Obama has a clear lead in the polls, yet the doubt still persists: will America really elect a black man for president? Though a viable force, McCain may not be the largest threat to Obama’s campaign. A few days ago, the Washington Post reported that researchers conducted an experiment in which the test group considered both McCain and Obama to be American, but in the groups’ subconscious test, McCain was perceived more American. This raises the question, then, on how much of our subconscious prejudices will infect the voting booth, much less our daily endeavors. Regardless of how hard we try, we are not alone in our own consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world we may not consciously agree with.
Because America has centuries of slavery and racial discrimination still haunting the history books, we are highly sensitive to even the slightest indication of racism, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed, simply by turning down the lights in a room, for example, white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions. “Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones,” says Dr. Schaller, “because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”
If we stop to consider the reasons behind every action and decision both monumental and slight, it is exhausting. However being attentive to ones “silent voice” is necessary, especially when dealing with important decisions such as who to vote for, even if the results of our actions are out of our control.
This reflection is not fail safe. Consider Humphrey, the portly mouse that lives under my refrigerator. Though Humphrey may be a terrific little creature who has no intentions of biting my toes or nesting in my hair while I sleep, I am still convinced he should die. If I pause to evaluate why I am certain of this, the only ideas I can muster involve visions of Humphrey crawling all over my skin. Horrors! Further, if I try to think of why I believe in other more central and personal ideals like pacifism or the importance of really good Mexican food, my reasons become clouded by memories and a biased self image. It is difficult to think about thinking, even more difficult to think about why we’re thinking what we do.
In an increasing age of narcissism, Oprah, and blogs, Americans are not afraid to let their thoughts, feelings, and emotions bubble over into everyone’s laps. And I am not, in any way, condoning any increase of our egos. Self awareness is important, but a self centered world view is disastrous. What I am curious about is why we think the way we do and if we can do anything about it. I hope we are ready for a change in government; for a change in healthcare, our foreign policies, and in our role as a peaceful nation. Yet how many of us can say we are truly open to change if it adjusts our pocketbooks, our habitats, or worse—our subconscious. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not one to experience change easily. I had a conniption when Mom moved the peanut butter to a different cupboard while I was away at college, and just thinking about having to relocate all my belongings to yet another cheap apartment raises my anxiety.
Aristotle said we are what we repeatedly do, but how do we know what we mean to do or what is by accident? I am very certain my parents did not mean to raise an outspoken unathletic free-spirited liberal, just as I am sure many Americans do not mean to be racist voters. Our unintentional actions are inevitable; it’s finding the faulty ones that is important. This voting season, I hope we can muster up enough strength to examine exactly why we are voting for our chosen candidate, whether it’s John McCain, Barack Obama, or Santa Claus.
Let’s make this one count.