Last week NPR news analyst Juan Williams was fired for remarks he made on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” regarding Muslims.
Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
Whether you agree or disagree with NPR’s decision, the firing has brought forth discussion about whether such a sentiment is bigoted or not. Associating one thing with another is a classic evolutionary defensive mechanism, Shankar Vedantam writes in Slate.
These automatic associations make evolutionary sense. If one of our ancestors was wandering in a desert and came by a snake curled up next to the only tree on the landscape, her mind would connect not just that tree with that snake, but all trees with snakes. Illusory correlations are all about seeking out group patterns based on rare individual incidents: all trees and snakes and all flights with stomach upsets, rather than that one tree and that one snake, or that one flight and that one stomach upset. Scientists say correlation isn’t causation, but, from an evolutionary point of view, if the snake-tree link is wrong, all that would happen is our ancestor would avoid all trees in the future. If the link was real and she failed to see it, she could get herself killed. Our ancestors constantly drew conclusions about their environment based on limited evidence. Waiting for causative evidence could have proved costly, whereas extrapolating causation from correlation was less costly.
Most people don’t make similar associations between, say, Timothy McVeigh or the Westboro Baptist Church and Christianity because whites and Christians are the majority in America. Muslims are just the latest group to face such correlation; Vedantam notes African-Americans have long faced problems by being associated with crime.
Whenever people who strongly believe in illusory correlations are challenged about their beliefs, they invariably find ways to make their behavior seem conscious and rational. Those who would explicitly link all Muslims with terrorism might point to evidence showing that some Muslims say they want to wage a war against the West, that a large preponderance of terrorist attacks today are carried out by Muslims, and so on. This is similar to our longstanding national narrative about blacks and crime.
Todd Essig, writing in Psychology Today, argues that the unique combination of human psychology and social networking serves to spread hate quickly and efficiently. Hate speech, at least against Muslims, is part of the cultural norm, he says; “No one escapes the pull of cognitive dissonance.”
Consequently—and here is the tragic consequence—once you start speaking hate you will soon start feeling hate regardless of motive. The next thing you know you’ll be getting nervous when you see a Muslim or a person of color—maybe one of Juan Williams’ relatives—at the airport because, of course, you hatefully believe there is a good chance they are a terrorist or a mugger.