The Haters

In the April 2012 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there is an interesting piece of research that presents evidence that “homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire“.

There are two ways that this conclusion might be perceived:

One: hypertolerant types might think this provides a bit of scientific ammunition against the bigoted. We can take the logical next step and apply this idea to haters within furry, which reframes them as closeted versions of the object of their hatred.

Two: skeptical types might think that psychological experiments are never statistically sound, and that academics are pre-disposed to presenting conclusions that match up with their pre-existing beliefs.

Both of these perspectives are valid if extreme. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I’m going to explore this, and how this is reflected within the furry community, but first I’m going to talk about cognitive psychology and chronobiology.

The research on homophobia used the phenomenon known as priming, a common tool in psychological experiments. The classic priming example is as follows:

Fill in the blank to create a word. Answer with the first word that comes to mind.

For example: W_SH becomes WASH
Create a word from: SO_P

 

Presented with this question, a very large majority of people will answer SOAP. If you remove the example from the question, the most likely response is SOUP. The responder is “primed” with the word WASH, so SOAP comes to mind first.

This well-understood phenomenon can be combined with a tool used in the study of chronobiology, which is the science of how we perceive time.

It has been shown that, if you flash a word or phrase on a screen quickly enough, it will not be consciously registered by the part of the brain that deals with language. However it will be read and understood on an unconscious level.

As long as the word is flashed up quickly enough – typically less than 50 ms – it will not be consciously registered. The threshold at which messages are not consciously registered is key to chronobiological experiments, which study how time is experienced under different circumstances. This word-flashing technique is used in experiments testing the phenomenon of “slow time”, commonly experienced in stressful situations. Scientists measure the change in message-recognition threshold for subjects under extreme stress.

(My favourite experiment: subjects lie face-up on a net at the top of an old silo. The net is dropped, and a word is flashed on a screen for the subject to read while in free-fall.)

Words flashed in such a fashion are known as subliminal messages. And subliminal messages can act as a “prime”. Someone can be primed with WASH subliminally, and will be very likely to choose SOAP.

This technique isn’t restricted to word-association games. Priming also affects reaction time to certain tasks. In psychological experiments, this is often a simple sorting task where a person will be asked to categorize an item.

In our homophobia experiment, subjects were asked to categorize images as being “gay” or “straight”. The subject would be presented with a homo- or hetero-normative image or word (e.g. pictures of same-sex or straight couples) and asked to press a button associated with the appropriate category. The computer measured reaction time.

The catch? Subjects were subliminally primed with a word – either “ME” or “OTHERS” – before each test. Previous experiments have shown that this technique will reliably distinguish between self-identified heterosexuals and self-identified homosexuals.

A gay person would, in general:

  • React quickly when presented with a gay image after being primed with ME, or when presented with a straight image after being primed with OTHERS.
  • React slowly when a gay image was primed with OTHERS, or when a straight imagine was primed with ME.

A straight person will usually react in the opposite way.

This particular experiment was designed to test the effect of upbringing. The participants were asked a series of questions about their childhood and family. Among these questions, each participant was asked about their own attitude to homosexuals (for example: would you feel comfortable if your roommate was gay?).

Based on these responses, participants with intolerant attitudes were lumped into a group loosely termed ‘homophobes’. (As you might expect, this group was mostly populated with people who grew up in a homophobic environment.) The experimenters compared the results for three groups:

  1. Self-identified homosexuals
  2. Homophobes
  3. Everyone else

Surprise, surprise: the experimenters discovered that a significant proportion of the homophobic group reacted the same as the homosexual group.

The scientists concluded that there is “a discrepancy between self-reported sexual orientation and implicit sexual orientation” because “given the [parental] stigmatization of homosexuality, individuals may be especially motivated to conceal same-sex sexual attraction“.

To put it another way: they concluded that about 20% of homophobes are actually closeted homosexuals.

