Racism Is A Disease, Not A Trait

If Beck can change, then racism is not permanent.

Glenn Beck, Hate, and Rereading The Plague.

I just read the New Yorker article about how Glenn Beck has changed from being an angry proponent of paranoia and worry about other races, genders, religions to a more enlightened person, with regrets, apologies, and a desire to learn. “There are things unique to the African-American experience that I cannot relate to… I had to listen to them,” he says now.

It would be nice to conclude from his growth that we don’t have to be worried about the wellspring of racism (and all of its cousins) that is overflowing right now, in well-spoken outlets as well as in badly spelled ridiculous tweets. If Beck can change, then racism is not permanent, it is not a trait.

I think the bulk of psychological research would indeed argue pretty strongly that racism (and sexism, homophobia, etc.) are situational and not permanent traits. The problem is, Beck became more tolerant, but others can worsen. People who seem ordinary and nice enough can become horrible quickly. The best metaphor for the psychology of hate is not as a trait, like eye color, but as an epidemic, like in The Plague (Albert Camus’ book about the spread of fascism in the 1930’s). Anyone can catch the sickness, and when it goes away it could always return. Camus’ last sentence reflects the pessimism:

“The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good… it can lie dormant for years and years… perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightenment of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

We have a lot of rats running around right now, lots of ways to catch the ugliest and most violent of urges against other people. It is dangerous to believe that nice people can’t catch these urges; the truth is, almost any behavior starts to feel ok to a lot of people if they get the message that the behavior is the social norm. One huge problem right now is that it is difficult to tell what the true norms are, because a plurality of messaging is fake, cooked up by people and bots. The human brain is not evolved to be very good at making distinctions between real and artificial information, and if people read a ton of messages with horrible content against other people they are likely to catch that attitude themselves.

So what is the answer? First of all, it is important to fight. Right now the “rats” carrying the plague are propaganda and messages that hate is normal, and we have to all make clear it is not normal. For some reason there has been scolding from some outlets for everyone to just wait and see, be accepting, go along. This advice is terrible and implies nothing can be done. It also implies that everything is always ok. Neither conclusion is true. The plague can easily come and wipe all of us out; we have to protect against it with both defensive messaging (i.e., positive messaging about tolerance) and messaging on the offense (i.e., protesting intolerance).

The changeable nature of hate is very scary because there is no guarantee change will always be for the better and negative change can happen very quickly. But sometimes things do improve: if Glenn Beck can now champion Black Lives Matter then there is hope. It would be good to use that hope to spur action and vigilance in the coming months, counteracting the scurrying hate bots with our own social norms reflecting what society needs to be. This counteraction will have to be really active in order to work; otherwise, the plague will take advantage of our inaction. I think (hope) that realizing that hate is not permanent can help the country psychologically combat it; let’s support people who are trying to do that and join them, with the understanding that it might take a lot of tactics to stem this tide.