Answer this: Do you believe that impulse spending wastes your money? Now answer this: How often have you bought something on impulse in the last week? Last month?? Just one example (a rather lame one, I admit) that opinions do not equal behavior.
A much more serious issue for the social health of our communities is the mismatch between opinions that people say they have about others, and their behavior towards them. Towards Muslims, for example.
In Australia in the aftermath of 9/11, a number of politicians and public commentators announced that anything Muslim was ‘un-Australian’. Scholars wrote papers and books about the prejudice against Muslims expressed by politicians and the media. Now, in 2014, hate speech is again crawling out from under its rock, lured by the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) atrocities.
As usual, many media stories portray all Muslims as potential ISIS fiends. These created ‘demons’ sell papers, and win politicians votes, and so we hear a lot about them. Some of the stories are so way out that they are even funny, like the Australian Senator who said she would not allow anyone wearing a burqa into her office as a matter of security. When she posted this manifesto on social media she tried to support her point with an image of a woman in a burqa handling a gun. Unbeknownst to her, the woman in the picture was in fact an Afghan policewoman on duty in Kandahar. The media and politicians thrive on these created ogres.
When surveys ask the public if they hold the same opinions, the majority agree. Opinions, however, are not predictors of behavior. During the post 9/11 rise in public anti-Muslim sentiment, many Australians rallied to help and support their Muslim neighbors. I was fascinated by this dissonance between opinion and behavior, and studied this phenomenon for my PhD thesis. I found that, almost without exception, when Australians met Muslims face to face, they greeted them with warmth and hospitality, and welcomed them as neighbors.
Although I now live in the US, I know that Australians are currently living out the same paradox. While many politicians demonize them, Welcome to Australia and many other citizen groups are opening their hearts and homes to the ‘security risks’. One man recently conducted an experiment in Australian streets where he accosted actors dressed as Muslims and told them to ‘go back to where they came from’ and called them terrorists. Every single person who passed by stopped and interfered. (I would love to hear from Americans about initiatives like this here.)
As long as calling on ‘demons’ enables media and politicians to win followers and make money, the decent instincts of ordinary citizens are ignored in public discourse.