Who among us this election — except perhaps that elusive undecided voter — has not turned to a politically aligned friend and said, from their heart of hearts, “I just can’t understand how anyone could vote for Clinton/Trump”? The sheer mindbogglingness of it, the utter failure of so many Americans to even begin to fathom voting for the other candidate, is one of the most disturbing features of this election. We all seem to be asking: What could the other side be thinking!?
Perhaps what we need is a “sociology of thinking.” And we’ve got one; it’s called cognitive sociology.
One of the foundational texts in the subfield is called Social Mindscapes. In it, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel argues that we think as individuals (we are all alone in our brains) and we think as human beings (with the cognitive processes that humans have inherited from evolution), but we also think as members of social groups. Our thinking, then, is not only idiosyncratic (i.e., “individual”), nor universal (i.e., “human”) — though it is both those things — it’s also social. Our thinking is influenced by the groups to which we belong, what Zerubavel called “thought communities.” These are the people with whom we enjoy a meeting of the minds.
By this, Zerubavel doesn’t simply mean that our social groups shape what information we get and what arguments resonate, though that’s true. He and other cognitive sociologists argue that our thought communities shape cognition itself, that the brains of people in strongly divergent thought communities literally work differently. To Zerubavel, the idea that many Democrats can’t begin to understand Republican thinking — and vice versa — isn’t a surprise, it’s a hypothesis.
Research on sensory perception is fun evidence for their claims. Researchers have shown, for example, that our language categories influence not just how we describe the world we see, but how we see it. The Himba in Namibia, for example — who have one word for blue and some greens and another word for other greens, reds, and browns — are better than English speakers at differentiating one shade of green from another, but worse at differentiating green and blue from each other. Likewise, Russian speakers are better than English speakers at differentiating shades of blue because they have more than one word for the color and English speakers, in turn, are better than Japanese speakers at recognizing the gradations between blue and green, because the Japanese have traditionally used only one word to describe them both.
If our membership in thought communities is powerful enough to shift our very perception of color, then it must be able to influence our thinking in many other ways, too. In Social Mindscapes, Zerubavel shows that what we pay attention to, the categories we use, what we remember, and even our perception of time are all shaped by our thought communities.
Accordingly, cognitive sociology would predict that the rising polarization in politics and the fragmentation of media will make it harder and harder to understand each other, not because we don’t agree on the facts or because we have different political interests, but because our brains are actually working in divergent ways. That is, what we’re experiencing with this election is not just political disagreement, it’s a total breakdown in functional communication, which sounds about right.
Modern journalism is reliant on the idea of objectivity. Even when truth is elusive, if journalists write a balanced story, they can be said to have done a good job.
But what if a story doesn’t have two sides? Sometimes journalists continue to write as if they do, as they did in regards to human caused climate change for a decade. Other times they do so wholly disingenuously, counterposing authoritative voices against ones they know carry no weight with their audience, as they did and still do with coverage of female genital cutting. At still other times, they abandon objectivity altogether, counting on a national consensus so strong that no one could possibly accuse them of being biased, as many did after 9/11.
I think this is the source of some of the discomfort with the media coverage of this election.
What does a journalist do when the editorial board of the Washington Postcalls one candidate a “unique threat to American democracy”; the New York Times’ calls him a “poisonous messenger” appealing to “people’s worst instincts”; the Houston Chronicle’s calls him “dangerous to the nation and the world,” a man that should “make every American shudder”; and the far-right National Review’s calls him a “menace”? What does a journalist do when conservative newspapers like the Dallas Morning Newscall him “horrify[ing]” and endorse a Democrat for president for the first time in almost 100 years? Is this still the right time to be objective? Is this a 9/11 moment?
I suspect that journalists themselves do not know what to do, and so we are seeing all of the strategies playing out. Some are trying hard to hew to the traditional version of balance, but covering asymmetrical candidates symmetrically makes for some odd outcomes, hence accusations of false equivalence and misinforming the public. Some are counting on a consensus, at least on some issues, assuming that things like constitutional rights and anti-bigotry are widespread enough values that they can criticize Trump on these issues without seeming partisan, but it doesn’t always work. Still others are aiming down the middle, offering an imbalanced balance, as when journalists reference the support of David Duke and other white supremacists as their own kind of dog-whistle politics.
