Extreme Speech and the Polarization of Society

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In his book “Radical Distortion: How Emotions Warp What We Hear”, ASU Emeritus Professor of Psychology John Reich examines research and theories related to social divisiveness and bias in human communication. Hear what he has to say about the societal impacts of extreme political speech.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to Arizona horizon, I'm Ted Simons. The Ninth Circuit court of appeals heard arguments today on an Arizona law that bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Maricopa county attorney bill Montgomery defended a law in front of a three-judge panel that at times seems skeptical of the state's position. Montgomery told the judges that the law addresses concerns about maternal health and fetal life. The panel of judges, though, repeatedly made the point that the state only has the right to regulate the health up until the time the fetus is viable. During the one-hour hearing the judges listen quietly as they heard arguments from an attorney for the New York-based center for reproductive rights, which is representing three Arizona doctors who challenged the measure. The court will take the case under vitamin, and an injunction on the law will remain in effect at least until ruling is issued.

Ted Simons: Well, election day is tomorrow, and for many Arizonans, it can't come soon enough. After enduring months of negative ads and nasty political speech. How much does extreme speech stay with us? And why are so many attracted to such decisive rhetoric? Those questions among others are addressed in a new book, radical distortion, how emotions warp what we hear, and joining me to talk about the book is the author, John Reich, an ASU psychology professor Emeritus. It's good to have you here.

John Reich: Appreciate it. It's a pleasure.

Ted Simons: Let's start with the defining of terms. What is radical speech?

John Reich: If you imagine a range of feelings about any topic, they will range from moderate to extreme. When people dedicate themselves to the extreme, that's radical speech.

Ted Simons: So radical speech and extreme speech, similar.

John Reich: Being the same.

Ted Simons: As far as the research you looked at on this kind of speech. What did you look at?

John Reich: Well, we looked at, basically, laboratory research done in field settings. I know that sounds weird. But, the researchers in this tradition go into the real world and find people who are really dedicated to hot button issues. Abortion, pro and anti-union, pro and anti-democrats and Republicans. The whole range of any topics that people got hot under the collar b we studied their processes.

Ted Simons: And what were you looking for? What did you find?

John Reich: They were looking for the kind of distinctions that people make about what they hear. So, if I say something to you about, about gee, I think that, that religion is a good thing. If you are an atheist you will say that's a terrible thing to be saying. Of course it is not a good thing. If you are very religious, somebody will attack you. It's a wonderful thing. It's gift. So, whatever you say going to fall into some kind of nexus of the belief of the person that's hearing you. That's where the distortions occur.

Ted Simons: What's the difference between you saying, I think religious, religion is a good thing, and I think that you are a jerk because you don't agree with me about religion.

John Reich: I would say, well, the first one is being a moderate thing to say, this is a good thing. It's not an attack, it's not to be one by someone who really believes in it. And someone who does not believe in it at all would see it as a ridiculous thing to be saying. Of course it is not good. So no sentence falls into an empty space. It falls into a nexus of extreme beliefs and gets distorted by the emotions that it creates.

Ted Simons: How easy is it for us to endorse extreme speech?

John Reich: That's an unknown issue. There's been almost nothing donned on where it is that we become radical. Probably from our parents. From our peers. It probably is not genetic but it might be. There is some arguments about that.

Ted Simons: Does it matter who is speaking these words?

John Reich: It depends. If you have a particular opinion, you are going to be judging the worth of what other people are saying. By who they are. If they are on your side, then they are wonderful. They are smart and intelligent and insightful, if they are on the opposite side, they are biased, and these are all studies that have been done incidentally.

Ted Simons: And ok, what are, what do the studies show regarding how extreme speech is conducted?

John Reich: That's the hard part. I'm arguing in my book that it's by the process of listening to it, admiring the speaker, for whatever reason, and wanting to be like the speaker. And so, if you don't have the opinion, to begin with, you will want to mimic it to adopt it. That's the endorsement process. That I describe in my book.

Ted Simons: And it's tribal, isn't it? To a certain degree? It seems like, you are almost dividing yourself up into two teams.

John Reich: Clearly, yes.

John Reich: But, the teams vary depending on the issue.

Ted Simons: Has that changed over the years?

John Reich: I think that people have been doing this since the cave man days.

Ted Simons: Really?

John Reich: I don't see any change. Have you seen a change from, from --

Ted Simons: Oh, I don't know.

John Reich: Since the early days?

Ted Simons: You wonder about it. And maybe it's because it's so much more available now by way of mass media and social media and these things.

John Reich: I don't do political science research.

Ted Simons: Sure.

John Reich: But the people who do, have just published an article this month, saying that the media are the major transmission device. So, if you have a difference of opinion from someone, that could be due to genuine differences and beliefs, or it could be due to emotions that are raised by the beliefs. And I'm arguing in my book, and they argue in theirs that it's emotional contamination that comes with the belief that causes the distortion.

