Elizabeth Suhay is a political scientist who specializes in the study of public opinion and political psychology, especially regarding beliefs about the causes of inequality. In particular, her work has made some intriguing discoveries about how and why different individuals do or do not believe genetics are an important causal explanation for various phenomena. Dr. Suhay is Assistant Professor at American University, where she is also contributing to a large project on Evidence-Based Science Communication with Policymakers.
Given that debates about genetics and inequality are back in the spotlight today, instead of joining that debate I am more interested in exploring social-scientific angles that might help us decode why these debates are so controversial, confusing, and endless. So I reached out to Elizabeth for an apolitical, scientific angle on the psychology of how and why genetic explanations tend to be adopted or rejected. Elizabeth explains how and why individuals on the left and right favor or reject genetic explanations for different human characteristics. We talk about motivated reasoning, who really believes what and to what degree, and the role of media in activating motivated reasoning about genetic attributions.
Dr. Suhay's research mentioned in the podcast:
"Discord Over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race." Alexandre Morin-Chasse, Elizabeth Suhay, and Toby Jayaratne. Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 2(2): 260-299. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.
2016. "Lay Belief in Biopolitics and Political Prejudice." Elizabeth Suhay, Mark Brandt, and Travis Proulx. Social Psychological and Personality Science 8(2): 173-182. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.
2013. "Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution." Elizabeth Suhay and Toby Jayaratne. Public Opinion Quarterly 77(2): 497-521. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.
Sean Trainor (@ess_trainor) is an historian, educator, writer, and podcaster. Sean has written for The Atlantic, TIME,Salon, and many other venues popular and academic. He is a professor at the University of Florida, where he is currently writing a book about beards in the nineteenth century. Sean co-hosts his own podcast, Impolitic. You can find more about Sean's work at his website, seantrainor.org.
Sean is a socialist activist so we had some interesting debates about the prospects for activism today, and we covered just about all of the hot-button, culture-war topics of the moment: campus politics, trigger warnings, free speech, etc., including many observations from our personal experiences moving through left-wing circles and academia. We also talked about some more obscure topics such as Catholic anti-capitalism, the pleasures and pains of our respective podcasts, and why beards became so fashionable among men in the nineteenth century.
The correlation between education and support for Trump is very different across the black-white divide. The graphs below I have taken from Civiqs.
For white people with no college degree, a small majority approves of Trump:
For white postgraduates, a small majority disapproves of Trump. Interestingly, this is more Trump support from white postgrads than I would have thought:
For black people with no college degree, a huge majority disapprove of Trump:
And for black postgraduates, the distribution of Trump approval is… about the same as it is for black people with no college degree.
This surprised me. At first I thought there was a glitch in the browser, I had to refresh it for the different subsets to make sure this wasn’t a mistake.
So what’s going on here? It’s genuinely unclear to me, but there are only a few plausible possibilities. One possibility is that this variation is just an artifact of other variables. But if education does have some effect on attitudes toward Trump, is there a reason why would it would be different for white and black folks? Who knows, but it’s interesting enough to hypothesize about. Scholarly literatures on the relationship between education and political attitudes sometimes debate whether education has an income effect (grads think differently because their market position is different), a learning effect (grads think differently because they have more information or knowledge), or a socialization effect (grads think differently because they enter into cosmopolitan social circles). Which one of these mechanisms could account for an educational effect on Trump support, conditional on race, where education shifts white people toward disapproval while shifting black people nowhere?
A learning effect seems to me unlikely, in part because university education is probably not about learning, but also because I see no reason why black students would be less likely than white students to learn new reasons for disliking Trump. It’s possible that black people are so opposed to Trump that education doesn’t really have much room to exert a unique, additional effect; or that whatever university teaches, black people already know it from childhood, e.g. that White Supremacy is real. So education perhaps only affirms what black people already know; whereas many white children do not know that White Supremacy is real, but university teaches them the error of their youthful ways. But if this were the case, it would be unclear why black people bother to attend university; also, you’d have to believe that university teaching is, at least for white students, a hard change of course from 5th grade civics class, to have such an effect; but it seems to me that 5th grade and 15th grade teachers have a pretty unified message that racism is bad and that one should not grab women by their pussies, and that anyone who does or says such things should not be President. I don’t see what exactly university would teach white people that departs from what the education system already taught them. So I don’t see how an education effect could be a learning effect.
