Can you tolerate NAMBLA?

| January 25, 2010 | 12 Replies
image courtesty of the Federal Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesty of the Federal Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons

You think you’re open-minded? What if the North American Man-Boy Love Association wanted to distribute a newsletter in your town? What if they wanted to hold a local parade celebrating pederasty?

I am currently studying social psychology in graduate school, and I’m particularly interested in political psychology. One of my present research interests is political tolerance. “Political tolerance” refers to individuals’ willingness to extend equal civil liberties to unpopular groups.

When political scientists and psychologists measure political tolerance, they often probe individuals for their ability to withstand the most offensive, outlandish groups and speech possible. For example, a liberal-minded person may be asked whether they would be willing to allow a rally for the Klu Klux Klan or some extremist, militaristic group. Paradoxically, a truly tolerant person must be willing to allow racially intolerant speech.

Political tolerance plays a cornerstone role in functioning democracies (at least, we think so). If voters can strip away the civil liberties of disliked political groups, those liberties lay on precarious ground indeed. If we cannot tolerate the words of anarchists or members of the Westboro Baptist Church, then we do not really believe in the boundlessness of speech at all.

Academics say as much. In reality, voters are not so tolerant. Social science research from the 1950s to the present reveal that average people do not want to give free speech rights to atheists, communists, militarists, KKK members and other divisive groups. This prejudice is especially potent when people are asked to name their most-disliked group, and then are probed for political (in)tolerance. A right-winger may be willing to let a militarist hold a protest, for example, but he will usually come down on a lefty-pinko-communist speaker like a ton of prejudiced bricks.

But political tolerance is not so simple as that. A litany of research also suggests that political elites are more tolerant than average joes. That is, people with a great deal of power or involvement in politics are far more likely to extend a friendly, civil libertarian hand to their worst enemies, regardless of party. I’ve always found this surprising. Does a stuffy, pragmatic politician really strike anyone as the type to peaceably tolerate opposition? Do high-power Republicans or Democrats really seem like patient absolute-free-speech advocates?

At the moment I’d like to answer a research question that the current literature on political tolerance has left hanging. Why are elites more tolerant? Is it because they have a greater grasp of civil liberties and their democratic import? If so, then anyone who is well-informed, educated or politically sophisticated should also be more tolerant. Is it because they have taken more time to digest the philosophical and political issues at play? If so, then people who are very ‘tolerant’ should become less so if they are asked to judge unpopular groups on the fly, as restrained prejudices often surface under time and attention constraints.

I’ve also started to consider the influence of ‘integrative complexity‘ on people’s political tolerance. Integrative complexity refers to the extent to which a person considers many values, outcomes and responsibilities when drawing a conclusion. An ‘integratively complex’ person sees many wide ripples of causality, potential outcomes drifting far and wide from the decisions they make. They bring many factors into consideration when forming such decisions.

Integrative complexity could be related to political tolerance in a couple of ways. Individuals who think in a complex manner may be more prone to tolerate disliked groups, because they see the slippery slope that political intolerance creates. One day we are shutting up a NAMBLA event, the next we are telling a gay-rights group to vamoose.

On the other hand, perhaps an advocate of unfettered free speech is actually a small-minded ideologue. I have often observed myself being extremist and idealistic about free speech, opposing all forms of censorship and safety-minded restrictions. If I gave other considerations such as safety and public decency the same weight as I did civil liberties, maybe I would be politically intolerant sometimes, too. Thus, people who are politically tolerant may rank quite low on a measure of integrative complexity; they don’t consider that a Communist demonstration may incite a riot that could harm many people, so intently are they focused on the absolute import of ‘free speech’.

These are some of my tentative ideas; I’m just working on hypothesis-generation at this point and could use any and all insights. I hope to share my progress with the blog if the topic is at all interesting to a wide, nonpsychology audience. I consider political tolerance a democratic value of paramount importance (but maybe I’m just a civil libertarian ideologue). Let me know what you think.

(I’ve left academic citation out of this text to maintain a more casual, bloggy format. Relevant research articles are available upon request).

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, ignorance, Law, law and order, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Uncategorized, Writing

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. I believe you should be able to talk about whatever you want. Doing…?

    I was once buttonholes by a rather sharp right winger who kept challenging me by asking "What do you think of this or that?" as if he would find something I supported of a "liberal" nature that he could pounce on. He brought up NAMBLA and I stunned him with a very simple answer:

    "That's a no-brainer—we don't let heterosexuals diddle minors, why would we let homosexuals? It has to be equal across the board, though."

    He had no answer to that.

    I posted a long bit on sexuality a few years ago in which I made my argument why sex between children and adults is fundamentally unequal and therefore a bad idea.

    But talking about it? Hell, Nabakov became famous because of it and I'd argue his novel is a worthy addition to the culture. ('Course, that was heterosexuality. How does that play? Would you count those absurd prepubescent beauty pageants as primers for adult-child sexualizing?)

  2. Erika wrote:—"At the moment I’d like to answer a research question that the current literature on political tolerance has left hanging. Why are elites more tolerant? Is it because they have a greater grasp of civil liberties and their democratic import?"

    No. It is because they feel empowered to dictate what is or is not theirs to do. It's the same thinking that seems to go to the question of why elites advocate laws they themselves would never obey.

