Professor Alex Geisinger explored the disturbing influence of President Trump’s tacit endorsement of white supremacy in an opinion essay published by The Daily Beast on Aug. 21.
“We all like to think of ourselves as autonomous decision-makers,” Geisinger wrote. “It ends up, however, that our belief in our own autonomy is greatly overstated.”
Geisinger cites research illustrating how much the opinions of others affect our own behavior. In a study, psychologists gave groups of homeowners differing reasons for saving energy: some were told it would cut household costs; others were told that it’s good for the environment, and yet others were told their neighbors were conserving energy. Surveys showed that homeowners were least likely to say that their neighbors’ behavior would influence them, yet the people who saved the most energy were the ones who had received information about the habits of those living nearby.
Social norms are a “reflection of the depth and breadth of preferences of a group of people,” Geisinger explained, adding that “when someone receives votes of approval by millions of Americans on a platform of hate, it sends a message to society that many more people condone hate than we originally thought.”
Noting a surge in the volume of hate crimes and in the number of hate groups, Geisinger observed that a norm opposing white supremacy that existed prior to the 2016 election “has now been practically destroyed. We have reached a tipping point—a point where the norm has been so weakened that it may become unseated and replaced by a new norm of hate."
The only way to counter the phenomenon, Geisinger said, is for a majority of Americans to send a clear message that they do not condone hate. Trump, he added, is the first on the list of Americans who need to convey that view.