First came the new names--Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others--all added one by one to the long list of tragic, unjustifiable police killings of Black Americans. Then came the batons, the pepper spray, the tear gas, the flash-grenades, the helicopters, the armored vehicles, and the rubber bullets wielded against nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters across the United States, from Minneapolis to New York City to Portland. And then came the chorus of privileged beneficiaries of our country's discriminatory status quo, denying and defending the reality of brutal, racist, militarized, and unaccountable over-policing.
This sequence--grievous harm and public outrage followed by false reassurances from self-serving voices--is a familiar pattern. It's one that I've studied as a psychologist, focusing primarily on the manipulative "political mind games" that the rich and powerful use to preserve an oppressive and inequitable system, one that rewards the few at the expense of the many. I've found that these propaganda ploys often target five specific concerns in our daily lives--namely, issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Each of these concerns is linked to a key question we regularly ask ourselves: Are we safe? Are we being treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us?
Because these questions are so central to how we make sense of the world, it's not surprising that the so-called one-percent aren't the only ones for whom disingenuous answers become rhetorical weapons. The same appeals are used by other status-quo defending authorities when their apparent wrongdoing and corruption are too obvious to ignore. This is clearly the case in the current national crisis over police brutality and institutional racism, where these mind games are promoted to create the doubt and division that undermine the solidarity necessary for achieving long overdue progress.
This essay describes ten of these pernicious mind games. First, however, it's important to emphasize a crucial point: the evidence of racial injustice in our system of law enforcement is overwhelming. Areas in which scientific research has convincingly shown that Black Americans are treated much worse than their white counterparts include the issues of police violence, profiling, misdemeanor arrests, drug possession arrests, plea-bargaining, jury selection, sentencing, mass incarceration, and death penalty cases. The manipulative appeals I examine here are all designed to shield these indisputable inequities from both our awareness and our efforts at reform.
Vulnerability: Are we safe?
Whether as passing thoughts or haunting worries, we often wonder if the people we care about are in harm's way, and if there might be danger on the horizon. Our judgments on these matters go a long way in determining the choices we make and the actions we take--it's only when we think we're safe that we comfortably turn our attention to other things. Unfortunately, we're not very good at assessing risks or the effectiveness of possible responses to them. That's why psychological appeals targeting these concerns are a frequent propaganda tactic of defenders of the status quo. Here are two examples.
Status quo defenders regularly use the "It's A Dangerous World" mind game in their efforts to justify aggressive action or authoritarian control. By encouraging us to imagine fraught scenarios and catastrophic outcomes, we become more obedient when we're instructed to follow commands and relinquish our rights. Similarly, claiming that they're keeping everyone safe from ominous threats is how extreme law-and-order advocates defend bloated budgets and military-style weaponry for police departments, and even violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters. In the same way, police representatives defend the unwarranted use of force against unarmed civilians by insisting that they themselves feel threatened and under siege, and they exaggerate the dangers they actually face by falsely characterizing a group like Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. If we fall for these alarmist accounts, we're more likely to conclude that outrageous transgressions by law enforcement are necessary to ensure the public's welfare and security.
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