Why People Join the Alt-Right

And How We Can Stop Anyone Else From Doing It

One of the great radio programs, RadioLab, produced an episode in 2014 called “Juicervose” about an autistic boy who seems to bootstrap his ability to communicate in society by watching Disney animated classics on repeat. First he learns the lines, begins to understand what each characters stands for, and then is able to have improvisational conversations — not unlike improv comedy theater, really — with his Saint of a father. Those who watched his development during this time may have been seeing in slow motion what all our infant brains graduate through as we learn to communicate: first we observe, then we mimic, then we improvise.

Luckily for this young child (and all of us Millennials), he had the geniuses working for Disney to craft characters and stories for children to learn clear lessons from, to guide him through this difficult early stage of social development. Now imagine the years during which you developed your rough ability to communicate, if you even can. Almost all of it happens outside of the years we’re normally capable of remembering, ostensibly for some evolutionarily desirable reason. During this period — where nearly all your social faculties stem from — it’s likely you communicated almost exclusively with family members, you were only a baby after all. These interactions are the foundation of your understanding of humanity, every tone of voice, every facial expression, every body position, it all likely still colors how you interact with others today.

To say it was limited is therefore a massive understatement. In the course of living life you learn there is so much more than just your parents and your siblings, there are your grandparents and cousins, your neighbors, you meet kids at school, maybe leave home and meet tons of more people, etc. What you start out with, though, is determined by who those closest people are and how they communicate with one another. By the time you’re a teenager, chances are you’re nearly a master at understanding your close family members. You know just by the look on their face or the tone of their voice exactly what their intentions are. They are characters in your life, but you’ve watched enough of their movies that you can almost predict what their next move will be.

There are other characters you know pretty well also. Your best friends certainly, anyone you’ve ever dated for a while, co-workers possibly. People you know somewhat less well occupy a blurrier orbital: acquaintances, distant relatives your parents have only told you one or two details about (“That’s Uncle Jim, he hasn’t been right since the war”), maybe some celebrities you’ve read about. Then there are complete strangers. With each of these groups you learn to communicate differently through trial and error, and some direction and it is in this complicated process where seeds of distrust are planted.

It should come as no surprise that young children identify so strongly with fictional characters. From those characters (drafted by scrupulous adults, with any luck) children pick up traits they would like to display, and almost as importantly those they don’t. Similarly they’re given bits of dialogue to learn from, what to say on a first date, what not to say to a teacher, etc. Even visual cues such as how to dress, how to carry oneself, physical appearances, all are in essence traits that belong to characters. We love characters so much we spend a day each year dressing up as them, and often mimicking them, just like the boy in RadioLab would do. People dedicate their lives to becoming character after characters for the enjoyment of millions, sometimes with such great success they’re unable to separate themselves from the character at all. It’s no surprise when an actor disappoints people when they turn out to be nothing like the character they play, it naturally feels like a betrayal. Similarly when an author writes something totally unexpected into a character we love (imagine if Harry Potter drunkenly murdered Ginny, the scandal!).

Human beings, from a certain perspective, are characters as well. A person sleeping on the street is a character, a young man in a suit is a character, an older woman in a long shawl and large sunglasses is a character. There are other names for them, cliches, posers, etc., but we can assume or predict things about them to a certain extent: stay away from the person shouting at the pigeons, people who shout at street birds are mentally unstable and dangerous I saw it in a movie; ask the person who looks like your brother for directions; your brother is great with directions so somebody looks like him probably is too; the store clerk with dark eyeliner who never smiles gives the best fashion advice, this blogger I love looks like that in all her instagram posts and she dresses impeccably. This method of aligning traits into characters, then aligning people into characters, means we also automatically associate traits with people when those people look like characters we are familiar with.

This automatic association is better known as stereotyping. That word has a highly negative connotation, but it’s important to understand that stereotyping is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. When it’s problematic it’s because we don’t have enough good characters to outweigh the bad ones we’ve encountered such that when we see a certain person, we automatically assign them positive traits. Why would this be? It’s not difficult to imagine that negative portrayals of certain types of people in the media could be the only characters which large portions of the population draw upon when trying to form opinions about strangers.

In other words, if you live in an area that is all white, your character of a black person is completely dependent on media portrayals, which are historically negative. Reinforcing this is the tendency in the media to create narratives where possible that fit into available stereotypes because audiences tend to prefer congruence over dissonance. Each time this negative reinforcing happens, we are given another character and set of interactions to mimic and improvise from that could be very damaging to an individual from that group. The answer to why certain people say and act towards other groups in the ways they do is not at all difficult to answer, they have reinforced stereotypes and patterns of discourse based on nothing aside from media portrayals. From this perspective it’s easy to see why two people could have very different opinions about a certain group, and it’s easy to identify which one of them is closer to being true and which isn’t.

I have found it difficult for some time to determine why diversity for its own sake in schools, in the workplace, and in communities is so important. It now seems clear to me that positive interactions with a wide variety of people leads to a healthy stable of characters with positive traits that can be assigned to strangers. Approaching the world in this way leads to more understanding and compassion generally, and less fear and hatred. Therefore it is your duty to call out poor representations of certain types of people. Those who say your outrage is unjust are almost certainly attempting to selfishly protect their sense of congruence and understanding of the world, at the expense of human dignity, an argument that deserves no respect and ought to be effortlessly cast aside. The only just thing we can do is be outraged at unfair media portrayals, call out injustice when we see it, and continue to improve our own base of characters so we don’t fall into the easy habit of mischaracterization we’re seeking to do away with.