Let’s use smart psychological science to combat Jew hatred

Modern research offers a number of techniques that enable us to push back against deeply ingrained ideas

May 28, 2021 16:41

It is the defining event of Judaism. The Mosaic Law, the Torah, is brought down from Mount Sinai and given to the Israelites. Commemorated yearly by the celebration of Shavuot, the transmission of this law from God through Moses to humanity, as the tradition goes, represents the first major stand against the widespread paganism of the ancient world. It led to a mammoth change in perception. That first Shavuot at Sinai was the day the ancient gods began to be forgotten.

Granted it was a long, hard road. But that aside, if it’s possible to change a pagan worldview that had penetrated so thoroughly into the human psyche over thousands of years, why can’t something similar be achieved to eradicate antisemitism?

The immense challenge, of course, lies in altering nationally-pervasive, negative core perceptions about Jews. Working against this, too, in the real or virtual worlds, is the breadth and mutating capability of anti-Jewish outbursts. However fake and even ridiculous some are (for example, conspiracy theories) their sheer transmutability means they can never be fully addressed. Once one attack is dealt with, another pops up in the same or a different form. The effect has been likened to the old arcade game of whack-a-mole.

Nevertheless, vital efforts are made in education, social media and the legal system to combat Jew-hate; whether originating from plain ignorance or repugnant extremism (far-left, far-right, political manoeuvring, and so on). Organisations such as Campaign Against Antisemitism, Hope not Hate, and the Centre for Countering Digital Hate do excellent work, as do individuals like David Baddiel who highlighted the antisemitism in Jews being ignored as a minority.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism, moreover, is useful for those unfamiliar with the topic’s intricacies.

Overall, it’s reactive, certainly. But by that account, widespread anti-Jewish perceptions should diminish. Yet not a week goes by, it seems, when there isn’t some anti-Jewish comment or media outburst across different countries by a politician, celebrity, local councillor or religious leader. In fact, just someone with an axe to grind against Jews. And all amplified by social media.

Surely, some response component remains missing? Perhaps it is an understanding that those in repeated skirmishes with antisemites are embroiled in a war of the mind to change national consciousness about Jews: a cognitive war.

Psychological science, though, has advanced to where techniques can be employed to counterattack strategically, to push back at antisemitism. Appreciating how widespread toxic perceptions concerning Jews are initially created is part of that.

A prevalent tactic is “response baiting”. Baiting often uses fake facts, sometimes in humorous or ironic form (jokes, songs mocking the Holocaust as Alison Chabloz produced or simple wordplay, eg “Holohoax”). The purpose is to generate attention, producing heated conversation. The more shocking, therefore, the better – as evidenced by online Twitter or Reddit chats or far-right political speeches. The intent is more than engendering hostility among followers or listeners against the “other”, it is to also create a memory for false information.

Indeed, such information is familiar when met again, giving it a sense of truthfulness, according to researchers Daniel Effron and Medha Raj. And it feels less unethical to share, even if known to be untrue. That’s the insidious purpose of planting these memories. Consequently, even non-extremists blithely spread anti-Jewish content.

Crucially, familiarity is bred by the common tactic of repeating misinformation — especially with short, simple phrases or memes. Palestinians have repeatedly used phrases such as “Israel is an apartheid state”. With Arab professionals, including judges and MKs, working in Israel, this is evidently not so. Utilising the principle of fluency, the deliberate repetition of the lie is effective because previously encountered information is easier for the brain to process and reinforces memory.

Similar countermeasures to produce “sticky” information, as it’s known, are rare. But before Tzipi Hotovely became Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, she referred to Palestinians as “thieves of history”. Whatever one’s political views about this, it was nonetheless a memorable and easily repeatable soundbite.

Another frequent tactic concerns making an inaccurate statement about Jews or Israel then later retracting it and apologising (examples from Labour’s extreme-left are legion). It often draws on historic blood libels or antisemitic tropes (“all Jews are rich”). However, it doesn’t matter if done intentionally or out of ignorance, a continued influence effect means once the false memory is created in observers’ minds, the damage is done. Dislodging the effect requires not only a retraction but also for it to be repeatedly reinforced (it rarely is). And, critically, so as not to backfire, without repeating the original misinformation.

Ignoring hate-filled misinformation can be appropriate, though not always. Surrounding conversations may need shutting down before spreading like an infection. Yet those fighting back may assume the solution is to set the record straight. Keyboard warriors can spend hundreds of hours engaging with antisemites, attempting to debunk lies concerning Jews, Israel, or Holocaust denial.

But as psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his team showed, providing factual information rarely works. Rather than listening, people will tend towards information easier to digest (a headline or comment), even if having an inkling it is fake. That’s because it is information requiring less cognitive processing (ie less critical reasoning to evaluate) in passing to memory. Hence, sticky too. So even if an online poster isn’t a hardened Jew-hater, anyone going up against them must still overcome this block.

Add in pre-existing beliefs about Jews alongside a political or ideological worldview validated within an extremist group and, however much an abuser’s tirade constitutes misinformation, it stems from a deeper, convoluted outlook, so is far stickier. Challenging them is more likely to illicit an aggressive response. They double down, much like the rapper Ice Cube did in June 2020. Lewandowsky terms this the worldview the “backfire effect”.

Rather than challenging someone’s opinion it is better to ask how, for example, their anti-Jewish conspiracy theory works? It forces abusers to consider they may not know all the details of their position. They have an illusion of explanatory depth as academic Dan Johnson puts it. And even if an online poster responds aggressively, followers might begin contemplating and questioning.

Shifting hate narratives is an important countermeasure, though for real perceptual change, a two-part process. Once doubt is sown through effective debunking – an abuser forced towards questioning (ok, if Jews don’t control the music industry, who does?) – a gap is produced in their mental model. Because people need inner coherence, that gap needs filling. The key is offering a compelling, alternative narrative.

It is possible to inoculate against misinformation about Jews, much like vaccinating against Covid-19. Social psychologist Sander Van der Linden and his colleagues found that when giving people misinformation, also giving them facts about its creator’s agenda (“prebunking”), and strategies used in its production, allowed “mental antibodies” to develop. This approach – which must be implemented before misinformation has a chance to become sticky – stops people being so easily persuaded later by fake information. It suggests that solely describing adverse Jewish experiences, such as historic sufferings, is not enough. Students or online users should also be given a skillset for spotting attempts to undermine that experience.

To leave paganism behind, nations of antiquity had to change their core religious perceptions, a first step taken at Sinai millennia ago, as Shavuot reminds us. Likewise, eliminating antisemitism requires changing core perceptions about Jews. Indeed, antisemites today do just that, only to make Jew-hate worse — though the fact that these perceptions can be altered at all shows the effectiveness of psychological techniques.

There is hope for moving beyond enumerating antisemitic attacks, or increasing security at our schools and our synagogues.

These techniques offer the opportunity for implementing strategic countermeasures against Jew-hate and would reward greater attention.

Dr Jonathan Myers is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics

May 28, 2021 16:41

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