|Social Judgment Theory:
How to Use it to Sway the American Publics Views Towards Muslims.
Social Judgment is an objective Communication Theory, which means it can be tested with a reasonable chance of knowing what will happen. Typically, Social Judgment Theory relates to people who collectively choose a particular judgment about another person or group. They tend to keep that judgment even if hard facts are given to suggest a different opinion. SJT says that people base their judgment on something they commonly hear in society. Griffin gives an example of a particular man’s fear of flying after the 9/11 attacks. The man develops his opinions on the safety of air travel based on eleven statements he has heard from others about the safety of air travel.1 If this man has these opinions about the safety of flying after 9/11, then do people in America think negatively about Muslims who they feel are responsible for 9/11? Have Americans developed an anchor, which to them equates Muslims with terrorism? Many Americans, according to SJT, may make judgments about Middle Eastern people they see. Non-Middle Eastern Americans after 9/11 have a tendency to believe that most Muslims are from Middle Eastern descent and have radical views of religion.2 How has SJT affected American perceptions and attitudes towards Muslims after 9/11?
This essay is going to run through a possible SJT model of latitudes for the American public. In the Danger latitude there is for instance, always someone who wants to kills us. The Anchor holds the position that for instance, Muslims cannot be trusted. In the Latitude of Acceptance for instance, the Qur’an teaches them that killing infidels is okay, many Muslims are terrorists, and most Muslims are from the Middle East. In the Non-Commitment latitude there is the idea that, Muslims are extremists. Latitude of Rejection is filled with, you never know where danger may come from, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi’s, Islam is a peaceful religion, there are many Muslims that are not from the Middle East, the government is much better prepared for an attack now, and extremist Muslims are relatively rare. This is a sample of a possible American cognitive map regarding Muslim terrorists being among us.3 This is simply a possible sample of the way American’s cognitive map may look like. No evidence supports this. This illustration shows how SJT works.
Near the beginning of America, attitudes towards Muslim Americans were different, and then they evolved into a more negative view. This negative view is similar to present day views, but differs in a few areas. After 9/11 Americans shaped a new opinion of who the Muslim people are. Pre-Civil war days under the John Quincy Adams administration, the then enslaved Muslims were considered friendly American foreigners and beneficial to American interest. He thought that by freeing and repatriating them, it would help improve the image of the young nation.4 It was not until post WWI that Muslim Americans began to be seen as dangerous to American interest. It was feared that Black African Muslims would immigrate to the U.S. and spread Anti-American values and beliefs among the black population of America. The fear of strange ideologies penetrating American views heightened after the horrors of WWI. This impacted Muslim Americans and Muslim Immigrants the most. Edward Curtis speaks about the changing face of the American view of Muslims. This quote illustrates how the fear is shifting from Black African Americans, after WWI to Brown Middle Easterner’s, after 9/11.
The public face of Muslim America has changed since the 1960s. It is no longer represented by bow-tied black men hawking copies of Muhammad Speaks or the beautiful, semi-naked body of Muhammad Ali. Despite the fact that the largest single ethnic-racial group of Muslims in the United States is still people of African descent, the stereotypical Muslim is now brown rather than black.5
For most of American history, Americans have viewed Muslims as Black African Americans.6 This may also be the cause of some discomfort and even hate towards Black African Americans, with the color of their skin being only one of many causes. In an interview done by American Public Media the host Steve Chiotakis is quizzed by a special guest, Stephan Richter, who asks where he thinks most of the world’s Muslims come from, and Chiotakis said, “Well Middle-East/North Africa of course.”7 Though this is a reasonable guess, it is still wrong. Most of the global population is in Asia, but only about twenty percent of which lives in the Middle East and North Africa.8 One of the possible reasons for this misunderstanding could be because this region has the highest majority of Muslim majority countries.9 Most Muslims actually live in Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, and closely behind is India.10 Pakistan may be considered part of the Middle East by Americans, but is not technically part of the traditional Middle East. It seems that America has had a long tradition of being somewhat fearful of the Muslim traditions and their practices and how they might bring in radical idealism to America and transform us in a way that radical idealism has transformed Russia and Germany. The attacks of 9/11 have not helped America’s social judgments against Muslims. Although it may have refocused its bias towards a specific group, this takes Black African Muslims out of the spotlight for a while.
