In this time of political passion, those of us who are instructors and/or text authors may agonize over whether to engage contentious public issues, such as the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination, fears of immigrant crime, or the possible social toxicity of presidential rhetoric.
My assumption is that—given our focus on education and our respect for our students’ diversity—classrooms and textbooks should not be political bully pulpits. There are more appropriate venues for advocating our own political views.
But that needn’t preclude our seeking to inform public dialogue, by offering pertinent evidence. For example, in a recent essay, I drew on memory science to report the tunnel-vision nature of emotion-laden memories, as perhaps illustrated when Christine Blasey Ford recalled being sexually assaulted without remembering peripheral details—just what we would expect from an authentic memory. And I indicated how state-dependent memory phenomena could help explain why Brett Kavanaugh might be sincere in having no memory for the same event. But I stopped short of expressing an opinion about whether he should have been confirmed.
Other essays have also offered information pertinent to heated political debates:
- Trade policies. While politicians and economists debate the economic merits of free trade versus trade-restricting tariffs, social psychologists have noted that economic interdependence and cooperation enhance the odds for sustained peace (here).
- Fear of immigrants. Recent political rhetoric focusing attention on the “caravan” of Central Americans desperate to enter Mexico and the U.S. has again raised fears of immigrant crime. Recent TalkPsych essays (here and here) offered data on actual immigrant crime rates in the United States, and on who in the U.S. and Germany most fears immigrants (ironically, those who have little contact with them). Gallup data from 139 countries confirms higher migrant acceptance among those who know migrants. Teachers can offer such evidence without advocating either party’s border policy (yes?).
- Presidential rhetoric and public attitudes. Recent essays in The New York Times (here and here) and The Washington Post (here and here) assume that President Trump’s derision of his political opponents and of the press creates a toxic social environment that seeps down into his followers’ attitudes and actions. Pertinent to these concerns, my earlier essays wondered whether the President was “simply giving a voice” to widely held attitudes, or instead was legitimizing such attitudes and thereby increasing bullying. I later offered new evidence that hatemongering from high places does indeed desensitize people to such and increases expressions of prejudice. Can teachers offer such evidence without being partisan?
Be assured, psychological science is not intrinsically liberal or conservative. Its evidence sometimes lends weight to progressive thinking (say about sexual orientation as a natural, enduring disposition) and sometimes to conservative thinking (for example, about the benefits of co-parenting and stable close relationships such as marriage). As I conclude in an upcoming teaching column for the Association for Psychological Science Observer, “psychology aims not to advance liberal or conservative thinking per se, but to let evidence inform our thinking. And for us teachers of psychology that, no matter our political identities, is perhaps the biggest lesson of all.”
(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)