Radical Distortion

Radical Distortion

by John W. Reich

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Our social unity is under attack from extremists on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Often the loudest and most influential public voices today are also the most divisive. Amid the din of conflicting claims, accusations, and counteraccusations, voices of moderation can no longer be heard. Radical speech is creating hazards for civil discourse and even for


Our social unity is under attack from extremists on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Often the loudest and most influential public voices today are also the most divisive. Amid the din of conflicting claims, accusations, and counteraccusations, voices of moderation can no longer be heard. Radical speech is creating hazards for civil discourse and even for governance. Under such conditions, how will we ever find common ground to advance the needs of the nation?

Psychologist John W. Reich presents answers to this question in this insightful discussion of the social-science research on the decision-making processes of those who endorse extremist beliefs. A key finding of this research is that extremism causes selective hearing and biases our very ability to form objective judgments. In fact, radical speech leads to radical hearing and impedes our willingness to consider moderate viewpoints.

Based on these findings, Reich presents seven principles whereby we can reduce or eliminate the toxic influences of extremist rhetoric and selective hearing. These include becoming aware of how emotion affects our judgments, accepting the fact that we live in a diverse society where differing points of view are common, and detecting when extremist rhetoric is designed solely to attack its opponents.

If knowledge is power, then the best antidote to toxic speech is increased scientific understanding of how our judgments are formed. By making the latest social-science research on this important subject accessible, Radical Distortion takes a crucial first step toward creating a more civil society.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Radical Distortion is a fascinating, scholarly, and highly accessible book that provides much-needed perspective on the nature of radical hearing and the psychological and social factors that influence the type of radical posturing that is corroding our social unity and our capacity for collaboration and cooperation. . . . This timely book is a useful resource for anyone seeking to foster collaboration and cooperation in society."
- Dr. Michael Hogan, Lecturer in psychology, National University of Ireland, Galway, and author of The Culture of Our Thinking in Relation to Spirituality

"Reich's deep insight into the nature of 'radical hearing' is a milestone in our search for the alleviation of human conflict. This book should be mandatory reading . . . especially for those who are guiding the progress of our society. Highly recommended!"
-William R. Uttal, Professor emeritus, Arizona State University and University of Michigan

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 John W. Reich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-658-0

Chapter One


Under ordinary circumstances, our social relations, our bonds with our family, our friends, our community, even our ties to our nation should be our most precious national resources and should be treated accordingly. Our connectedness with our society should be a wellspring of our resilience as we try to adapt to our fast-changing and challenging future. But these are not ordinary circumstances, and our unity is under attack. There are people in our midst who are intent on destroying it, who deliberately want to divide us from each other. And they are succeeding in significant ways. This is an amazing and depressing phenomenon. It is amazing and depressing because some of those people are being paid millions of dollars to do this. They have been raised to the exalted status of media stars. With their radical and polarizing speech, they are the loudest voices of our times. They are so successful that voices of moderation are being drowned out.

But this is not "news." Our national unity perpetually seems to be a fragile thing, threatened when events unleash our emotions and make us question our relationships with each other. A recent tragedy in my sister city of Tucson, Arizona (I live in Tempe), highlights how tenuous our unity truly is. On a beautiful Arizona morning, Saturday, January 8, 2011, our US representative from Arizona's Eighth District, third-term congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was holding an open "Congress on Your Corner" public meeting with her constituents in a Safeway® parking lot when a man, later identified as Jared Loughner, opened fire with a handgun. Representative Giffords was seriously wounded, six people died, and thirteen others were injured. Giffords survived the initial injuries and of this writing is reported to be showing excellent progress in rehabilitation.

This premeditated attack unleashed a firestorm of controversy over Loughner's motives, with speculation initially centering on his political leanings. Right after the shooting, people decried the high level of divisiveness and rancor in our public media. Giffords was a Democrat and had just come off a strong, challenging midterm election against a conservative Republican. In fact, Giffords's own office had been vandalized after she participated in a rancorous debate over healthcare reform. Speculation then turned to the status of Loughner's mental health. At this time, there have been no official statements on this subject, and no trial has been held to clarify the matter.

What is interesting from my perspective is how the national debate over the event has evolved. I see post-tragedy developments as falling into two related categories: (1) Many commentators quickly noted the presence of vitriol and divisiveness in our public media that might have stimulated violent thoughts in the gunman, so there was a reaction against media incitement, and (2) People said they would take concrete actions to move toward more accommodation and unity. Let me give some examples of both of these developments since they foreshadow many of the issues I want to discuss further.