The leap of logic from “reacts the same way as a homosexual” to “is a homosexual” is questionable and difficult to prove. This technique is classically used to test covert inclinations such as racial prejudice. Our homophobia tests are going a step further: they’re not just measuring attitude. A potential counter-hypothesis might be that our homophobic subject becomes unconsciously enraged, thereby improving reaction time, after having “ME” linked with homosexual images. I’m not aware of work that has tested the validity of this idea.

However, it’s compelling to conclude that someone closeted with an unusual sexuality might exhibit hatred towards that sexuality. If someone is hostile towards a certain sexuality, it may help them feel as if they are internally ‘proving’ that the sexuality doesn’t personally apply. What manifests as negativity towards others is actually self-hatred.

In the furry community, we don’t have a significant problem with homophobia. But we do have a problem with hatred towards some of the more unusual sexual orientations and interests, such as transexuals, babyfurs, zoophiles, and more. In all cases, people are being attacked for things that are innate.

Here is a high-profile example of hatred, which was linked to me by a babyfur friend of mine. Back in the salad days of Livejournal, furry humourist 2 The Ranting Gryphon posted an offensive rant aimed at babyfurs. It’s particularly egregious for several reasons:

  • 2’s high profile means that his article is easy to find – it appears if you google ‘babyfurs’.
  • The events that 2 relates are almost certainly apocryphal. (In the comments, FWA security staff claim that they never heard about the events described.)
  • Even if true, 2 takes one anti-social act and blames all babyfurs for it. He is being hostile towards an innocent group of people, whose only crime is having an unusual sexual interest.
  • Plus, of course, the direct threat of violence.

2 posted a partial apology for his outburst a few days later.

I can’t say whether 2 is a closeted babyfur but his behaviour is certainly consistent with someone struggling with self-hatred. It’s safe to say that at least some of the haters are closeted versions of their target.

This means that our haters are not just angry: they are struggling with self-acceptance. It’s unfair to take a hater to task for his position. Our hater is just reacting in a natural fashion to his own sexual interests or orientation: the anti-zoophile is very often a zoophile himself.

This is a natural, and unconscious, coping strategy. If you hate the hater, you’re making the same mistake that he is: you’re castigating him for something he has no control over.

Nor is it helpful to try to show our hater that he is wrong. As I have mentioned in previous articles, self-deception is a powerful force. If we see evidence that is contrary to our version of the world, we disregard it in a way that reinforces our existing belief.

It is far better, I think, to treat everyone – even the haters – with respect and nonjudgemental curiously. Furry is a great environment for people to grow, and learn about themselves. There are many examples of ex-haters out there and none of them have changed their ways by being shouted down. Furry fellowship and understanding is a powerful force for good.

Personally, I recommend this is best done in person over a beer. But given that we’re furries, I assume it would also work while engaging in a statistically unlikely sexual act on FurryMUCK. It’s worth a try.

You can read more about the psychology article on homophobia here.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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5 thoughts on “The Haters

  1. Let me start off by saying that I think this is a worthy topic. There’s obviously quite of bit of negative stereotyping going on in and around the fandom, and diving into the how and why is useful.

    What’s slightly less-useful, however, is using the topic as an opportunity to deflect conflict about all potentially controversial issues by simply saying that the hater doth protest too much.

    Anyone who has extensively studied hate-speech and derogatory rhetoric can tell you that there’s a wide range of reasons for this kind of behavior, and while self-denial can be an amplifying factor, there is still something else creating the conflict.

    Whether or not they may be X, they believe that being X is bad.

    Even in the case of people who are homophobic and closeted, the real question is why they are homophobic. Trying to say that people are homophobic because they are closeted is drawing the causal relationship backwards. There still something that compels someone to feel that homosexuality is negative.

    This is why your example ends up being completely specious. It’s all very well to say someone expressed their hatred in such a way that makes it seem like a personal matter, but to speculate about someone else’s sexual practices based on the things they publicly decry is inappropriate and unhelpful.

