When is a gaffe not a gaffe?

I hope you’ll permit me a rare political post, which I think relates to psychology and teaching but not as much as most other posts on this blog.

I was struck by Romney’s binders comment yesterday night, not just because it is hilarious, I mean, just hilarious, but also because I think it is revealing of a deeper attitude widely held on the right. I would argue that here, like the 47% comment, we have an instance, not of a gaffe, but a window into the weaknesses and arrogance of certain attitudes in Romney’s party.

But I’d like to start with Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” comment, which I believe is a good model for this kind of window. That too was not a gaffe, but a window into a lazy, arrogant, and inaccurate judgment about the motives of Republicans. It was based on the often parroted idea that poor or middle class Republicans are “voting against their own interests” by voting against economically progressive policies, convinced (or duped in some formulations) that social policies matter more and they should look the other way while Wall Street financiers plunder their savings and privatize Social Security and Medicare. It implies that these voters could not possibly see a coherent connection between their guns, religion, and right wing economic policies and are therefore being fooled. You don’t have to go too far in the liberal blogosphere to find them being called fools.

I disagree with this formulation, and I think that support for right wing economic policies, or at least the values that Republican politicians claim their policies are based, is much more coherent than many give credit. A core principle of conservatism, even the word itself, is the idea that the social order does not need upending. We do not need big change. Individuals will create the change that they see fit, through their own efforts. This emphasis on personal responsibility is part of a larger ethos, that includes ones right to personally protect oneself, or engage in whatever sport one wants to. It includes a personal relationship to God. Yes, I agree that for many this ethos has peculiar blind spots. Why does this emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities not carry forward into a woman’s body, or into a gay couple’s hospital room or will? I am not saying that the conservative belief system is perfectly coherent, just that it is far more coherent than many democrats give it credit.

Romney’s binder comment is also a window into the soul (or a transparent cover into the TPS report) of the Republican party.

“And – and so we – we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

The awful assumption resting at the heart of this statement is the very same awful assumption that Republicans bring up about affirmative action. “Women and minorities are not qualified on their merits. We had to undertake this concerted effort to find qualified women. I didn’t know of any women who were qualified, so I had to go to women’s groups and ask them for binders full of women.” Even though he actually didn’t, they came to him. Reminds me of John Belushi in Blues Brothers, leaning over in the restaurant, “Your women, I want to buy your women. How much for the little girl?”

It may seem a fine line between someone who is qualified and competent but has not been given opportunity to appear so because of systemic prejudice, and someone who is neither qualified or competent, but will be given the opportunity anyways because of some vague sense that once society wasn’t just. That someone who is not qualified would be given preferential treatment offends conservative sensibilities. Part of the justification of seeing a social order that doesn’t need changing is that the world is just, or at the very least, it is not unjust enough to merit serious remediation.

Which leads me to the social psychology of unconscious prejudice. I just can’t see how conservatives who are against affirmative action and against systemic efforts (read: legislative and regulatory) to reduce systemic prejudice can acknowledge two well-replicated facts from social psychology. The first: unconscious prejudice exists in most of us. This refutes the idea that the effects of racism and sexism are minimal because overt racism is (largely) a thing of the past. They are sins that bad people used to commit. The second is related, but a critical extension: unconscious prejudice leads to discriminatory practice in the workplace. Recent studies like the ones that found that science faculty rate candidates as less hireable, competent, and give them lower salaries if they are women. There are many more of these, some directly tie the measure of implicit prejudice to a behavior or explicit attitude, some merely document that discrimination still exists despite apparent egalitarian values.

So what do you do, if you believe, to paraphrase John Roberts, that the best way to stop discriminating on the basis of [minority status] is to stop discriminating on the basis of [minority status]? You can’t talk about how you think businesses should do more blind review of candidates, like many symphonies now do, realizing their own discriminatory practices (that would mean your treasured business acumen was somehow flawed). You can’t talk about how women are just as capable as men, but haven’t been given a fair shake (because you believe neither). You have to make up a story about how you tried to give the appearance of fairness by asking women’s groups to recommend women, because you wouldn’t have been able to find your own qualified women, because you are not totally sure they exist.

Anyways, thanks for reading. Soon, back to your regularly scheduled posts on psychology, history of science and school reform.

About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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5 Responses to When is a gaffe not a gaffe?

  1. Derek says:

    Cedar I agree completely about the binder comment. Well put. I might ad that the disgusting core of Romney’s comment is the “we” and “us” in it … the admission that his default world is male even if, perhaps, he allows that this male world would at times should reach out to women. But I disagree that Obama’s comments about guns and religion were lazy or inaccurate They have nothing to do with the relative cohesion of conservative economic ideas and everything to do with with the reality that 42 percent of Americans are evangelical and see the world through an anti-science and -empirical lens. Americans are disproportionally clinging to religion compared to the other wealthy nations. What was inaccurate there?

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Hey Derek, the argument is not just that Americans are more religious, anti-science and value their guns highly (that claim I have less problem with). It is that these values a) have nothing to do with their economic ones, and b) are used as a smokescreen to sneak in economic policies that they might otherwise oppose based on self-interest. I think the conservatives frame their economic policies in terms of personal responsibility, often appealing to individual charity, which fits into a conservative worldview, rather than skirting in undetected on the edges.
      I also think the taxes vs. charity issue is, for any individual psychologically, a really hard sell. When I buy some cans at the grocery store and deposit them in the food bank container, I feel like I am doing good. When I buy something for 19 dollars and can’t use a 20 because of sales tax, or when I see the difference between gross pay and net pay on my paycheck, I don’t see the meals, roads, or prosthetics that money goes into. I think intuitively conservatives trust their religious feeling of doing good by helping the poor or needy in their community as measured, adequate and appropriate, whereas there is an uphill battle to do that with taxes, one that most state, local and federal governments make no effort to advertise.

  2. I think it’s interesting to compare your well-considered analysis with this story that I heard on NPR yesterday, which suggests that social order is remarkably stable over many generations. So much for mobility? Here’s the story: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/16/162936707/movin-on-up-that-may-depend-on-your-last-name

    Also, I find simply brilliant any person who uses a scene from “The Blues Brothers” to make a point.

  3. Derek says:

    Cedar, did Obama make his comment about clinging to guns and religion in the context of answering why many poor Americans believe in the Right’s economic ideas?

    Funny you should write these comments … I’ve been thinking about doing some research on these matters, Yes, you are correct — American religious thought (especially Protestant) has always been amenable to certain “free-market” oriented economic ideas, especially the emphasis on the individual. But you too quickly dismiss the politics and contingency through which conservative US churches in the 1960s-1980s abandoned their historic skepticism of Christianity and turned Christ into a laissez-faire economist as they joined the New Right;s coalition. This was a political and not theological development — just as Billy Graham’s webpage dropping Mormonism from its list of cults last week was political and not theological!

  4. I thought your analysis of hidden biases was absorbing to read. Being more of a writer of arts critique than a psychologist or sociologist myself, I became aware of the symbolic resonance by reading and viewing humorous reactions to the “binders full of women” phrase. Binders is also a term for a sports bra, and the word itself can be used to describe a profession (as in book-binding) if you drop the word “full”. Binding is also a word from the Middle Ages used to describe tying up a prisoner, so the implication of preventing the progress of women by force (in the context of the GOP platform) comes into play. Lastly, the familiarity and popularity of the phrase “bind them” plus the “rings” in Lord of the Rings being so close to “three ring binders” made for a lot of hilarious variations on quatrains about the Rings of Power; “Three rings to rule them all, and in the darkness BIND them!” etc.

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