“Why aren’t conservatives funny?” That’s a question posed by Joshua Green in a 2012 Washington Journal article, and one that Dr. Dannagal Young set out to answer: Why is political satire like The Daily Show dominated by liberals, and why is conservative talk radio like The Rush Limbaugh Show far more successful than its liberal counterparts such as The Rachel Maddow Show?
Dr. Young, a political and social psychologist who researches how people understand the world and its implications for democracy and society as a professor at the University of Delaware, wrote about this in her book Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States.
“Social and cultural conservatives and social and cultural liberals don’t just see policy as things that need to be different. They also have different psychological traits; things that have to do with how tolerant they are of uncertainty in their worlds, how much they need closure, how okay they are with novelty or if they prefer predictability,” Dr. Young said in an interview on Ten Minute Talks with Meagan Lynn.
This results in two distinct preferences: satire, which uses ironic humor to comment on institutions or policies, and outrage, which uses a solo host to illustrate common threats and what the audience should do about them.
Dr. Young explains that as liberals tend to have a higher tolerance for uncertainty and are less likely to be monitoring for threats in their environment, they are able to enjoy political satire like The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight which deal in irony, ambiguity and open-endedness. Conservatives, however, have a high need for closure and certainty, making them more attracted to outrage programming that is threat-oriented, instructive and serious, such as Hannity or The Rush Limbaugh Show.
Why are we so divided?
While psychological and biological traits can influence someone’s political opinions, Dr. Young says these traits are not deterministic, but are contingent on context. She says the problem is that the dominant context around us is increasingly our political and media environment, which often uses our differences to divide us.
“There’s a theory called social identity theory that says that each of us has these different social roles that we play in the world. So I am a mom, I’m a dog owner, I’m a professor–which of these social roles that I’m thinking of myself as is going to depend on what’s going on around me,” she said. “When there is a context that constantly reminds us of one of our identities, that identity is going to become dominant, and then it’s going to shape everything that we think and do and how we engage with the world.”
Dr. Young says that as political affiliation becomes correlated with race, religion, geography and other issues, each of those topics then trigger us to identify primarily with our political identity, therefore further dividing us by our political beliefs.
“What’s going to end up happening is that any time that your political identity is activated, it’s going to activate all these other sort of primal associations, and that is going to get us more and more entrenched in our worldview,” she explained. “It’s really not good for us always to be thinking of ourselves in terms of our political identities because that, especially in this divided climate, is going to always reinforce those divisions as opposed to interacting with people based on shared experiences.”
How to have better conversations
At the foundation of connecting with others over shared experiences is recognizing that both liberal and conservative world views are needed for society and democracy to function, according to Dr. Young.
“If you can start thinking about if you are a liberal and you’re like, ‘Oh, conservatives are all this way and they all want to go backwards,’ and you start recognizing that the values and psychological traits of conservatism are valuable for stability, security and for threat monitoring, you can start thinking ‘Okay, these are invaluable members of society,’” she explained. “Especially if you’re an artist or a musician, in order for you to do your craft is it possible that maybe you need someone minding the store to make sure that society is stable and safe and secure?”
“And on the other side, if you’re a conservative and you think, ‘Oh, these comedians and these entertainers, what are they doing to keep us safe?’, while they might not be actually minding the borders, liberals have those traits and values that would lead to things like innovation and the development of new technologies, and new art forms and culture that might make a society worth protecting and stabilizing in the first place.”
Dr. Young says that understanding the physiological, psychological and environmental causes that lead us to hold different political beliefs, and the value of each viewpoint, can help foster more empathy and understanding.
“When we start thinking about things that way, that can ignite a bit of empathy to be able to approach people from the other side with this notion of this emotional welcome mat, which is that ‘I see you. I recognize you. I respect you. I see that you approach the world differently from me,’” she said. “And we can find things to connect on, especially at an interpersonal level about the shared experience of what it is to be human: things like pain and suffering, and the daily trite experiences of parenting or being a student, or a brother or sister. These are the places where connections are made.”
While being in relationship with people of differing views is important, when assessing those relationships Dr. Young says it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of keeping that relationship.
“If you think of relationships with folks as being all or nothing and say, ‘If they do not believe this I cannot have them in my life,’ that’s a very tricky place to start,” she said. “That being said, when it comes to issues of race and misogyny and LGBTQ issues, if you are someone who is trying to cultivate a relationship with an individual who holds a racist ideology or believes a certain way about the role of women or transgender people, it is up to the individual to say, ‘Is this a battle worth fighting for me?’”
“Are there aspects of common ground that we can come to to say, ‘Yes, everyone deserves to live with dignity,’ and what does that mean?” she continued. “You’ve really got to do the cost-benefit analysis of how much it’s worth to you to try to work on those very, very challenging issues.”
When having these conversations with people of differing beliefs, Dr. Young says shame is not a useful tactic to reach common ground.
“There is a theory called face negotiation theory and the idea is that everyone wants to save face, which is about pride and dignity and being able to feel reputationally like you still look good,” she explained. “One of the things that I find interesting is the role that each of us plays in trying to allow another person to save face, and the social media environment does not encourage that. It really sort of encourages this sort of pointing fingers and saying, ‘You did this awful thing and you’re terrible,’ but interpersonally it is really, really important for society that we allow people to save face and you give them an opportunity to still be respected and still walk with dignity.”
Dr. Young says allowing someone to save face can look like being empathetic toward someone who is trying to make sense of the world and may have fallen prey to conspiracy theories.
“Basically allowing that person to save face and say, ‘Yeah, I think maybe that’s why I did look up some of these crazy websites. And I found myself drawn to them because things are so bonkers out there,’” she explained. “Those little gestures can go a long way in allowing the person to let their defenses down and to reconnect with you.”
While both conservative and liberal world views are necessary in society, Dr. Young says that a functioning democracy also requires everyone’s voice to be heard.
“I think we can’t talk about these issues without acknowledging that racism and misogyny run deep in these crevices and they create these divides, and I would never say to a person of color, ‘No, it’s good for you to have these folks in your life because it might help you bridge the divide.’ That is not their work to do,” she said.
“For democracy to be able to function, we have to be able to have respectful conversations with people who disagree with us,” she continued. “We also need for individuals to see us as equal human beings and to the extent that that’s not happening, then the onus is on that other person to change.”
To read more of Dr. Young’s research, you can visit her website here or pick up a copy of her book, Irony and Outrage.