Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values–And Remembering Andrew Kohut

In a recent New York Times article on rising racism in Germany–especially online–the journalist Anna Sauerbrey, commenting on the inconclusiveness for social scientists of various likes, posts, comments, etc. as indicia of extremist affiliation observed:

Accordingly, many sociologists tend to see the recent anti-immigrant demonstrations and the rise in hateful comments as merely an increase in the visibility of pre-existing racist thought, rather than as a sign of changing mentalities.

The gap between “hateful comments” and “changing mentalities” reminded me of an event that I attended at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., several years back. The event, held April 12, 2011, was one of a series of U.S.-Islamic World Forum conversations at Brookings. The conversation featured a number of panelists, including one whom I was most eager to hear, Andrew Kohut, then director of the Pew Research Center, perhaps the leading polling organization in the U.S. and globally on a range of political and social issues–including issues of religion and politics around the world.

The title of this particular forum was “How U.S. and Muslim Perspectives Have Evolved Over the Last Decade,” a stock-taking assessment of U.S. and global Muslim perspectives since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The panel took place just a few months after the Pew Research Center’s release of a new report on the global Muslim population, titled “The Future of the Global Muslim Population.”

What struck me throughout the event was the panelists’ repeated (and it seemed sometimes interchangeable, but sometimes differing) use of three terms–perceptionsattitudes, and values. Perceptions seemed to correspond with the views and bare opinions that people report to pollsters–interesting, but possibly ephemeral and with uncertain predictive value. Attitudes, a term well-represented in the social science and polling world through projects like the Pew Global Attitudes Project with its annual surveys, seemed to describe more pervasive and entrenched perceptions, perhaps measurable for their greater prevalence and stability over time. But being a lawyer, ethicist, and religion scholar, not a social scientist, and thus concerned with normative matters, I was most interested when there was a further shift in terms from attitudes to a third term: values.

The term values came up directly at the Brookings panel when the moderator asked journalist Joe Klein to address the “they hate us for our values” notion propagated by the Bush Administration after 9/11. At one point in the discussion, Andrew Kohut spoke of the triumph of “liberal values” in America and the West, along with the fact that so many people in other parts of the world “aspire” to these values. (Another leading social science project, the World Values Survey, in many ways parallel to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, specifically seeks to identify values around the world.

Panelist Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding noted that peoples’ views and opinions (synonymous with perceptions in her use) didn’t always correlate to “real-life” action that was happening on the ground that would “rationally” lead people to these views, but that they seemed to correspond to “rhetoric” that was being used to “ratchet” perspectives up and down. Mogahed noted the importance of further work to try to discern whether people’s views were being shaped by “real-life” forces or by “rhetoric.” (At a later point, Mogahed spoke of how people in the Muslim world view the West through a “prism of perceived disrespect.”)

Interestingly, Mogahed noted that there was not a “linear relationship” between people’s knowledge of a phenomenon and their views of it.  For example, she said, was that it was not those Americans who know “nothing” about Islam or who knew a “great deal” about Islam who were likely to be prejudiced.  Rather, it was those in the middle who knew “something”–the “in-between knowledge” who were likely to be prejudiced.

Left alone people are not prejudiced. The are taught through information or disinformation to have negative, or basically negative, information about this group.

It has become a commonplace in describing my own recent research in matters of global religion and politics for me to observe that I am no longer dealing with matters of facts, but perceptions.  Put simply, more and more, I have had to confront the “power of perceptions” and the way that “perceptions matter“–if for no other reason than the perceptions can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies, and thus reality.

Some of my most important epiphanies around this point have come from reading the data from another project of Andrew Kohut’s Pew Research Center, namely the 2010 Africa report titled, “Tolerance and Tension: Christianity and Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa,” produced by a Pew team led by researcher Brian Grim. One of the most intriguing statistical findings from that report is that report, in my view, is that despite pronounced expression of concerns about religious proselytism and conversion in Africa that I have heard in multiple fora, there is actually almost no “religious switching” actually happening on the ground. (p. 11)

Another favorite statistics from the Pew Africa report is that the nation of Tanzania has the lowest levels of social trust of the surveyed countries, with 83% the population saying that “you can’t be too careful” when dealing with other people. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tanzania had one of the highest rates of use of “juju” (p. 182) and other sacred objects and rituals to protect against bad things happening. In fact, Tanzania was the highest of all nations in its belief in the “evil eye,” (p. 179) with fully 80% of the people expressing the belief that people can cast spells and curses that cause bad things to happen–a statistic that led one Tanzanian newspaper, reporting on the Pew report to label Tanzania a “juju nation.”

So what should we do about people’s negative perceptions of others, even or perhaps especially where these do not necessarily correspond to actual forces or scientific measurable reality? Can we determine when these perceptions start to crystallize into attitudes that are presumably even harder to dispel? And how should we intervene when these attitudes begin to harden further into distinctive values?

A tantalizing possibility is actually suggested in the Pew statistics on Tanzania, which was second highest among the surveyed countries (and highest among the various Muslim populations) in Christians and Muslims expressing trust in people who have different religious beliefs from their own (p. 130).  In the sphere of inter-religious relations, could it be that opportunities for interfaith dialogue and collaboration provide venues in which religious groups can come to better know one another in ways that address problems of imperfect or incomplete knowledge (the “in-between knowledge” mentioned by Dalia Mogahed) in ways that give rise to new perceptions with the power to change attitudes and values?

Sadly, though I considered at the forum asking Andrew Kohut to parse the terms perceptions, attitudes, and values and whether better understanding the differences between them might help to understand where and how to intervene to address the negative ones, it was one of those events where there were more questions than time. Upon reading Anna Sauerbrey’s observations about the failure of sociologists to see the “changing mentalities” in the German context, I looked Kohut up to see if he had been speaking or writing further on these themes and learned that he died last fall after a long struggle with leukemia. So, I never got to pose the question, but I am grateful to Andrew Kohut and the others on the panel for suggesting it.