Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Tracy Morgan disinhibited

19 Jun

Do a quick internet search for “rant” plus Mel Gibson, Michael Richards or Tracy Morgan, and you’ll find coverage of their public anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic (respectively) tirades.

Explanations for their hateful speech tend to pitch tents in one of two camps: the closeted-bigot-exposed camp, and the good-guy-drunk-or-provoked (he didn’t meant it! No way he’s an anti-Semite/racist/homophobe) camp.

This weekend, an article in the SF Chronicle posed another theory: that their words can be explained by power. In “Power is not only an aphrodisiac, it does weird things to some of us,” journalist Vicki Haddock writes:

“Disinhibition is the very root of power,” said Stanford Professor Deborah  Gruenfeld, a social psychologist who focuses on the study of power. “For most  people, what we think of as ‘power plays’ aren’t calculated and Machiavellian–they happen at the subconscious level. Many of those internal regulators  that hold most of us back from bold or bad behavior diminish or disappear. When  people feel powerful, they stop trying to ‘control themselves.'”

So when movie star Mel Gibson told the police officer who pulled him over  that he “owned” Malibu and that Jews were the source of all the wars in the  history of the world, it’s hard to know whether to attribute his irrational  hubris to the effects of power or drunkenness, or both (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/11/19/INGT9MCJHJ1.DTL#ixzz1y0QVpNqV).

Gruenfeld’s research asks in its own way which came first: the bigotry or the power trip? Perhaps bigotry was just a convenient vehicle for Morgan, Richards and Gibson, who were drunk on their own sense of celebrity power. Just like bigotry was just a vehicle for Dharun Ravi, when he realized his heterosexual power to humiliate his roommate Tyler Clementi.

I suppose that in terms of immediate impact, it doesn’t really matter whether hate speech and hate crimes are motivated by a power trip or by bigotry. But when it comes to education, prevention and intervention, I think this offers a powerful way to reframe the issue and really help people. Whereas the first accusation of racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism typically drives people into a defensive “not me” stance, talking to them about power–what drives us to assert it and what tools we’ll use when we’re desperate or drunk on it–could keep critical doors of communication from slamming shut, and help more people think before they flex whatever -ism is handy.

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