential debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Today is post-debate Fact-Checking Day, which follows a recent media focus on the fact that Donald Trump is a shameless and inveterate liar. Within the last week, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published comprehensive articles documenting Donald Trump’s apparent inability to get through even one speech without untruths. This is hardly new information. Yesterday, Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking project run by the Tampa Bay Times and partner organizations, released one of many election scorecards, profusely confirming earlier analyses of Trump and Clinton’s public statements. Given what we know of his propensities, his calling Clinton a ‘world-class liar’ is actually one of the more powerful public arguments for her truthfulness. Recent articles do more to highlight prior media carelessness than to sway voter opinions however.

Hillary Clinton is, by far, the most honest candidate and was also the most honest even among candidates in the sprawling primary field, but voters don’t care. For at least a year now, fact-check after fact-check has revealed the extent of Trump’s mendacity and, with each revelation, how little it appears to matter. Yesterday’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, shows that 62% of voters think Clinton is not trustworthy compared 53% who say the same of Trump.

People want to believe that Clinton is less truthful and trustworthy because they feel strongly that she shouldn’t be president. Voters who hate Clinton, for example, working class white men who overwhelmingly support Trump, mainly respond to the suggestion that she is a good candidate with anger and disgust – two of the strongest predictors of moral outrage and moral outrage – when and how people feel it ― is governed by gender role expectations.

“Trump’s main qualification appears to be that he’s a dangerously overconfident wealthy white man with opinions.”

Clinton running for the post powerful job in the world presents multiple levels of paradox for many voters. People’s beliefs about truthfulness and credibility, like those about leadership and competence, are structured around gender roles – who they think men and women should act - and what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. If you ask people “do you think women lie more?” they are likely to say no. But, studies show that because we associate women with private capabilities and men with public ones people question women’s credibility and competence in almost any public capacity that challenges traditional gender role ideologies. This happens in the workplace, in courts, in legislatures, in doctors’ offices and in politics.

The reason it doesn’t appear to matter that media are now trying to show that Clinton is a truth-teller and that Trump is a liar is because people’s assessments are based not on facts but on gender role expectations. Saying that Clinton is a liar or a criminal are fairly easy and socially tolerated way of justifying deeper and emotional moral judgments of Clinton for violating these expectations.

If presidents have historically been “fathers of the nation” of the nation then Clinton would be a “mother.” This is already a challenge to how we think about the role and who should do it, but, what about a mother who works? Consider, for example, judgments about parents who leave children unattended. A six-study project released last month by researchers at the University of California-Irvine showed that people assess the risk of danger to children to be higher when they deem a parent’s reasons for leaving a child to be socially offensive. The researchers had 1,200 people rate their sense of how much danger children were in, on a scale of one to ten. They then varied the reason children were left by themselves. In one case a mother was injured, subjects were told she’d been hit by a car and was unable to get back to the child, but others, she was working or having an affair. The scenario scored as the least dangerous was the one in which the mother had been hit by a car. The one deemed the most dangerous was when she’d left to meet a lover. When the mother was working, people felt the child was in more danger than when she was unconscious, less that when she was having sex. In other words, people’s fear and risk responses are tied to how they judged the women for either confirming or violating their expectations. It had virtually nothing to do with the fact of the child’s unchanging and relatively harmless situation.

The study also looked at how people responded when fathers did the same things. When fathers left children to work they were assessed in the same way as when the reasons they left children were out of their control and unplanned. People decided that children in these scenarios faced the least danger.

This implicit bias, the one that says working women are penalized in ways that working men aren’t has been demonstrated in other scenarios. Although long debunked, is the same one that shapes many voter’s belief that a “powerful woman” is not only an oxymoron but a serious danger to the nation.

The presidential race is hardly the only time or place this happens. Expecting women to conform to traditional gender role expectations results in pervasive double standards that affect virtually every social interaction in which women have to bridge the deep divide between public/male and private/women. For example, in 2013, a survey of managers in the United States revealed that they overwhelmingly don’t believe women who request flextime compared to men who do the same. As with leaving children alone in cars, working women are, by definition, morally suspect for having left their children in a way that men are not. In another setting, courtrooms, the connection between gender expectations and perceived competence is also clear. Studies of juror confidence in courtroom experts have found that the more complex an issue a case is the less likely a jury is to believe a woman expert. Women, expected to not have well-developed expertise in matters of public concern, are more effective in what people categorize as “low complexity” scenarios.

Gender role expectations such as these define disgust as well as how people impute morality and guilt. Disgust, the emotion that most people who say they viscerally dislike Clinton, express, is actually one of the strongest predictors of moral outrage. In courtrooms, these dynamics linking moral prejudice and moral outrage, are well understood. Rape cases are the perfect example of this. A woman’s violation of gender norms, if she was drinking or exhibited interest in sex, are used to rationalize gender biases that jurors feel. According to extensive media studies conducted by Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict, a rape victim, usually a woman, is most likely to be rigorously personally investigated and publicly vilified when she and the perpetrator share class, race and ethnicity. In other words, when gender is the only clear difference and allegations of rape threaten historical male sexual entitlements. In these instances, rape myth acceptance, for example, the idea that a woman victim is lying, is highest and evidence is often disregarded. As in rape considerations, people who feel disgust over what they perceive to be moral transgressions are more likely to find a person guilty (e.g. Clinton’s email scandal and Benghazi) and deserving of punishment (e.g. displays of Clinton jailed and brutalized). Believing that a person is morally corrupt, lying or deserving of punishment is a socially tolerable and palliative form of systems justification.

In a society that is structured, both micro and macroscopically by gender binaries, segmentation and stereotypes, how can people reconcile the office of the presidency, not only with a woman, but with a woman who works and doesn’t smile on cue, has a high voice and is intensely private and resilient? If people think women who leave a child in a car are more dangerous, immoral and deserving of punishment, then what do they implicitly think of one who is working and ambitious in a way that is challenging the most visibly and symbolic arena of traditional male dominance. When people say Clinton doesn’t “look presidential” or that they “just feel” she can’t be trusted they are articulating these biases.

People don’t want to be called sexists and many really don’t want to believe that sexism is playing a part in this election. Trump’s main qualification appears to be that he’s a dangerously overconfident wealthy white man with opinions. By virtually any measure, he is horribly unprepared to be the leader of the country. Clinton, whether you love her or loathe her, is, as is often the case, over-prepared and experienced. But, a woman president presents very private complications to many people’s sense of self. Her candidacy is not only a challenge to Trump’s, but to deeply held beliefs about men’s and women’s roles and relative status. Regardless of what people think, their implicit biases have sexist outcomes and one of them is that we are being forced to take Trump seriously as a presidential contender.

“[Hillay Clinton's] candidacy is not only a challenge to Trump’s, but to deeply held beliefs about men’s and women’s roles and relative status.”

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