  3. Jeremy says:

    "if the topic is at all interesting to a wide, nonpsychology audience"

    Yes. Please continue.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erika,

    I have always found Social Psychology to be an interesting subject. Individual concepts of common sense get tossed aside and the collective psyche of the group becomes more atavistic and reptilian as the group becomes more coherent.

    I suspect that in the dysfunction of very closely bound social groups, the individual members lose their identities as individuals, and as such, any speech that opposes the belief of the group becomes a personal attack on each member, that is amplified through the internal feedback of the group dynamics.

    As an individualist, and as an existentialist, I prefer to do my own thinking, rather than leave it up to some group. I feel that if everyone does their own thinking, they will quickly see the flaws in the reasoning of any hate group.

  5. Erika Price says:

    Niklaus: I suspect you are right about why so many individuals are willing to deprive outsiders of civil liberties. Groups with strange,scary views are seen as both a literal, physical threat and a psychological threat. In these studies, time after time, a huge swathe of people report that an atheist, communist, gay person or militarist should not be allowed to run for public office or teach in a school- presumably out of fear that such people with indoctrinate others and tear society apart. In an effort to protect ever-holy social solidarity, people relinquish basic freedoms.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erika,

    John Bradshaw, in a talk about dysfunctional families, would use a visual aid that put much of this into perspective.

    Draw a bulls-eye with 3 circles. and enclose the outermost circle in a square. Now draw horizontal and vertical lines dividing the square and bulls-eye into 4 quadrants.

    One of the intersecting lines represents control(or structure), and the other represents emotional entanglement.The control axis runs from A complete hands-off attitude at one end and the other extreme is a dictatorship. On the Emotional axis, one endpoint represents an emotionless sociopath and the opposite endpoint represents complete emotional dependence sometimes noted in spoiled brats.

    It is obvious that the extremes of each axis are bad places to be. But the corners of the box are even worse.

    At one corner, you have a group that comprises members with no common group focus or emotional attachments. An example would be strangers on a bus.

    In the next corner, we find a group a strong emotional bond (the emotion can be any emotion, love, hate, anger… what ever) and no controlling structure. These groups may include fans at sporting-events and concerts, and rioting mobs.

    Opposite of the previous corner is one marked by extreme structure and no emotional attachments. This is the realm of corporations and government civil service.

    The last corner represents groups with strong emotional ties and strong authoritative control structures. This is the region of cults, political activists, hate groups, and political parties.

    The strong authoritarian structure limits membership to those with a common emotional focus, and the close emotional bonding of the group members reinforce the legitimacy of the control structure. The result is a volatile group that is closely bound, with an inherent distrust of outsiders, and a focused paranoia of all who disagree with their collective point of view.

  7. Erika Price says:

    Niklaus: Is the society-wide ideal then somewhere near the middle of the bullseye? Does emotional entanglement (and semireliance) cause us to temper control with patience and afford groups relatively wide freedoms? Does moderate control allow us to keep emotionality at an even keel?

    Your illustration reminds me of where control and close emotional connections do intersect: local politics. Often in the case of these political tolerance questions, it is the small community governments that have the say-so. It is because the KKK wants to hold a rally down the block that we bristle; NAMBLA is treated with a mentality of NIMBY. We care much more about our children and our neighbor's children being corrupted than we do children have a country away, I think. Perhaps we are therefore more politically tolerant when the question at hand is of the state or national scale.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erika,

    A perfect balance would be in the center, but no group can be perfect for very long. IN general, most functional groups and organizations should fall within the second and center circles, with the dysfunctional fringe and extremist groups cowering in the corners.

  9. Kala M. says:

    Hmmm…I think political elites are more about gaining power through political "tolerance." They will shake hands with whomever is willing if that leads to more support (through money or votes) for them. Take uber-Republican Virginia Foxx. She has been very critical of Obama, yet she bragged on Twitter about getting his autograph (via Feministe.us). So even when ideologies do not meet up, political elites are more than willing to BIRG on the powerful and keep all the doors open that they can.

    In that sense, I would bet that political elites are actually fairly low in integrative complexity, but that integrative complexity for us proletariat-types is actually an indicator of political tolerance.

    My personal views are this: the answer to speech you disagree with is not to stifle it, but to counter with even more speech. Does NAMBLA have a right to form a rally in my town? Absolutely. But I have a right to raise holy hell in protest at said rally.

  10. Erika Price says:

    Kala: Thanks for the comment. Like you, I find the (litany of) research indicating that political elites are tolerant to be a bit fishy. One thing worth mentioning is that in such country-wide studies of tolerance, political 'elites' included not just politicians, but community leaders, business owners, and members of local political branches such as the DAR or Kiwanis, things like that. I'd imagine that highly-involved political 'elites' who are not politicians are complex thinkers, while ideologue politicians perhaps are not.

    One thing I'm curious about, though, is- what about free-speech ideologues? Can you be utterly, completely politically tolerant without giving your tolerance judgments a moment's thought? Probably these knee-jerk free-speechers exist (partly I assume their existence because I feel that I am one).

  11. Justin says:

    Very Interesting. In terms of thesis implications, we should discuss this in person some time. Too much to type right now. There are differing theories emerging which have to do with this issue of elites and/or ideologues and complexity/need for closure/cognition/ need to evaluate ect. and there are a few interesting paths to be tread, research wise…

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