The White Male Effect Is Real And Dangerous To Us All

A lack of inclusivity in leadership across sectors is clearly putting our democracy at risk today.

In the face of crushing evidence to the contrary, president-elect Donald Trump announced over the weekend that “nobody really knows” if climate change is real. His failure to accurately assess the risk that climate change poses places him in specific company: In 2011, Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap released a study of people’s attitudes toward climate change and its risks that concluded 48.4% of a well-defined group of conservative white men, whom researches described as “confident” in their beliefs think global warming won’t happen, compared to 8.6% of all other adults. Fully, 29.6% of white men denied that global warming effects will ever happen. This isn’t healthy skepticism, it’s dangerous ideology rooted in social anxiety.

But climate change is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to white male denial. Indeed, the phenomenon has a name, the white male effect, which explains this demographic cohort’s perceptions of everything from financial markets to gun control. Sociologists attribute the effect to a very specific subset of conservative, “risk-skeptical” white men who hold hierarchical and individualistic world views.

In 2005, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, who introduced the perspective of “cultural cognition” to the theory, explained, “the reason white males are less fearful of various risks is that they are more afraid of something else: namely, the loss of status they experience when activities symbolic of their cultural worldviews are stigmatized as socially undesirable.” Identity protective cognition, or thinking that attempts to maintain and uphold the status quo, is part and parcel of this same phenomenon.

In the United States today, the white male effect pervades practically every level of government. “White males dominate Trump’s top cabinet posts,” 12 out of 15 members, is the actual headline from a CNN article published yesterday. White men, overwhelmingly conservative men, are only 31% of the population, but hold 65% of elected offices. They make up between 73 and 100% of police departments Fortune 500 companies, tenured professorships, and  Hollywood management. In Silicon Valley, numbers reflect the same institutionalized imbalances, despite the best intentions of any individual men who benefit from this fraternity. Such is the cultural force of these imbalances that even using the words “White” and “Men” descriptively in the same sentence is considered by many to be sexist and racist.

Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, too, share a remarkably consistent level of denial. For example, the man selected to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, is not only a climate change denier, but, according to 2014 news reports, forged an “unprecedented, secretive alliance” with the country’s top energy producers to develop more, not less, fossil fuels. Rick Perry, whose policies have for years been damaging to the environment, is future head of the Department of Energy.

So how does the white male effect influence public policy already? According to digital security expert Stephen Cobb, due to a preponderance of white men in tech, companies have repeatedly failed to properly assess cyber risks, the import of which is routinely downplayed. Similarly, the fight over gun control has historically been tied to the protection of white male citizenship in the U.S. Firearms represent virtues like strength, patriotism, and being the family breadwinner, all things that have been denied minority men and women—the people most at risk of gun violence. Trying to use data to pass gun reforms does not work because there is no separating gun control from the implicit understanding that guns are necessary to maintain the social power of the white American male.

The consequences of the white male effect on women’s health and rights is similarly acute when looking at public attitudes toward sexual violence and reproductive rights. Most men, but particularly religious and conservative men and women, have significantly higher rape myth acceptance and victim-blaming beliefs than do most women.

In terms of institutions, this results in newsrooms and police department that enable rape-supportive and perpetrator-sympathetic language, framing, and investigative methodologies. In the United States, abortion rights have been defined by conservative resistance to the idea that the right to abortion is a fundamental human right for women. The dangers of denying abortion and related reproductive health care to women, particularly women of color, are pervasively downplayed and ignored by legislators who show a stunning degree of ignorance regarding science, anatomy, or women’s needs.

But more surprising has been the way media outlets allowed skewed risk perception to influence their editorial decisions and reporting during the presidential election.

One of the greatest unacknowledged risks this election cycle was the danger posed by misogyny and implicit bias. The gap between men’s and women’s perceptions of sexism, which after all is a serious risk to women—economically, politically, and socially—is large on both the left and the right. Today, 56% of American men say that sexism is a thing of the past, compared to 63% of women. The gap between older conservative men and younger liberal women is even larger, with 75% of men saying sexism is gone and 75% of women saying it’s a significant factor in their lives.

It’s not as though media, in which men remain the overwhelming majorities of people who assign, edit, write, and talk about the hard news stories, is made up of the 44% of men who believe there’s a problem for women. White men make up the great majority of hard news editors, reporters, political analysts, and television and podcast talking heads—between 65 and 90%, depending on the format. That’s not a “slur,” or an attack, just a description of fact. If you don’t think a problem exists (sexism), is “really” serious, how can you properly assess and address the risk it represents?

Gender bias and sexism were manifested at every level of media. They played a role in why women had to turn to secret groups to avoid harassment, and from visibly grotesque Trump paraphernalia to violent attacks on Clinton supporters and major imbalances in coverage of Clinton and Trump, including ignoring Russia’s participation in bringing down a woman candidate. If Russia’s destructive meddling tells us anything, it is that making the United States its “bitch” was easier in an environment in which bias, misogyny, and sexism could be counted on to distract and appease people.

The media, often referring to Trump’s “shenanigans,” chose to focus on Clinton’s appearance, voice, husband, health, emails, and debunked criminality. During weeks in which fake reports, the DNC hacking, Russian troll farms, and Trump’s predatory sexual behavior were all in the news, five of the nation’s biggest media outlets ran twice as many articles referencing Clinton’s emails as they did articles about Trump. According to researcher Zeynep Tufecki, between the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico, stories about Clinton’s emails outnumbered stories about Trump’s conflicts of interest five to one. Among the top 53 media outlets in the United States, images of Trump, for better or worse, were used twice as often as images of Clinton.

During the last two weeks of the election, thanks to a cascade of issues, negative media coverage of Clinton spiked—seven negative stories for every two positive ones—as coverage of Trump improved. False equivalencies between Clinton and Trump, portrayed as equally corrupt, dangerous, or unprepared for the presidency also abounded. Trump’s near constant lying, documented by fact-checkers, existed in sharp relief to Clinton’s consistent truthfulness—whereas 27% of her claims were mostly false or worse, 70% of his were. Media, however, treated Clinton’s occasional misrepresentations or gaffes as the same as Trump’s lying or worse (fixating on her emails, for example, and not his business conflicts). The risk that Trump posed—to the truth, stability, democracy, and the electoral system—was overlooked repeatedly in the construction of media headlines, stories, and photos that created a misperception of equal harm.

Mainly, however, media denied the very real risk that their own lack of diversity, implicit biases, and systems justifications were valid propellants of Trump’s victory. Not only was the risk Trump poses downplayed, but it was enabled, a process that was decades in the making, including the treatment of Trump’s grossly sexist behavior, which was viewed as harmless entertainment. Today, professional talkers everywhere are scratching their heads trying to rationalize the fact that Wikileaks, the FBI, and Russia, in addition to the conservative media machine long invested in denigrating Clinton, simultaneously targeted Clinton’s campaign. And yet, overlapping misogyny and fraternal power still make “reasonable” editors scoff.

A lack of inclusivity in leadership across sectors is clearly putting our democracy at risk today. The homogeneity that persists in leadership eliminates any reasonable checks or balances, such as vitally important nuanced and expansive perceptions of what constitutes public risk. Donald Trump did not defeat Hillary Clinton in some sort of glorified arm wrestling match. Nor did he win because Democrats’ “identity politics” failed. Trump won because the identity politics that his platform cultivated with malice leveraged mainstream white male institutional power, including media, on both the left and the right, nationally and internationally.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism, and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media, and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded the school’s first feminist undergraduate journal, and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

Lead photo credit: CNN

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