Meanwhile, readers each have our own ideas about whether this election deserves “balanced” coverage and what that might look like. And so do, of course, the thousands of pundits, none of whom are accountable to journalistic norms, and the millions of us on social media, sharing our own points of view.
It’s no wonder the election is giving us vertigo. It is itself out of balance, making it impossible for the country to agree on what objectivity looks like. Even the journalists, who are better at it than anyone, are failing. The election has revealed what is always true: that objectivity is a precarious performance, more an art than a science, and one that gains validity only in relation to the socially constructed realities in which we live.
It’s just that our socially constructed reality is suddenly in shambles. Post-truth politics doesn’t give us a leg to stand on, none of us can get a foothold anymore. Internet-era economic realities have replaced the news anchor with free-floating infotainment. Political polarization has ripped the country apart and the edifices we’ve clung to for stability—like the Republican Party—are suddenly themselves on shaky ground. The rise of Trump has made all of this dizzyingly clear.
We’re hanging on for dear life. I fear that journalists can do little to help us now.
Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.
Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:
So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):
It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.
Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.
Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.
The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.
So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?
For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.
One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.
So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?
One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:
The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.
In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.
This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.
This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.
Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded forContexts.
Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College.
As the 2016 presidential campaign enters the final stretch, Donald Trump has doubled down on his hard-line stance on immigration. In his August 31st immigration policy speech, Trump proposed implementing extreme vetting and employing a deportation force, and opposed amnesty for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. Polling by Latino Decisions, a leader in Latino political opinion research, indicates Trump’s current poll numbers among Latinos have slipped to 19%. However, given Trump’s proposed policies and charged rhetoric against Latinos, it might seem perplexing that even that many Latinos still support Trump.
Recently on MSNBC’s All in With Chris Hayes, Joy Reid asked Latinos for Trump co-founder Marco Gutierrez whether Trump’s immigration policies would fundamentally drive Latinos away from the Republican party. Gutierrez replied that Trump’s message was “tough” but necessary; asked to clarify, he responded with the comment that immediately spawned a new internet meme:
My [Mexican] culture is a very dominant culture. And it’s imposing. And it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re gonna have taco trucks every corner.
Gutierrez defended his assessment, saying “you guys defend a Mexico that doesn’t exist anymore. There is a new Mexico that’s rising with crime and we need to stop that. And that stops right here [in America].”
His comments illustrate important concepts related to the psychology of ethnic identity. First, people differ in how strongly they affiliate with their Mexican or Latino identity; some feel more strongly identified and others less so. Second, Latinos in the U.S. navigate two cultural identities: their ethnic identity and their American identity. And these identity differences are linked to political ideology.
My co-authors and I asked 323 U.S.-born Mexican Americans about their political ideology and socioeconomic status, the strength of their identification with Mexican and American cultures, and their attitudes toward acculturating to American culture. Those who strongly identified with Mexican culture were more likely to support the integration of both their Mexican and American identities into one unified identity, such as maintaining their own cultural traditions while also adapting to Anglo-American customs. These leaned more liberal. In contrast, those who held weak Mexican identification were more likely to support full assimilation to American culture. These were more moderate or conservative in their ideologies.
Their socioeconomic status also influenced their political ideology. Those with higher socioeconomic status were significantly less liberal, but this was most true for those participants who both belonged to higher social classes and had the weakest identification with Mexican culture.
This may explain why some Latinos aren’t put off by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Latinos who support Trump may feel less strongly identified with their ethnic culture and have a stronger desire to identify with American culture. They probably also believe that other Latinos should assimilate fully into American culture and minimize ties or connections to their heritage culture. These beliefs comport with Trump’s message that immigrants need to “successfully assimilate” in order to join our country.
