Tag Archives: Gordon Allport

First the POTUS, now the SCOTUS!

BREAKING NEWS:  Same-sex marriage is coming to the Supreme Court!

On Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it will review the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the Proposition 8 case (Perry v. Schwarzenegger) , and it will also hear a case that challenges the Defense of Marriage Act (United States v. Windsor). Minutes after the announcement, I got the following e-mail message from Courage Campaign, a non-profit organization that has fought tirelessly on behalf of marriage equality (and other progressive issues as well):

Gayle, it’s time to go all in on the nation’s biggest stage. Chip in $15 or more NOW to help us secure a win at the Supreme Court to end Prop 8, DOMA, and possibly same-sex marriage bans nationwide. We can’t afford a loss and we need to move quickly.

Why are they asking for money? I thought to myself. How does money get a judge to rule one way or the other? Maybe Courage Campaign is a big scam, playing on my emotions in order to get my money. Or maybe they’re trying to raise BIG MONEY in order to pay off Justice Kennedy. (NOTE: It’s the end of the semester for me, and being tired and stressed probably contributed to these dastardly, unclean thoughts.)

Then I read on:

Legal experts all say the courts follow public opinion. Justices listen to arguments by day, but read the news and talk to friends and family at night. That means that we need to wage a nationwide public education campaign that shows the harm inflicted on same-sex couples and their families by discriminatory laws like Prop 8 and DOMA.

The courts follow public opinion??? Last I heard, it’s usually the other way around. Decades of social science research indicate that, when a landmark court decision is made (such as Brown v. Board of Education), or when a groundbreaking piece of legislation is passed (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964), these policy decisions tend to have a powerful influence on public opinion. Gordon Allport, a social psychologist who wrote the classic text The Nature of Prejudice, argued in his book that stateways (laws and policies) tend to shift folkways (attitudes, beliefs, and norms) – not the other way around. In fact, if you look at the events of 2012, you can see this pattern very clearly. Consider this:

  • On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in their state – bringing the total number of states banning same-sex marriage to 39.
  • The next day, President Barack Obama made a public announcement in support of same-sex marriage.
  • To date, North Carolina is the last state in the U.S. to have banned same-sex marriage.

Get my drift?

But the Courage Campaign people are saying the opposite. So which is true? Maybe the research can tell us.

Let’s start with the judges’ preexisting attitudes. A 2011 study led by Ryan Black of Michigan State University, published in the Journal of Politics, examined all justice utterances made in cases argued between 1976 and 2008, and then further examined individual-level voting patterns in cases presented between 2004 and 2008. After sifting through hundreds of thousands of utterances, what did Black and his colleagues find? When U.S. Supreme Court justices make their arguments using emotionally volatile language, the side that uses a greater proportion of harsh language is more likely to lose its case. An example? In McCreary v. ACLU (2005), a case that addressed the issue of displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools and courthouses, Scalia used the word “idiotic” twice during his arguments. At the end of the day, the majority of the remaining justices did not take his side. Clearly, angry sputtering does not win a case.

But judges are supposed to be “impartial,” right? The worst thing you can say to a person on the bench is that they’re an “activist judge.” When Ninth Circuit Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, that’s exactly what he was called by the opposition – an “activist judge.” As crippling and insulting a statement that is, the reality is that judges are humans too – with real feelings, real attitudes and beliefs, real opinions on a variety of different issues. Most of the time, according to a 2007 Law & Society Review study, judges are very careful to set aside their ideological beliefs and instead weigh the merits of the legal arguments. The exception to that? In “salient” cases – cases that are high-profile and controversial – personal beliefs tend to carry more weight in the judges’ decision-making process. And I think it’s fair to say that Perry v. Schwarzenegger and United States v. Windsor are VERY salient cases.

So far, we have lots of evidence of the humanness of Supreme Court justices. But what about our original question – do the courts follow public opinion?  Logically speaking, it would seem so – if the public votes for the President, and the President selects Supreme Court justices, then public opinion influences the Supreme Court. However, in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Politics, researchers from Emory University investigated whether a more direct link exists between public opinion and judicial decision-making. The specific theory they tested is what’s called an “attitudinal change explanation” – the idea that attitudes of Supreme Court justices are likely to change dramatically over time, in tandem with public opinion. According to their findings, Supreme Court justices are influenced by the exact same factors that shift opinion in the general public. When a cultural norm begins to shift, people’s attitudes begin to conform more strongly to that norm – and Supreme Court justices are no exception to that.

Based on these findings, if marriage equality activists want to celebrate a victory next spring, what should be in the strategic playbook?

  • Demonstrate that public opinion solidly supports marriage equality rights.
  • Saturate the media in order to preserve the salience of this issue.
  • Pray that Justice Scalia goes on a rant with scathing homophobic vitriol.

Maybe the Courage Campaign isn’t a scam after all.



Filed under homophobia, human rights, psychological research, same-sex marriage

To win it, you’ve got to get in it!

It was a landslide. Last Tuesday, by a vote of 61 percent in favor, 39 percent against, North Carolina passed Amendment 1, which has been referred to as the “marriage-plus” amendment. Not only does this  constitutional amendment define marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman – making North Carolina the 30th state to pass such an initiative – it also declares other forms of recognition for same-sex couples null and void.

This initiative was a crushing blow to the marriage equality movement. What didn’t help matters is the fact that some gay rights organizations (Freedom to Marry being a prime example) failed to invest time, money, and energy in blocking the passage of the initiative, figuring that trying to fight the Borg was futile. “If gays ever win the right to marry in the South,” writes Lila Shapiro of the Huffington Post, paraphrasing Freedom to Marry founder/director Evan Wolfson, “it will be when the Supreme Court rules on the issue or the federal government steps in.” If we’re going to lose anyway, the reasoning goes, why bother playing the game?