Among the media outlets commenting on event, Tucson's Arizona Daily Star editorialized on the day after the shooting: "The immediate reaction of some has been to point to the poisonous atmosphere that has engulfed Arizona and the nation. Gun imagery, talking of 'targeting' elected officials and taking out political opponents has become pervasive. The bitter 2010 election turned up the volume. Demonizing people who have different opinions makes for easy punditry and cheap entertainment. It has to stop.... It shouldn't take a massacre for us to talk to each other instead of only about each other."

In addition, Dr. Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize–winning economist and columnist for the New York Times, sought to have the nation stop what he called "eliminationist rhetoric." In his January 9 article, he said, "The point is that there's room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn't any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. And it's the saturation of our political discourse—and especially our airwaves—with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence."

There is good evidence from the science of attitudes and emotions that there are deep-seated mental tendencies for people to reject and eliminate the ideas of people with whom they disagree. And regarding the Arizona Daily Star editorial, I am afraid that when the editor said, "It has to stop," that clarion call simplified what is a deeply difficult thing to do, as I will show. However, in the next-to-last chapter of this book, after all the evidence is in, I will provide evidence-based suggestions as to how we might go about changing our judgment processes and our ways of approaching intergroup differences. It might not happen as I say in my final chapter, and, if it does not come about, it will be for understandable reasons that are provided in the following chapters.

Now to my second category of post-tragedy responses. In the public furor over the Tucson incident, a number of prominent people actually started doing something to turn down the heat. Perhaps the most significant action, from a national perspective, was that congressional leaders themselves took action to reduce the inflammatory rhetoric and to increase the civility of our discourse. Interviewed by the media, a number of officials said that they intended to work more closely with the members of the opposition political party in an attempt to be more bipartisan. In fact, two leading senators at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, Charles Schumer of New York and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, agreed to sit together to hear the upcoming State of the Union address by President Barack Obama. By tradition, members of the two major parties sit separately during the speech—as amazing as that may seem from a psychological perspective. I will present research in chapter 8 that shows how exactly wrong separation like this is if one wants to enhance intergroup cooperation rather than contention.

Interestingly, President Obama himself made reference to this remarkable turnaround. In his 2011 State of the Union address, he said, "What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.... We will move forward together, or not at all—for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics."

A note of caution is always appropriate, especially when dealing with politics. On May 22, a mere four and a half months after Giffords was shot, two journalists from McClatchy Newspapers, David Lightman and William Douglas, reviewed the current political scene in Washington. Their article "Compromise Tough in D.C." pointed to two major factors that make compromise difficult: "Yet changes in the political culture are clearly adding great pressure, triggered by interdependent forces: an inescapable news media and increasing polarized views. Together they challenge congressional leaders' ability to broker the compromise essential to successful democratic government."

One more development signals the post-tragedy awareness of the dangers of our current divisiveness. The University of Arizona, which is in Gabrielle Giffords's electoral district, announced on February 21, 2011, the formation of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. This nonpartisan center is devoted to research, education, and policy formulation to enhance civility in public discourse. On its board of directors are former presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, and former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor (from Arizona), along with many other national figures well versed in national politics.

These are encouraging developments toward enhancing our national unity and countering the efforts of public figures who are making big bucks to divide us. But our public conversation about extremism would be greatly improved if we would put our debate on a foundation of reliable, grounded, hard-core scientific evidence. This evidence would have to reveal what happens to the human mind when it gets poisoned by the emotions of anger and hate. Although it does not get mentioned in public debate, this anger is invariably accompanied by corollary side effects, such as a sense of superiority, of self-pride, of inflexible certainty about being in the right, and of rejection of moderate points of view. The motto "My way or the highway" characterizes much of this rhetoric.

Actually, this type of social polarization has received considerable research attention lately. Political scientists have been able to measure such quantitative variables as political party registration and voting pattern. They then relate those measures to other variables, such as demographic trends and national opinion polling results. Robin Stryker of the National Institute for Civil Discourse summarized research studying the partisanship of the leaders of our national political parties and voter polling results. She showed that there is good evidence that voters' opinions do not show as much polarization as does the party leadership. "Institutional change in the American political system has incentivized party candidates, leaders and office holders to stake out more, rather than less, extreme positions ... there still may be cause for concern to the extent that polarization is accompanied with greater incivility in political discourse."

Even more revealing, these researchers have been attempting to answer a sort of chicken and egg problem: Has party leadership been the source of the polarization, or have the voters themselves become more extreme in their partisanship, with leaders simply reflecting that in their party platforms? The answer to these questions is a matter of debate because it is difficult to establish precise characteristics of polarization within the voting public itself, whereas assessing polarization among the leadership is a more clear-cut matter. Nevertheless, summing up the results of the available studies, Stryker has been able to conclude that "elite party polarization and mass polarization now feed on each other, but evidence suggests that partisan activists were the original instigators of this reciprocal polarization dynamic."

