The Behaviorism of Hate

Today, the world witnessed what some might call ‘a white supremacist extinction burst.’

When a young child starts paying attention to items at the grocery store, he can suddenly notice the gleam of all the different items’ packaging, some items of which his parent places in their cart; others, she doesn’t. Perhaps there was one afternoon when his grandfather gave him a delicious chocolate treat, and it had this same outer wrapping as that TV commercial showed, and wait—there it is on the shelf, by the checkout stand! Grabbing for it, the child is rebuked. Father puts it back on the shelf. Mother says, “No, we’re not taking that.” But the child wants it! He liked it then, he wants it now — “I WANT CANDY!” he screams.

We’ve hit a watershed moment. The parent can give in, provide the child with the desired item, OR, the parent can firmly reiterate, “No, I hear you, I know you’re upset because you want it, but you can’t have the candy.”

More often than not, I’m called in to situations because the parents have taken the first route. Giving the child candy, for whatever reason — guilt, embarrassment, indulgence — now sets up a series of learning patterns, a behavioral dance, between child and parent.

More often than not, I’m called in to situations where these “behavioral dances” have gotten way out of hand. What happens when the child screams for candy over and over until, one day, the parent actually says “no,” and sticks to it? From the perspective of the child, this is a violation of their previous contract!

Extinction bursts happen when we realize that what used to work for us no longer does. I get frantic calls from parents, telling me their child is now acting even more violent since we started behavior therapy, acting worse, and (one of my favorite phrases), “completely out of nowhere!” Of course he is! What used to work no longer does. Screaming at a high pitch no longer works, so now, he’s going to see if screaming at a higher pitch, with some good ol’ fashioned bites to boot, does the trick.

The key to knocking out these bursts is consistency. We have to be consistent, or we set up a new pattern for the child, effectively reinforcing her for even worse behavior. The rule must apply, no matter the way the behavior changes. I try to make it relevant to the parent, “What would happen if what used to work for you no longer worked anymore?”

We can observe this in our own behavior during everyday activities — we have our own extinction burts when we engage in road rage, get in fights with significant others, or steal office supplies from work. Suddenly, our environments (and the people/places that make them up) no longer create the behavioral contingencies, the behavioral dances, they used to, even though we continued with the same actions we always have.

Enter white supremacists.

One friend wrote on Facebook today, “I miss the days when everyone agreed that being a Nazi was bad.” An astute commenter noted, “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but we never all agreed that being a Nazi was bad — people just didn’t used to go around expressing it like they do now.” At least, not so much after World War II. So what changed?

A tenet of behaviorism is reinforcement — we do what works for us. After many years of being told “it’s not cool to be racist,” these supremacists suppressed, as much as socially possible, the outright demonstration of their hatred toward others. They would not be met with positive encouragement, i.e. reinforcement of their actions, to keep on doing what they were doing, because in this country, with a progressive outlook, attitude, and national agenda, it wouldn’t be tolerated. And to demonstrate that, a statue of General Robert E. Lee was to be taken down, the name of the park changed to Emancipation Park, effectively wiping off, as these people saw it, tenets of a past they held dear.

What worked for them no longer worked. Staying silent, these ~poor babies~ were witnessing the loss of a statue, the renaming of a park, the “erasing” of their past, and gosh darn it, they weren’t going to take it anymore!

NOW IS THE TIME TO BE THAT PARENT, TO REFUSE TO GIVE THE RACIST HIS CANDY. Now is the time to be that consistent “NO!” that condemns, criminalizes, and calls out their actions for what they are — hate, hate speech, terrorism. Letting them get away with this deplorable behavior, via a lack of legal action or a lack of definitive blame in a tweet, has set a new bar. It has created a new dance. The child is told, “your previous scream no longer works; but this louder one, with the hitting and the kicking, okay, I guess that will work.” Guess what he learned? Guess how far he might try to go next time?

 

Models Have Problems Too

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Okay, full disclosure, I’m not necessarily a model. But I could be! (Hit me up, Dove.) And YOU could be a model! And you! [Insert Oprah impression here.]

In an environment ~renowned~ for its empathetic approach to certain people’s struggles (I won’t say where or who or when), a discussion arose surrounding stigma toward people’s bodies. “Overweight, obese, large, lard, wide load, heavy, curvy, plump, jiggly, lumpy, bubblebutt,” and just plain “fat” were all given as examples of terms used for bodies of a certain stature. “Oh the struggles overweight people face in such a CRUEL and ASSUMING society!” was the cry of the downtrodden.

“But wait,” offered a dissenter, “there’s definitely a trend of ‘skinny shaming’ going around as well. Just look at Robbie Tripp’s ridiculous post that included a claim that models and actresses weren’t ‘real.’ Pretty sure they’d beg to differ. It’s caught on, somehow, assuming superficially thin people can’t have their own problems, or they’re not as bad.”

“Oh yeah, models have problems. Like whether to eat a cherry- or mint-flavored Lifesaver that day.”

“I mean, sure, they have their own problems, right??” *index finger mimed down her throat* “Bleeechh. Ahahaha!”

Cue some more laughter.

Ooooohhhh was I irate.

Far be it for this behavior analyst to say the fashion and entertainment environments haven’t shaped some behavior and unspoken ‘rules’ about how people SHOULD look, men and women alike. Enter the growing number of campaigns (love you, Dove) aiming to shed a light that anyone medically ALIVE is a real person, whether she be a size 0 or 10 or 26. (No, they’re not paying me, but oh boy, wouldn’t I love them to)!

Real women ALSO have brains, would you believe it?? Shoutout, Tory Burch. Some campaigns have also pointed out that size isn’t the be-all, end-all determinant of perfection. A size 6, able-bodied woman would traditionally be picked over a size 0 woman confined to a wheelchair, or a size 2 transgender model. (Ahh! #AllMeansAll and I love all of you, SmartGlamour!) Especially in my field, I’m always advocating that “real people” exist by virtue of, ya know, being people.

And HERE were others, on the flip side of what entertainment and fashion industries have traditionally sold, reducing the problems of others who didn’t look like them to inconsequential quips. Or worse, reducing life-threatening issues to laughable pantomimes. Granted, this group has their own histories of being bullied and marginalized. But does that give them license to marginalize and bully back?

Spoiler alert: No.

Models and actors are people paid for jobs, like bankers or teachers. Last I checked, it’s our indulgence in their industries that’s kept them afloat. Some #woke organizations are also taking on a greater definition of the role itself — ‘plus-size’ models, special-needs models, LGBTQ+ models. Guess what, models literally come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Attacking (because that’s what they were doing) thin people as a whole, as a culture or type, does what Robbie Tripp so infamously did last week — objectifies and judges people based on their bodies.

In that room, I would venture to guess 0% of those people were ever personally victimized by an individual model on a set. (Except by Regina George, we’ve all been personally victimized by her.) But in all seriousness, ridiculing or invalidating “models” as a collective group of people whose issues range from “zero” to “meh” creates much of the backlash seen with the popular, but still problematic, “white people problems.”

What’s the behavioral contingency behind all this shaming? Attention from others? Self-soothing of our own problems by making others’ so much less problem-y? Escape from anxiety? Because yes, life is behavioral af.

Of course, the behaviorist in me acknowledges that empathy has so much of a greater response effort than ridiculing. If we feel we have little connection to people, we’re so much more likely to invalidate their feelings, as it raises OUR problems to a priority, both to ourselves and in our social circles. Here’s the thing, though — invalidating ANY problems of ANY group reduces empathy. Period. That’s it. Full stop.