    I appreciate the fact that you’ve done research about the issue of homophobia, and there are definitely cases where veracity of rejection is linked to self-denial and self-castigation, but you’re taking an interesting tendency in a certain group of people, and turning it into a rule of thumb to try to perform armchair psychoanalysis on anyone who has a strong negative opinion about a behavior or a group of people.

    Even if you accept that the study you cite can be reliably applied to things like babyfurs (which is dubious at best), a 20% rate of self denial means that this doesn’t apply to fully 80% of so-called “haters.”

    1. ‘Even if you accept that the study you cite can be reliably applied to things like babyfurs (which is dubious at best), a 20% rate of self denial means that this doesn’t apply to fully 80% of so-called “haters.”’

      Persistent haters of the type of hater described here, I posit, could act as the seeds for the vast majority of the rest of the haters who, from my perspective, are simply reacting to something presented to them which makes them feel icky.

      The remaining few percent? I think these are genuine trolls who like stirring things up for the lolz, emulating the former to get the rise out of the latter. Only distinguishable by a lack of long-term persistence.

    2. Hi Bauson, thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful response. I agree with your comments on the whole.

      I agree that there are grounds to be skeptical of the data presented in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, as I mention. There is an entertaining counterpoint over on Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/04/homophobic_maybe_you_re_gay_the_new_york_times_on_a_new_study_of_secret_sexuality_.html) where the writer likens the conclusions to “he who smelt it dealt it”. However, when it comes to assessing the validity of the article, I’m happy to defer to the authors and reviewers.

      I mentioned 2’s LJ post because it’s a high-profile example of the sort of crowd-approved abuse that regularly occurs within the furry community. In a previous article, I used an example of abuse (towards zoophiles) from a Flayrah comment thread – http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2012/02/20/born-again/ – which I could have easily chosen instead. In neither case am I drawing any conclusions about the sexual preferences of the hater.

      In that article, I used a rough truism – that a closely-held extreme belief often belies a transformative personal experience. The JPSP article provides some evidence that bigoted behaviour can be unconsciously motivated, and that a hater isn’t necessarily defined by their hatred.

      When reading the journal article, my thoughts went to the self-hating zoophile that I quoted a few weeks ago – http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2012/04/02/re-evaluating-your-sexual-preference-2/ (see bottom of article). Some haters _are_ closeted versions of their target, and these people deserve respect, just as their targets do.

      1. It feels like the core idea you’re driving at is that people who disagree with you (even to the point of vilification) are generally entitled to respect and decency, and that there can be more to a fervently held belief than meets the eye. That’s absolutely true, and something I don’t hear often enough.

        That being said, we should avoid speculating too wildly about what exactly is beneath the surface. In the case of staunch ethical vegetarianism, for instance, people are acting out of very deeply held–and genuinely expressed–ethical beliefs. These beliefs may be in part a result from (or intensified by) a transformative personal experience, but there’s little value in trying to guess. Some people will simply hate you for ordering a cheeseburger.

        When it comes to sexual practices, things get even murkier. I can accept the phenomenon as being a factor in the case of homophobia, but you seem to take it as a foregone conclusion that attractions to zoophilia and infantilism are similar psychological phenomena to homosexuality, which is absolutely arguable. There are number of ways zoophilia and infantilism run contrary to a variety of different ethical viewpoints, which can be very strongly held without any need for personal experience or unconscious motivation.

  2. Sadly, I can’t claim to be as good of a person as you, my friend, because I am unfortunately prejudiced against bigots… Though, since I’ve been attacked by these bigots just because I’m not straight, I’m furry, I’m polyamorous, because I’m the least recognized minority in my area (Caucasian, in the NM area. Dunno about other areas, but we’re definitely a minority here), or because I carry a weapon, I’d say that while maybe not right, I’ve certainly got some justification for my personal prejudice.
    I’ve noticed, though, that as a general rule of thumb,most of the bigots I’ve had dealings with (and I say most, as in a majority, more than half of those I’ve dealt with… in fact about 80% of them) are either closeted variants of their hatred or jealous of their targeted hatred. Just my observation, mind/

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