Well, as the old Lotto commerical said, “to win it, you’ve got to get in it.” And even if the small win doesn’t come now, the big win could come later. How, you might ask, could we possibly score a big win when states all over the country are sealing the deal against gay rights with constitutional amendments?

One word: Media.

Back in the 1960s, Robert Zajonc (pronounced “zy-ence”), a social psychologist from Stanford University, popularized the concept known as the mere exposure effect, which works like this: If you hear a message or idea over and over again, even if you initially disagree with it, you will eventually come to agree with it, merely because you were repeatedly exposed to it. Hence the term “mere exposure” effect. So even if an anti-gay initiative passes, there’s immense value in flooding the airwaves with messages supporting LGBTQ rights. Unfortunately, in North Carolina, this opportunity wasn’t utilized to its fullest potential.

Increasingly, however, the media has been powerfully effective in changing attitudes about LGBTQ people, even in the absence of pro-gay political advertising. Edward Schiappa, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, has conducted several studies on what he refers to as “parasocial contact hypothesis.” This concept is an extension of Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, detailed more clearly in his classic book The Nature of Prejudice. According to this idea, prejudical attitudes change when we have the opportunity to have significant, meaningful interactions with people who belong to that group. In some cases, the only experience some individuals may have with LGBTQ people may well be through the media. Viewers of Glee get to know Kurt and Blaine. Modern Family devotees connect with Mitchell and Cameron. Through these “parasocial contacts” – these illusory media relationships – we become emotionally attached to these characters. And this “parasocial contact” changes attitudes.

So Freedom to Marry may have dropped the ball, but the major television networks are getting the message out anyway, right under our noses. And, in an unexpected plot twist, the ball that Freedom to Marry dropped was very deftly picked up by our very own President, Barack Obama. The very next day (which I’m sure all of you know by now), in a groundbreaking move, Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage. While many analysts see this announcement as politically risky, I think it was brilliant. Why? Because (1) his support was long overdue anyway, (2) he made history by taking a clear stand in support of same-sex marriage, and history can’t be reversed, and (3) he took the bull by the horns and put gay rights on the campaign agenda. You better believe that we’ll be hearing about same-sex marriage ad nauseum from now until November. And this could be a golden opportunity in the fight to secure same-sex marriage rights – and possibly a prime opportunity for Obama to turn his polling numbers around.

So listen up, marriage equality groups. And listen up, Obama campaign people. If there was ever a time to mobilize a two-pronged strategy, utilizing the mere exposure effect and the parasocial contact hypothesis, the time is now. Saturate the media with pro-gay political advertising, and you’ve got the mere exposure effect. Connect Barack Obama with the message of gay rights, and connect him with viewers by plugging him into as many popular media opportunities as possible (such as the slow jam news with Jimmy Fallon), and you’re wielding the tool of parasocial contact. And even when it gets ugly, stay the course.


Filed under human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized

Legalize gay!

Last Tuesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton (yes, I’m talking about Hillary again) made a groundbreaking speech on behalf of LGBTQ human rights that caused reverberations around the world. Never before has such a high-level government official delivered such a bold and powerful statement calling for the unabashed support of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. Clinton kicked off her speech with a brief history lesson:

“At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

She continued by linking gay rights to human rights with this statement:

“Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human.”

Later, she poses a direct challenge to anti-LGBT cultural and religious values practiced throughout the world:

“. . . [W]e came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.”

And, towards the end of her speech, Clinton issues an impassioned call to end passive discrimination and oppression:

“The LGBTQ community needs allies. Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message.”

I’d say that this was an historic moment in modern world history.

But I’d actually like to focus on one specific part of her speech that I thought was particularly notable (which I haven’t really seen discussed anywhere else – and I’ve been paying attention, believe me).  The statements that caught my attention were these: “But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.” Whether Clinton is well-versed in theory and research in social psychology, or whether she has especially astute powers of observation, is a question that’s up for grabs. However, what I find notable is that her words echo almost exactly the ideas of Gordon Allport, psychologist and author of the classic 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice. Her comments also reflect the findings of cognitive-developmental theorist Lawrence Kohlberg, famous for his research on moral development. Both of these scholars concur that laws shape our moral compass – not the other way around.

Allport makes a distinction between stateways (legislation, court rulings, and other public policy efforts) and folkways (culturally-driven attitudes, beliefs, and worldviews), suggesting that social and cultural norms are most powerfully affected by stateways. When we pass laws, we create a new norm. And as a rule, people tend to shy away from non-normative behavior. In fact, our collective human desire for law and order is reflected in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. According to Kohlberg’s research, most people tend to rely on an “authority and social order maintaning orienatation” (as opposed to some universal set of ethical principles) when making moral judgments. In other words, people use laws, rather than an internal set of guiding principles, to make decisions about weighty moral issues. So if we want people to support LGBT human rights, we need laws and policies – both domestically and internationally – that guide that support.

Of course, there are laws, and there are laws. What happens when governmental law conflicts with Biblical law? Frankly, I think this conflict is at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s own evolving attitudes regarding same-sex marriage probably reflect this dissonance. Ideally, Biblical law and laws passed by government entities would support reflect one another – but obviously that’s not always the case. It’s an issue I explore in my book, Backdrop, in some detail, and I’d like to explore it further in a future blog post. Stay tuned.   

To watch (or read the text of) Hillary Clinton’s speech, delivered December 6, 2011, go to http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/watch-hillary-clintons-amazing-speech-on-lgbt-rights-full-text-and-video/politics/2011/12/06/31329.

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Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, Uncategorized