Given that Mexican Americans with a strong ethnic identification were more likely to be liberal and support biculturalism over assimilation attitudes, it’s quite unlikely that Trump will be successful in winning over many Latino constituents who don’t already support him. In fact, being photographed eating taco salad and exclaiming “I love Hispanics!” could backfire with conservative Latinos who do support him because that type of appeal makes salient a cultural identity that is unimportant to them, or worse, lumps them into a cultural group they have actively sought to minimize.
Laura P. Naumann, PhD is a personality psychologist who teaches in the Department of Social Sciences at Nevada State College. Her research interests include the expression and perception of personality as well as individual differences in racial/ethnic identity development. You can learn more about her here.
Is it true that Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States resist assimilation?
Not if you judge by language acquisition and compare them to earlier European immigrants. The sociologist Claude S. Fischer, at Made in America, offers this data:
The bottom line represents the percentage of English-speakers among the wave of immigrants counted in the 1900, 1910, and 1920 census. It shows that less than half of those who had been in the country five years or less could speak English. This jumped to almost 75% by the time they were here six to ten years and the numbers keep rising slowly after that.
Fast forward 80 years. Immigrants counted in the 1980, 1990, and 2000 Census (the top line) outpaced earlier immigrants by more than 25 percentage points. Among those who have just arrived, almost as many can speak English as earlier immigrants who’d been here between 11 and 15 years.
If you look just at Spanish speakers (the middle line), you’ll see that the numbers are slightly lower than all recent immigrants, but still significantly better than the previous wave. Remember that some of the other immigrants are coming from English-speaking countries.
Fischer suggests that the ethnic enclave is one of the reasons that the wave of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century learned English more slowly:
When we think back to that earlier wave of immigration, we picture neighborhoods like Little Italy, Greektown, the Lower East Side, and Little Warsaw – neighborhoods where as late as 1940, immigrants could lead their lives speaking only the language of the old country.
Today, however, immigrants learn to speak with those outside of their own group more quickly, suggesting that all of the flag waving to the contrary is missing the big picture.
In his speech last week accepting the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump said (my emphasis):
…our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.
Donald Trump’s insistence that we put “America First” hardly sounds harmful or irrational on its face. To be proud and protective of one’s country sounds like something good, even inevitable. Americans are, after all, Americans. Who else would we put first?
But nationalism — a passionate investment in one’s country over and above others — is neither good nor neutral. Here are some reasons why it’s dangerous:
Nationalism is a form of in-group/out-group thinking. It encourages the kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude that drives sports fandom, making people irrationally committed to one team. When the team wins, they feel victorious (even though they just watched), and they feel pleasure in others’ defeat. As George Orwell put it:
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.
Committed to winning at all costs, with power-seeking and superiority as the only real goal, nationalists feel justified in hurting the people of other countries. Selfishness and a will to power — instead of morality, mutual benefit, or long-term stability — becomes the driving force of foreign policy. Broken agreements, violence, indifference to suffering, and other harms to countries and their peoples destabilize global politics. As the Washington Post said yesterday in its unprecedented editorial board opinion on Donald Trump, “The consequences to global security could be disastrous.”
Nationalism also contributes to internal fragmentation and instability. It requires that we decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, encouraging exclusionary, prejudiced attitudes and policies towards anyone within our borders who is identified as part of “them.” Trump has been clearly marking the boundaries of the real America for his entire campaign, excluding Mexican Americans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and possibly even women. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech:
He’s talking about inner cities as “them”
He talked about the laid-off workers ruined by trade deals as “you”
A nationalist leader will have to lie and distort history in order to maintain the illusion of superiority. A nationalist regime requires a post-truth politics, one that makes facts irrelevant in favor of emotional appeals. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained:
To glorify itself, nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.
Thoughtful and responsive governance interferes with self-glorification, so all internal reflection and external criticism must be squashed. Nationalist leaders attack and disempower anyone who questions the nationalist program and aim to destroy social movements. After Trump’s acceptance speech, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullers responded: “He… threaten[ed] the vast majority of this country with imprisonment, deportation and a culture of abject fear.” Anyone who isn’t on board, especially if they are designated as a “them,” must be silenced.
