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?

 

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