Now that this essay has established a little history behind the attitudes towards Muslims in America and what the attitudes have now shifted to, it is time to shift our investigation to how the Muslim Community felt before 9/11. Many may not have noticed much difference, but one who has is Motaz Elshafi. One day at work she opened up an e-mail that said “Dear Terrorist” as the message. Elshafi was furious at this, after all, she was New Jersey born and was as far away from a terrorist connection with Middle East extremism as anyone else in that office, but yet she had been targeted because of what she looked like. One study says, “Verbal harassment and discrimination correlate with worsening mental health in studies of Muslims and Arab-Americans since 9/11, says psychologist Mona Amer of Yale University School of Medicine.”11 There are no studies done like this prior to 9/11 so there is no evidence to compare it to, but we do know that, “reports of such abuses skyrocketed in the first six months after 9/11, fell in 2002 and have climbed again since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to data kept by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an education and advocacy group in Washington, D.C. … 31% said they'd feel more nervous flying if a Muslim man was on the plane.”12 In the opening statements, this pole supports the story told by Griffin and the idea that Americans have socially judged Muslims as terrorists. If Americans have let this judgment become the anchor in their latitude of acceptance area of the social judgment scale, then just showing the standard facts will not help. For example, saying that most Muslims are not brown, Middle Eastern or extremists will only hurt. It will create a boomerang effect, which will send the listener in the opposite direction of what the message is intended to do.13
Americans will have to be gradually given the facts, but in order to get them ready to listen, the message must agree that their fears are valid. Neutral messages from here will help ease them into the real facts of the situation. A lot of attention has been given to how Muslims have been treated after 9/11 as if there had been no problems before hand, but are Muslims really noticing a difference or is it just a few? Post 9/11 is not a far cry off from pre 9/11 when it comes to concerns about Muslim influence in American society and the government has been specially monitoring Muslims for years.14 Now with the events of 9/11 it seems to justify the special arrangements our government takes in order to monitor Muslims. After all, Muslims did end up striking us on our homeland, killing thousands of Americans and starting a global campaign against us including our oil refineries, our allies, and our embassies. It seems that the US government might have treated Muslims close to the same before and after 9/11. The real difference has come in how the citizens treat them now. It is one thing to have a shadow that follows you around and makes sure you are not doing anything against America. After a while it’s possible to forget it’s even there, but when, neighbors, co-workers, and friends start looking at you differently, and in some cases, turning against you, that is when the world starts to change and when life starts to become hard to deal with. “After September 11, many Muslim-Americans said they faced increased scrutiny and discrimination as their religion and their culture became the subject of intense public debate. According to a recent Pew Research Center study on Muslims in America, fifty-five percent say it is hard to be a Muslim in the United States ten years after 9/11.”15 Americans are confused exactly what group they are enemies with in this war on terror. After all, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers that caused 9/11 were from a country that is our ally.16 Yet America entered wars with Afghanistan and Iraq. This is what terrorism does: it confuses its victims and there is no clear source of where the attacks are coming from or who is doing them. This possibly heightens people’s fears regarding who they consider to be terrorists, and it silences logical inquiries, because no one knows who it is exactly they have to watch out for. A rational argument that conveys the truth that says most Muslims do not come from the Middle East would not be sufficient to sway Americans. Saying that Americans should not target Muslims would not lift the SJT anchor because nobody would believe it. They know that the terrorists were Muslim so therefore to be safe, they must treat Muslims all the same.
