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The Human Tendency for Selective Outrage (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi Selective perception is an instinctive cognitive bias that predisposes us to perceive reality in ways that reinforce...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Selective perception is an instinctive cognitive bias that predisposes us to perceive reality in ways that reinforce and soothe our predetermined prejudices. Related concepts are selective exposure (the tendency to see only those things that affirm our pre-set biases and to block out those that cause us cognitive dissonance) and selective retention (the tendency to remember only those things that confer psychic comfort to our sentiments and to forget those that don’t fit that frame).

Several events in the past few weeks have dramatized this indwelling human predilection for invidious selectivity in very fascinating—and disturbing— ways. I will start with America, where I currently live, and end with Nigeria, the country of my birth.

On January 8, 2010, the Atlantic, an influential American magazine, reported what it called “the juiciest revelations” of a gossipy book titled Game Change, which chronicles tittle-tattles by prominent American political figures about the last American presidential election that didn’t make it to official media narratives. One of the juiciest tidbits in the book, according to the magazine, is a somewhat insensitive, if sociologically accurate, statement by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about Obama’s racial appeal.

The book reported Reid as saying, in a private conversation, that he believed America was ready to elect a black presidential candidate, “especially one such as Obama -- a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’” Senator Reid owned up to the statement and even apologized for it. But, like red meat to famished dogs, the American media jumped on the statement with ravenous frenzy and panned it viciously.

Even the normally racist and xenophobic Republican Party tried to make a political capital out of the incident. The Party’s National Republican Senatorial Committee released a statement the following day after the statement was made public condemning Reid for racial insensitivity. "For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them," said communications director Brian Walsh. "Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long history of embarrassing and controversial remarks by the senior Senator from Nevada."

However, those who should be hurt by the statement— that is, African Americans—actually came out in defense of the senator. Heck, even the Reverend Al Sharpton, the uncompromising, no-nonsense African-American civil rights activist who is sometimes derided as a “race pimp” because of his tendency to cash in on any race-related issue, defended Reid. Both Barack and Michelle Obama also accepted Reid’s apology and dismissed the controversy that his behind-closed-door comment generated as unwarranted.

Now, back in 2002, Senator Trent Lott, another Senate Majority Leader— but this time around a Republican—made what was adjudged a racist, anti-black remark and paid dearly for it. He said America would have been the better for it if an implacably racist, negrophobic segregationist called Strom Thurmond had won the presidential election in 1948.

Thurmond ran as a segregationist under the platform of the unabashedly racist Dixiecrats, a political party formed by southern Democrats (the Democratic Party used to be the racist conservative party that the Republican Party now is) in 1948 in order to oppose the candidacy of Harry S. Truman.

"When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him,” Lott, a senator from the racially volatile southern state of Mississippi, said. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

This statement predictably drew the ire and fire of black people and white liberals all over America. The sheer virulence and persistence of the philippics against Lott eventually forced him to resign his position as Senate Majority Leader, the most important position in the U.S. Senate. Five years later, he resigned from the U.S. Senate altogether.

Republicans think this is selective outrage. Although Reid made his tactless statement in support of Obama’s candidacy, why did he deploy the racially insensitive term “Negro Dialect” (which American linguists used to call Negro Nonstandard English, but which blacks here now call “Ebonics”) to describe African American speech patterns? The word “Negro” is next only to “Nigger” in the scale of racially insensitive terms against black people in America.

Yet the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the leading black American civil rights organization, which came down hard on Lott in 2002, said it wasn’t too bothered by Reid’s choice of words. The association’s senior vice president for advocacy Dr. Hilary O. Shelton told Fox News: “Harry Reid is someone who has always scored an ‘A’ on the NAACP’s legislative report card. We are more concerned with his record than his rhetoric.”

African-American blogger Carmen D captured the difference between Lott and Reed this way: “Trent Lott’s comments on longing for a segregated America = Racial Hatred. Harry Reid’s word choice in his description of Barack Obama’s acceptability to white voters = Racial Ignorance.” In other words, ignorance is pardonable but hatred is condemnable.

Of course, as you would expect, conservative Republicans were outraged by this selectivity and had been drawing attention to what they say is the double standards of black people and white liberals on matters of race—that they tolerate the racial indiscretions of self-identified liberals and throw a fit when self-identified conservatives make remarks that smack of even the vaguest bit of racism.

But shortly after this Reid controversy died down, conservatives had their own share of the kind of double standards they accused others of.

Related Article:
The Human Tendency for Selective Outrage (II)

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