Ted Simons: The idea of this emotional contamination, what does that do then on the judgment process?

John Reich: It distorts it completely. We cannot get into the data grabs, but I have, but, you can say a nice, moderate thing, and show literally it will be moved by one group to be an extreme anti-position. For instance, and another group, will say it's an extreme anti-probe so there is no middle ground. The problem with emotional commitments is, as I had initially in the title, voices of moderation can't be heard. You cannot be a moderate and have anybody listen to you because they don't have any judgment categories. For hearing what you are saying.

Ted Simons: But now, that seems to have changed. Has it not? There used to be compromise in society. A bit of moderation. If nothing else, there was courtesy, if I was, if I were railing about something that you disagreed with, you would probably say, I'm not going to, you know, remember the old line, don't discuss religion and politics, and, you know, in mix company?

John Reich: You still can't do it, it's even worse now.

Ted Simons: No one seems to be filing that advice. Societal impact of all of this.

John Reich: I think that it's devastating, the U.S. credit rating has been andromeda, by credit agencies, because, our Congress can't decide on a budget issue. But, they can't talk to each other, I think that's a disaster, and that's part of my motivation. To get this book out. Is, we have got to, to back off of this somehow.

Ted Simons: But, again, in terms of simple governance, you would think that you would put statesmen into office, and statesmen would act accordingly, is that lost art these days? Or what's going on out there?

John Reich: I can't see any way it is going to change. I don't see any change to go back to the old days. Do you?

Ted Simons: I don't know.

John Reich: Are we going to find out?

Ted Simons: It sounds like your book has some ideas, though, on how some notion can maybe moderate what they are hearing or at least filter what they are hearing, correct?

John Reich: Well, I took research, and wrote many angles on all of this problem. I took that very same research, and came up with seven ways in which the individual person cannot do what's happening.
Ted Simons: Give us some of those ways.
John Reich: Well, for one fling, learn the difference between being radically supportive of something, like a football fan or a Ford dealer, or a prochoice position. That, you could see and we expect that. And if you believe in something, support it. It's when you turn around and attack the other person, that of course, no one wants to be attacked.

Ted Simons: Right.

John Reich: So, they are going to turn around and attack you back. And then, here it comes. And that's where we're at. So, if you need to learn the difference between an enthusiastic supporter, of a position, and an attacker. And attackers should learn that they are not going to win. It never works. Has anybody ever changed their opinion because they were attacked by somebody else?
Ted Simons: But for people who do take that route, and you can go everywhere from a football game, and he's wearing a Cardinal jersey and he can't stop yelling about the other team, would you just clear for your own team and quit worrying about everybody else? You can, you can talk to those people but are they going to listen? Why are we attracted to this sort of thing?
John Reich: It's easy. It's simple black and white thinking. You don't have to process. You don't have to learn another point of view. You can get your and is just hammer away with it. It's a wonderful life. Except it's not getting anywhere. That I can see.

Ted Simons: But, for folks that, that travel and, you know, running this kind of current, will they listen? Can you tell them, you are not going to get anywhere; all you are going to do is get the other guy coming back at you. It will be one, one of these things, and do they care?

John Reich: I have a final chapter, after I list my seven reasons, I have another chapter saying, why won't people do this? Why won't people do this, and I have two reasons. One is, cognitive. That is, their thinking processes are not malleable. We just have a certain way of thinking about life. And I don't know how you are going to change that, and the other is, they can't, because they won't. They are not motivated. What is the motivation for you to give up your beliefs? I can't think of one.

Ted Simons: Right.

John Reich: Well, clearly, if we have our credit rating dropping, or the storms are getting so bad, that we finally realize that we're all going to go. If we don't do something, then maybe, if we beat people over the head with reality, then maybe they will start changing their cognition and is their emotions. Other than that, I don't see it.

Ted Simons: If you can't, last question, if you can't beat them over the head with reality, is there a way to work around them? Is there a way -- are they the rock and the screen that you can avoid and just try to get things done without them?

John Reich: Well, I suppose it's all of us.

Ted Simons: Yeah.

John Reich: Suppose we're all polarized, suppose we're all, you know, my ear doctor, tells me that he cannot play golf any more with his friends. He can't play bridge with them. They cannot do it anymore.

Ted Simons: Because

John Reich: Because of politics.

Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness.

John Reich: So, we're all into this. We're drawn into this. My book is not about radical speakers. It's about the audience. Us. Who are drawn into this. And I'm trying to lay out the causes of it. And maybe some ways around it.

Ted Simons: Are you get something good response so far? People seem to understand at what you are talking about.

John Reich: I think so, yes. You are doing very good right now.

Ted Simons: Well, all right, we'll stop it right there, I think that's a good enough place for stop. It's good to have you here, and thanks for joining us.

John Reich: Appreciate it. Bye-bye.

John Reich:Emeritus Professor of Psychology, ASU;

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