Many Muslims feel that things have not changed a whole lot between pre and post 9/11. However, the ones who have had the focus shifted towards them have a different opinion. Adama Bah “spent her 17th birthday in Jail.”17 She was 14 when the twin towers got hit and she describes life up until then as normal. She was just another girl worrying about the boy next door. However, she realized even that day that things had changed for her and her family. The way people looked at her, she could tell there was a fear of her, just because of what she was wearing, but she also felt the fear underneath her headdress too. She woke up to the FBI in her living room on her 17th birthday. They took her family in and she spent her birthday in jail. They were released and no charges were charged against them.
Raed Jarrer, another Muslim who is from Iraq now living in the U.S., became a spokesperson for what was going on in Iraq. He is not associated with terrorism. He is just a concerned individual from Iraq who is acting as a voice about what he feels Iraq has become after the war. One time at an airport he encountered a situation where a TSA officer asked him to take off or cover his shirt which read ‘We won’t be Silent’ in Arabic and English. He was told by the officer that it was equivalent to wearing a shirt that says, “I am a Robber and I’m going to a bank.” For these Americans life certainly has changed since 9/11. They have not only been watched by the government, but their lives have been interrupted on baseless charges by the government. According to CNN’s InAmerica, polls show that despite increased awareness of Islam in America, anti-Muslim sentiments have increased, not decreased.18 This evidence goes along with what SJT says will happen. Even when the message is true, if it falls out of the audience’s Latitude of Acceptance, then it will have a reverse affect. Telling people that the Islam religion does not preach violent behavior falls on deaf ears, because Americans do not believe what they hear. They believe other parts of the Qu’ran that appear to endorse violence. It says in the Qu’ran, “And slay them wherever ye catch them. (2:191) ...But if they turn away, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them.”19 These two verses are talking about infidels, which technically is everyone who is not Muslim. This certainly would cause concern among many people. Disregard the fact that the Christian Holy Bible has verses that are almost exactly the same. That argument probably would not work either, because there again it would not seem relevant and therefore not reach into the Latitude of Acceptance. People need to feel that their fears are addressed and counted as reasonable before they will accept anything different and that difference has to be extremely small.20
Now that SJT has been explained a little and the issue discussed, let’s discuss how to achieve the desired affect of changing the American Publics Opinion through SJT. According to Griffin, people have certain latitudes in which certain areas of how they feel about an issue fall into. It starts off with Danger. The belief that a person holds is the Anchor. Between Danger and the Anchor is the Latitude of Rejection. This area holds all the facts or opinions that are not part of the individual’s, or the group’s belief which makes up the Anchor. The next one is the Latitude of Acceptance. In this area are all the things that the person believes to be true or things that they are willing to listen to without bias. The Latitude of Non-Commitment is the issues that will not affect the person one way or the other. The last latitude is the Latitude of Rejection. This Latitude of Rejection represents all the arguments that will drive the person further away. They might be strong, truthful persuasion arguments, but if the person is not ready to hear them, then they will instead go the opposite direction of what these arguments are meant to accomplish.
The first step in deciding how to address the problem is to decide where exactly to place the planned argument. The speaker wants his or her argument to fall just on the edge of the Latitude of Acceptance. This preps the listener to move into the first argument in their Latitude of Rejection. The strongest arguments should be saved for a later time, when the subject has accepted the first arguments that are at the edge of his or her Latitude of Acceptance. Another issue that needs to be addressed is Ego-Involvement. Depending on how invested the person is involved with the topic will depend on how one tries to persuade them. Certain areas of America may not be as ego-involved with the issue, but other areas may be highly involved. Just as Ali-Kalamalli stated, the best efforts to educate people about Islam has led to a wider knowledge of Islam beliefs, but also more negative feelings towards Islam, and it has been growing since 9/11.21 Just giving people the facts will not help them move past their fear of Muslims. It will, like SJT says, have a boomerang affect. People will focus on the verses in the Qur’an stated above that seem to condone the terror attacks, rather than on the verses that prohibit killing and murder.
