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By Lara Drasin

UCLA Master of Social Science 2018

Every day we’re influenced by the news, television and the movies we watch, and even family legends and community lore. In writing my master’s thesis, I wanted to understand: what exactly is it about a narrative that can be so powerful? What are the key elements – the magic ingredients – that touch people on a core level?

I started researching persuasive mass communication but soon realized I needed to understand its foundation, which is narrative. And, apparently, the most effective narratives have mythological dimensions. So to understand what makes a story powerful, I needed to understand myth. A “myth” is a very simple story that is encoded with the values of a society.

We see this in political communication: politicians often rely on simple messaging that resonates deeply with people as being “true,” even if those messages are not actually based in fact. And as it turns out, at the center of myth is our ideology: our beliefs and the way that we see the world. I started to wonder: what does that look like today? What is a “modern myth?”

I didn’t mean to get into politics with this project, but as I moved from narrative to myth to ideology, I soon realized it was unavoidable. Stories influence and reflect the way we think society should be, which sounds a lot like politics to me.

I needed to understand political ideology, and what factors influence how each of us develops the internal narratives that correlate with our ideological beliefs. In this case, political narratives are ongoing stories that each side tells about an issue –how they understand and describe it; who their heroes and villains are.

So, where could I go to find people sharing the opinions and stories that help explain their political decisions?

Twitter: the modern public square.

I decided to look at the stories we tell around guns in our society on social media, since guns are, according to the Pew Research Center, arguably the most politically and ideologically polarizing subject in the U.S.

I analyzed a sample set of pro and anti-gun control tweets, looking for the values prior research associates with liberals and conservatives. The theories I used were:

  1. Linguist and political philosopher George Lakoff’s theory that we unconsciously view the nation as a family, and that conservatives tend to value strict “parenting” styles, whereas progressives tend to value more nurturant “parenting” styles.
  2. Political scientist Nicholas Winter’s assertion that we unconsciously cognitively pair liberal values with stereotypically feminine characteristics and conservative values with stereotypically masculine characteristics.
  3. Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which isolates 5 core values: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Purity, and says that liberals are driven most by Care and Fairness, while conservatives are also driven by Loyalty, Authority and Purity (which they sometimes elevate above the others).

All 3 theories pretty much tracked. But there were 2 “wild card” findings I did not expect:

  1. The concept of authority showed up as much in liberal tweets as conservative tweets. However, that could be because on Twitter, people are trying to impact others’ views, so their tone will be more authoritative. If I had more time, I would analyze other forms of media, like news articles, to see whether the tone changed with the medium.
  2. The other wild card was the moral foundation, “Care.” Care shows up on both sides, most often in the form of “defense,” but is expressed differently. Liberals expressed concern for the safety of schoolchildren. Conservatives expressed the importance of self-defense, defense of one’s family and the 2nd amendment. This finding suggests that the differences in values systems may lie even deeper than we think, beneath the bedrock of language and understanding. It would be interesting to take a closer look at these distilled moral values like “care” and “loyalty” to see how, in an unexpected reversal, one’s values can actually dictate their meanings, instead of their meanings explaining one’s values.

My research has fueled my desire to further examine how the values encoded in the narratives we share on social media, in the news and entertainment, reflect and reinforce our worldviews. I truly believe that if we are more tuned in to this as a society, we can more consciously teach and learn media literacy, co-create new myths, and overcome polarization.

 

Lara Drasin is a communications and creative impact strategist, writer and 2018 graduate of UCLA’s Master of Social Science (MaSS) program. She (clearly) is on Twitter, @laradras.

By Abigail C. Saguy

Professor of Sociology, UCLA

In late 2017, over 30 women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or rape. Shortly after—following the lead of actress Alyssa Milano—millions of women began posting “#MeToo” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and other social media platforms, effectively “coming out” as victims of sexual harassment, assault or rape. As Milano acknowledges, “Me Too” isn’t new: African American activist Tarana Burke first used “Me Too” in 2007 as part of an offline campaign to let sex abuse survivors–especially young women of color—know that they were not alone. Milano says she hopes the social media campaign will shift the focus from Weinstein to victims and “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

The #MeToo movement underscores the power of collective mobilization. It also shows how suddenly the status quo can shift. Despite having studied sexual harassment in the United States and France for almost 30 years – and publishing a book and several articles on the topic[1] – even I did not see this coming.

Recently, I have been studying how people “come out” to resist stigma and mobilize for social change. As I show in a series of articles and a forthcoming book with Oxford University Press titled Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are: Identity Politics in the 21st Century, the concept of coming out—first developed by the gay rights movement in the 1970s—has expanded well beyond lesbians and gay men. The undocumented movement, fat rights movement, and Mormon fundamentalist polygamists—to name a few—all now use “coming out” politics to make real changes to laws, public opinion, interpersonal relationships and to claim their civil rights.

Notably, the #MeToo movement embraces not just the politics of “coming out” as a victim of sexual harassment or assault, but also the “outing” of harassers, assaulters and rapists. “Outing”—another term coined and developed by the gay rights movement in the 1980s and 1990s—originally referred to the act of disclosing a politician or celebrity’s homosexuality, typically because they publicly opposed gay rights or promoted heteronormativity (i.e. the idea that everyone is heterosexual) by “passing” as straight.

#MeToo has already led to significant change in the culture around sexual harassment and assault. Many of the men recently “outed” as sexual offenders have lost their jobs and, in some cases, faced criminal prosecution. Some have argued that employers and authors may now take women who claim to have been assaulted or harassed more seriously. The movement may bring real systemic changes to how employers and courts address sexual harassment.

Exactly what will come of the #MeToo movement remains to be seen, but this movement—and the others of which it is both a product and a part—are a reminder that the social life of humans is fluid and deserving of true inquiry by social scientists.

Abigail Saguy is a UCLA Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies and author of What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (California, 2003), What’s Wrong with Fat (Oxford, 2013), Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are: Identity Politics in the 21st Century, over 30 scientific journal articles and several op-eds published in leading news outlets. You can see more of her work at www.abigailsaguy.com and https://soc.ucla.edu/faculty/abigail-saguy.

Footnotes

[1] Abigail C. Saguy, What Is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press., 2003); “Employment Discrimination or Sexual Violence?: Defining Sexual Harassment in American, and French Law,” Law & Society Review 34, no. 4 (2000); “Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002-2012,” Law & Society Review 52, no. 1 (2018).