When Americans say “America is the greatest country on earth,” that’s nationalism. When other countries are framed as competitors instead of allies and potential allies, that’s nationalism. When people say “America first,” expressing a willfulness to cause pain and suffering to citizens of other countries if it is good for America, that’s nationalism. And that’s dangerous. It’s committing to one’s country’s preeminence and doing whatever it takes, however immoral, unlawful, or destructive, to further that goal.
U.S. women of color have historically been the victims of forced sterilization. Sometimes women were sterilized during Cesarean sections and never told; others were threatened with termination of welfare benefits or denial of medical care if they didn’t “consent” to the procedure; teaching hospitals would sometimes perform unnecessary hysterectomies on poor women of color as practice for their medical residents. In the south it was such a widespread practice that it had a euphemism: a “Mississippi appendectomy.”
Interestingly, today populations that were subject to this abuse have high rates of voluntary sterilization. A recent report by the Urban Indian Health Institute included data showing that, compared to non-Hispanic white women (in gray), American Indian and Alaskan Native women (in cream) have very high rates of sterilization:
Iris Lopez, in an article titled “Agency and Constraint,” writes about what she discovered when she asked Puerto Rican women in New York City why they choose to undergo sterilization.
During the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico, over 1/3rd of all women were sterilized. And, today, still, Puerto Rican women in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. have “one of the highest documented rates of sterilization in the world.” Two-thirds of these women are sterilized before the age of 30.
Lopez finds that 44% of the women would not have chosen the surgery if their economic conditions were better. They wanted, but simply could not afford more children.
They also talked about the conditions in which they lived and explained that they didn’t want to bring children into that world. They:
…talked about the burglaries, the lack of hot water in the winter and the dilapidated environment in which they live. Additionally, mothers are constantly worried about the adverse effect that the environment might have on their children. Their neighborhoods are poor with high rates of visible crime and substance abuse. Often women claimed that they were sterilized because they could not tolerate having children in such an adverse environment…
Many were unaware of other contraceptive options. Few reported that their health care providers talked to them about birth control. So, many of them felt that sterilization was the only feasible “choice.”
Lopez argues that, by contrasting the choice to become sterilized with the idea of forced sterilization, we overlook the fact that choices are primed by larger institutional structures and ideological messages. Reproductive freedom not only requires the ability to choose from a set of safe, effective convenient and affordable methods of birth control developed for men and women, but also a context of equitable social, political and economic conditions that allows women to decide whether or not to have children, how many, and when.
A Pew study found that 63% of white and 20% of black people think that Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Darren Wilson was not about race. This week many people will probably say the same about two more black men killed by police, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
Those people are wrong.
African Americans are, in fact, far more likely to be killed by police. Among young men, blacks are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of police than their white counterparts.
But, are they more likely to precipitate police violence? No. The opposite is true. Police are more likely to kill black people regardless of what they are doing. In fact, “the less clear it is that force was necessary, the more likely the victim is to be black.”
That’s data from the FBI.
This question was also studied by sociologist Lance Hannon. With an analysis of over 950 non-justifiable homicides from police files, he tested whether black people were more likely to take actions that triggered their own murder. The answer was no. He found no evidence that blacks were more likely than whites to engage in verbal or physical antecedents that explained their death.
Castile and Sterling, unlike Brown, were carrying weapons. People will try to use that fact to justify the police officer’s fatal aggression. But it doesn’t matter. Black men and women are killed disproportionately whether they are carrying weapons or not, whether carrying weapons is legal or not. Carrying weapons is, in fact, legal in both Minnesota and Louisiana, the states of this week’s killings. What they were carrying is no more illegal than Trayvon’s pack of Skittles. Black people can’t carry guns safely; it doesn’t matter whether they are legal. Heck, they can’t carry Skittles safely. Because laws that allow open and concealed carry don’t apply the same way to them as they do white people. No laws apply the same way to them. The laws might be race neutral; America is not.