As a social scientist I’m fully aware of the fact that people tend to listen to, observe, and even seek out media and information that support their existing beliefs (this is a subset of both confirmation bias and self-justification). Along with this is the tendency of people to avoid, criticize, and even demean any media or information that disagrees with their existing beliefs. The result of such behavior, of course, is extreme polarization and a reduced ability to see the perspectives of people with whom you disagree. In layperson’s terms: Once you stop listening to people with different opinions, it becomes nearly impossible to accept the idea that they may have something worthwhile to say.
Enter Barack Obama. This Tuesday he plans to speak to the nation’s school children. Thanks the polarizing efforts of Fox News’s scallywag blowhards, the parents of the nation’s school children are freaking out. Now, turn the clocks back almost 20 years and George H.W. Bush (the dad) did the same thing. I was in high school at that point. Was there an uproar? Did the parents of the nation’s school children freak out? Were liberals running through streets demanding that their “socialist” children not listen to this god-fearing capitalist propagandist? Um… No…
This raises two questions:
1) Should the President of the U.S. be allowed to talk to school children?
I’m pretty sure the Rush Limbaugh’s, Sean Hannity’s, and Glenn Beck’s have conveniently failed to mention the fact that Presidents of the US regularly visit schools and classrooms. In fact, George W. Bush was reading a kid’s book to students in an elementary class when the September 11th terrorist attacks took place. I wonder how many of the parents of those kids threw fits when they found out THE PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. was coming to visit their kids and talk to them?
While George Bush was President, I regularly used him as an example of someone with power. I would tell my students that, if he were to suddenly walk into my classroom, regardless of how important I considered the topic of discussion at that moment, I would turn the floor over to him. I’m not a fan of George Bush and I disagree with him politically on just about everything. But because of his position (i.e. “status” in sociology), I would still listen to him and assume that what he had to say to my students would be worth hearing.
Additionally, I am a believer in listening to people who disagree with you precisely because it forces you to rethink what it is you believe (this is why we went to see Mitt Romney and John McCain speak during the election last year). If you only ever listen to people who agree with you, you fall prey to groupthink. And, your views are often ill-founded and not carefully developed. In short, you think what you think not because it is a well-developed argument but because you’re afraid to think and have not considered thinking anything else.
So, the short answer to this question: Parents should be ecstatic that the President of the U.S. is taking time out of his schedule to talk to their children, regardless of his politics. That he is doing so reflects the importance he puts on school.
2) What has changed to result in this type of a response? While I’m not an expert on this particular social psychological phenomenon, my guess is that the media is playing a particularly large role in this. While having a free and mostly unrestricted press (George Bush certainly didn’t give the press free reign in Iraq or Afghanistan during his wars there) is a hallmark of a liberal and open country, this also means the press can work to undermine the leadership of the country. You would likely not find such criticism in the media in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has cracked down on the press. So, I fully support the right of the media to say what they want regarding Barack Obama’s address to the nation’s school children. I’d even die for their right to say what they are saying.
But I can’t help but see the media that is pushing this as remarkably hypocritical. They demand the right to criticize the President and even try to get students to avoid listening to him give an innocuous speech about staying in school. But if anyone were to criticize their right to say what they are saying, they would be up in arms about Constitutional Rights. So, they support peoples’ rights to listen to them, but not to anyone who disagrees with them. This is hypocrisy 101.
As for why this response now? I think it does reflect both a growing divide in the U.S. between conservatives and progressives. Luckily for those of us who are somewhat in touch with reality, it appears as though progressives are winning some of these battles. The Republican Party is shrinking. Religious fundamentalism is shrinking. People are realizing that you can’t fight progress forever. Doing so will ultimately doom your society. So, my guess as to why this is happening now is because the religious right and conservatives in the U.S. are feeling increasingly marginalized (because they are), but they retain control over much of the media (most of the CEOs of media conglomerates are wealthy white men with vested interests in maintaining the status quo). So, as wealthy white men lose a little bit of their power and control, they are fighting back, using the tools they have – the media and the unfailing loyalty of those who are too closed-minded to listen to anyone with whom they might possibly disagree.
Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but it seems like what we are hearing are the death throes of conservativism in the U.S. It may be a long, loud, and painful death, but I’m hoping it is a death nonetheless. That death may lead to the rise of Libertarians, but I’m guessing Libertarians wouldn’t run away from the opposition with their hands over their ears screaming at the top of their lungs so they can’t hear the opinions of those who disagree with them.