This is an important conclusion. It points to the role that prominent, highly publicized national figures have an impact on forming people's attitudes and beliefs about significant political issues and, by extension, religious and social policy issues as well. If we want to work against our current divisiveness and polarization, we have to focus on the ways that partisan and extremist speech affect the public at large.

So we need to ask the question, Can something be done about this state of affairs? If we are to have any hope of social unity, there are two major issues to consider. First, we have to understand it. With a clear understanding of what is happening, we then have a chance of finding the best way to eliminate the problem. If reducing the divisiveness and restoring our national sense of unity is our most important public goal—and I believe that it should be—then the second issue to consider is, can we then figure out how to achieve it?

In my opinion, and based on the best scientific evidence, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. Yes, we do know a great deal about this type of public speech, and we know a great deal about its effects on people. And to answer the second question, yes, we can figure out what to do about it. I will provide a set of principled suggestions at the end of this book that will show us the best ways to accomplish this. The critical consideration, however, is that psychological research is showing us that it will be very difficult for us to "get along." There are strong cognitive and social forces for keeping us separate.

I have taught this information to university undergraduate and graduate students for many years, and I will present some of my own research findings on these topics later in this book. But while the psychology of judgment and decision making in high-emotion, hot-button issues has been a well-researched topic in psychological science, the research can only have benefits to us all if the public knows of it and adopts suggestions along the lines of those I propose for improving our public discourse. I suspect that even "radical speakers" (my term) who engage in divisive speech do not have any background knowledge in this type of work. I want to encourage a public dialogue about where we are in our current civic discourse. The information in this book is a solid starting point for that dialogue and, I hope, for action.

To answer the first question—can something be done about this state of affairs?—this book presents some powerful concepts from psychological research on how this divisive, polarizing speech has its effects. That research reveals the ways in which the human mind gets twisted and distorted by the hostile, aggressive emotions that arise from radical, extremist speech. These effects operate at the level of the individual's thinking, judgment, and decision-making processes. However, there are also sources of friction that lay outside the realm of the person's mind; they reside in our social relations, in our identifying ourselves with social groups—with "us" and "them." This kind of divisiveness also affects our mental processing. So it is the combination of the biasing of our individual mental processing and our aggressive social relations where we find the core causes of our problems in civil discourse with each other.

As for solving this problem, surely we should be smart enough to use those very same principles to answer the second question, a question of applying our knowledge to our daily living. That's the hard one, particularly if it refers to tolerating people whose politics or religion we dislike. But I will show that we know what to do and that we can succeed if we have the individual and public will to do so—that we can act on what we know from understanding those principles.


The immediate reason for our own polarization is obvious: popular, forceful public figures who denigrate and vilify their targets. These people are radicals and extremists, and they are often proud of it. You know them because they are vividly displayed in the public limelight. They are on the radio, the television, at conventions, in the pulpit; they write inflammatory books and articles. They are polarizers. Author and columnist John Avlon describes what these people do as "polarizing for profit." With their black-and-white beliefs, they tolerate no deviance from the "true word," and anyone who is not for them is against them. Avlon has coined a useful phrase to describe the most aggressive of these people: "Hatriots." It is a term that captures their aggressiveness clothed in the language of patriotism. Who are these people? As we shall see, there are plenty of examples of extremists on one side or another of many different issues—the political, religious, and social issues that divide us today.

Television commentator and author Rush Limbaugh, one of today's most popular public commentators, had this to say about Democrats: "We've always known that Democrats are antiwar, and we've always known that we can't really count on them when it comes to national defense. But we have finally seen with whom they will go to war: The American people who disagree with them."

On the same topic, Limbaugh has said, "They are some of the meanest, most vile people in the country—the supporters of the Democrat Party and the Obama ticket. They are deranged, they are unhinged, and they are genuinely dangerous, but the media will only praise them as being 'activists' and 'involved.'"

Another well-known public commentator and author, Ann Coulter, has similar feelings, but they are directed at liberals: "While the form of treachery varies slightly from case to case, liberals always manage to take the position that most undermines American security."

On the other side of the political spectrum, Keith Olbermann, journalist and television commentator, made this observation about the Republican administration's response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans: "This is the Law and Order and Terror Government. It promised protection—or at least amelioration against all threats: conventional, radiological, or biological. It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water."


Excerpted from RADICAL DISTORTION by JOHN W. REICH Copyright © 2012 by John W. Reich. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John W. Reich (Tempe, AZ) is emeritus professor of psychology at Arizona State University. He is the author of Experimenting in Society and the editor of two books: Handbook of Adult Resilience (with Alex J. Zautra and John S. Hall) and Handbook of Resilience Approaches to Stress and Trauma (with Martha Kent and Mary C. Davis).

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