Personally, my priors are more in favor of the socialization mechanism. What university lecturers teach is not radically different from what 5th grade civics teachers teach, but the club is very different. If you got a 5th grade civics class, everyone you knew got a 5th grade civics class. There is no club. If you go to university, you leave behind the townies who do not go to university. It’s basic sociological knowledge that all clubs use symbols and rituals to distinguish members from outsiders, and members receive a premium of resources, care, and attention from other members. The culture of the university club is best defined by cosmopolitanism. Why cosmopolitanism is the culture of the university, and how the features of cosmopolitanism serve its members, are topics for a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that cosmopolitanism is the opposite of chauvinism, nationalism, aggression, etc. Cosmopolitanism is the sublimation of these drives into polite speech, which conquers inferiors through competitive subtlety rather than competitive… competition, which is brutish and too obvious. Anyway, it seems plausible that entry into the cosmopolitan social club would have a significant effect, in the direction consistent with the data: away from Trump. But why would the socialization effect be conditional on race, when above I argued there’s no reason a learning effect would be conditional on race? Well, I think there’s a good reason that university would socialize white students into Trump disapproval, while having no such socialization effect on black students. Cosmopolitanism includes compassion for the weaker ‘other.’ As black people in the United States suffer disproportionately from poverty and other ills, white students who enter the university club must become more compassionate toward America’s oppressed black population — as a ritual requirement of membership, mind you, not for any reason that has to do with information, knowledge, or learning. Black students who traverse the university system might become more compassionate for female garment workers in the Global South, but membership in the university club does not require them to increase their expressed compassion to black people in the United States. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism gives them an increased sense of their deserved seat at the table. In short, the cosmopolitan or extra-civilized gain symbolic power over the less civilized, by forfeiting their right to brute force, investing in the social club of advanced symbolic manipulators, and cultivating their symbolic facilities in lieu of their brute force facilities. The more ridiculous social justice fashions today — sometimes led by students of color and supported secondarily by white 'allies’ — are no better or worse than than social justice fashions popular among the educated white elite of any previous generation: cosmopolitanism always means telling refined fibs to secure resources away from the grabbing hands of those who are unable to tell refined fibs.
In summary, I hypothesize that education exerts a socialization effect on students, and that such an effect should alter Trump support only in the case of white students.
Roman Montero (@PantaKoina) is the author of "All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians." We had a long conversation about religion and communism (duh), Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, rationality, love, and marriage.
I can sometimes sense inside of myself, already, the early stirrings of elderly grumpiness. Needless to say, I do not like this, and so at this relatively early stage in my life, I must do everything possible to avert this sad fate.
A few nights ago, I went to my friends’ house to watch Eurovision. I think I was overly negative that evening, criticizing all the acts with a bit too much loathing, to the point that I was perhaps slightly rude to my friends. I don’t mind being slightly rude if I am asserting something important that I believe, during moments that matter, but that’s not what I was doing. I was just counter-signaling, which is contemptible. In my contempt for postmodern pop culture, I fell into its clutches and played its game: vacuous speech and micro-performances motivated only to assert and sustain my own sense of ego and identity, in order to feel proud and be recognized, to feel differentiated and distinguished in the ever continuing mass meltdown of all values and tastes. No matter who you are or what you believe, this mode of being in the world, this defensive ego-maintenance mode, is always contemptible (although it is often forgivable and sometimes unavoidable).
Of course, the solution is perfectly clear, easy, and ancient: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — unless it’s really important and coming from a place that is non-reactive and affirmative of life in general. But this rule, which well-behaved children can follow, is surprisingly hard to follow for many adults. Why?
One reason this rule is hard to follow is that when you hang-out with friends — in order to be the most fun for them but also for your own enjoyment, the whole point of hanging out – it is necessary to “let oneself go,” at least to some degree. The unique challenge enters when the hangout itself is premised on social signaling games as part of the fun (and this can be a fine source of great fun). The whole point of watching Eurovision with friends is to take turns making all kinds of comments, criticisms, affirmations, oppositions, displays of wit, and gifts of humor — all so many subtle and enjoyable ways to revel in one’s belonging, to the assembled group but also to the larger groups that the assembled group sees itself as belonging to.
The simple truth is that we do live in postmodernity, whether one likes or not. Therefore, if you dislike postmodernist relativism, but you would like to avoid becoming a grumpy person, you must take care not to "let oneself go” in contexts where the normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodern relativism.
There is an opposite pitfall, however, which is avoiding all contexts were normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodernism. In postmodernity, avoiding the presumption of postmodernism would mean nothing less than “dropping out” of all social intercourse, generally a direct path to resentful lonerism. This is not the case for everyone, perhaps, and the internet is rapidly increasing the feasibility of unhinging altogether from normal IRL social expectations, but typically “refusing to interact with most people” is a recipe for various forms of disaster.
Ultimately, I think the solution is as follows. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but when you do choose to let yourself go — and you must, at times — only do it on a novel plane of your own construction, orthogonal to whatever is the presumed socio-moral playing field. You will be incomprehensible, but that’s fine. In short, if one is to avoid grumpiness, one cannot avoid being a philosopher. Oblique angles always; diverge but never resist.
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