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The human tendency for selective outrage (II)

Because she has a congenitally mentally subnormal son, Palin said in a Facebook note that the use of the word “retard” as a term of…

Because she has a congenitally mentally subnormal son, Palin said in a Facebook note that the use of the word “retard” as a term of abuse was a “slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities” and urged President Obama to fire Emanuel, who copiously apologized for the remark and even arranged to have a meeting in the White House with advocates of people with mental disability. But Palin couldn’t be consoled or appeased. She said Emanuel must be fired irrespective of how contrite he was.

Just while the controversy was raging, the unapologetically racist, conservative, hate radio talker Rush Limbaugh used the word “retard” in even more demeaning ways than Emanuel did. “Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards,” he said in his radio show, the most listened radio show in America. “I mean these people, these liberal activists are kooks. They are looney tunes. And I’m not going to apologize for it…. I think their big news is he’s out there calling Obama’s number one supporters fucking retards. So now there’s going to be a meeting. There’s going to be a retard summit at the White House.”

Now, this is far worse than what Emanuel had said. And what was Palin’s reaction? First it was hypocritical silence. Then a Washington Post reporter and blogger managed to get a generic condemnation of the use of the word “retard” from Palin’s spokesperson. She said the word is “crude” and “demeaning.” But since her statement was a direct response to a request for her to comment on Limbaugh’s repeated use of the word in spite of Palin’s objection to it, the reporter understood and reported her to be saying that Palin condemned Limbaugh’s outburst as “crude” and “demeaning.”

But almost immediately after the story was published, Palin ordered her spokesperson to issue a rebuttal and to maintain that her words were taken out of context. In fact, she personally made an appearance on Fox News and defended Limbaugh, saying he used the word retard “satirically.” However, when an almost-by-definition satirical animated television sitcom called “Family Guy” subsequently used the word, she called it a “kick in the gut”!

All this proves the truth of the notion of selective perception. We are more tolerant of and readier to justify hurtful words that come from our “friends” than we are of even less hurtful words that come from our “enemies.”

Black Americans were riled by Lent’s remarks in 2002 because he has a history of anti-black bigotry. As a Congressman, he voted against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act (which gave blacks in America the right to vote), voted against the continuation of the Civil Rights Act, and opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday. So he’s the enemy.

Reid, on the other hand, has voted consistently to enhance the rights and humanity of black people. So he is the friend who can’t be wrong.

Emanuel is one of the fortresses of the Obama administration, the nightmare of conservative Republicans, so his private indiscretions must be blown out of proportion by Republicans. But Limbaugh is the de facto leader of American conservatives, and so even his foulest public indiscretions must be defended and justified. Same offense, different perceptions.

There is a parallel going on in Nigeria, too. For instance, some Nigerian Christians who are often quick to condemn ethno-religious murders in the north when the perpetrators are Muslims have been curiously silent, and perhaps even silently happy, when it emerged that most of the people killed in the recent Jos crisis were Hausa Muslims. They justify their moral double standards by invoking facts that are extraneous to the Jos crisis.

On the popular Nigerian online site, Sahara Reporters, many commenters justified the cold-blooded murder of Boko Haram leaders recently unearthed by Al-Jazeera by callously calling it a comeuppance for the past “terrorism” of Hausa Muslims. Any violence by Hausa Muslims is now “terrorism,” but any violence against Hausa Muslims is acceptable retributive justice.

On the other hand, Hausa Muslims also seem to have suddenly discovered the word “genocide” only because their kindred were at the receiving end of the murderous violence in Jos. But they never called the barbarous 1960s pogroms against Igbos in the north “genocide.” Nor have they ever called the periodic senseless mass slaughters of Christians and southerners in Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, etc “genocide.”

In fact, the same people who glibly bandy the word “genocide” to describe the murders in Jos resented the use of the word to describe the systematic decimation of Dafurians by the Sudanese government. And, according to reliable accounts, over 300,000 people were murdered during the crisis—way more than the number of people who died in Jos. A well-known columnist who is miffed by the “genocide” in Jos even obliquely called for retaliatory murders in which “the Biroms will be history.” Now, that’s the literal definition of genocide.

Psychologists who study cognitive biases point out that our default positions as humans is to support our kind, to selectively expose ourselves to and perceive , even retain, only those points of views and perspectives that reinforce our prejudices. It’s often an unconscious process. And so it takes nothing to be prejudiced. It’s effortless. What isn’t effortless is the capacity for conscious distancing, for dispassionate reflection, for self-criticism.

 It takes self-reflexivity and self-awareness to rise superior to the default impulses that so readily and so easily crowd and becloud our minds in moments of emotional tension. Very few are capable of this, and that’s why some people question the practical utility of the idea of deliberative democracy—the idea of government by rational conversation.

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