With the way things are it seems the situation will continue to escalate. The manner in which Muslims are covered on the news and all the information that is readily available to people just makes it worse according to SJT. The American Public is getting information too quickly. In order for SJT to work they must be convinced slowly using supportive ideas that agree with their own, and then tie them into other ideas that may fall into their Latitude of Rejection. Until the government, media and the Muslim community realize this, the anti-Islamic sentiments will continue to be on the rise. Giving facts is not a good way to influence people with an anchored belief. People will generally filter out information that does not go along with what they already think. However, there is a group of Muslims that have started something that may just be the ice breaker needed to start the change needed to reverse negative public opinion. “I don’t know any terrorists, I’ve never met one or talked to one, not even accidentally. I’ve never been home late one night and gotten a phone call and heard, ‘Hello Hassan, it goes down tomorrow at midnight,’ “Who is this?” “Oops sorry, wrong number.” Our hope is that like other ethnic groups and races before us, we can use comedy to foster understanding about who we are and redefine ourselves in an accurate, positive way. Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship.”22
This is the type of slow process that would work for SJT. Acknowledging the fear and reducing the latitudes of rejection through comedy and slowly working through the latitudes of acceptance. There is no clear way in which to craft an argument that will persuade people anchors to move into the latitudes of acceptance. However, being aware of the process and how people’s fears work can help society learn how to reduce discrimination, through psychology rather than legislation.
Amarnath, Amarasingam."Laughter the Best Medicine: Muslim Comedians and Social
Criticism in Post-9/11 America." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs Vol. 30, no. (2010): 463-477.
American Public Media. Marketplace. “Where do most of the Worlds Muslims Live?”
http://www.marketplace.org/topics/where-do-most-worlds-muslims-live (accessed Feb 5, 2013).
Conan, Neal. “How being Muslim in American has changed since 9/11.” National Public
Radio. http://www.npr.org/2011/09/08/140297257/how-being-muslim-in-america-has-changed-since-9-11 (accessed Jan 25. 2013).
Curtis E. Edward IV. “For American Muslims, Everything did not change after 9/11.”
Religion & Politics: Fit For Polite Company. 2012 http://religionandpolitics.org/2012/07/05/for-american-muslims-everything-did-not-change-after-911/ (accessed Jan 29, 2013).
“Does the Qur’an Teach Violence,” Islamic writings Various Aspects of Islam, http://www.islamicwritings.org/quran/peace/does-the-quran-teach-viole nce/(accessed Jan 28. 2013).
Elias, Marilyn. “USA’s Muslims Under a Cloud.” USA Today.
http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-08-09-muslim-american-cover_x.htm(accessed Feb 18. 2013).
Griffin, Em. Communication: A first look at Communication theory. 8th ed. New York:
McGraw-Hill. 2012. 194.
“Mapping the Global Muslim Population.” Pew Research Center.
http://www.pewforum.org/newassets/images/reports/muslimpopulation/muslimpopulation.pdf (accessed Feb 15, 2013).
Nacos L. Brigitte, Oscar, Torres-Reyna. “Muslim Americans in the News Before and After
9/11.” (Paper presented at the Symposium “Restless Searchlight: Terrorism. the Media & Public life. “ Co-Sponsored by the APSA Communication Section and the Shorenstein Center at the John F. Kennedy School. Harvard University. Augst 28, 2002).
Ponder, Jon. “Bush Admits ‘Majority’ of 9/11 hijakcers were Saudis.” Pensito
Review.http://www.pensitoreview.com/2008/01/16/bush-admits-majority-of-911-hijackers-were-saudis/ (accessed Jan 25. 2013).
Sumbul, Ali-Karamali. “Opinion: American Muslims live in fear 11 years after 9/11.” CNN InAmerica blog. entry posted September 11, 2012.
Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. (accessed Feb. 15 2013).
Zouaoui, Nadia. “Fear, Anger & Politics.” Aljazeera.
http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2012/08/2012829125952344368.html (accessed Feb 15. 2013).