Mellman: Red Hens, babies and the great unraveling

Mellman: Red Hens, babies and the great unraveling
© Greg Nash

At the risk of alienating friends, I want to delve, not too deeply, into the now infamous incident at the Red Hen of Lexington, Va. (not to be confused with the unrelated Red Hen of Washington, D.C.).

I’m no foodie, a fact apparently underlined by my complete ignorance of both establishments.

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But my interest here is not culinary. It’s more in the food fight, engendered by Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s exit from the Lexington outpost last weekend.

In short, Sanders, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE’s press secretary, was asked to leave the Red Hen because of the pain she’s inflicted on the American people.

As has been carefully documented, she lies almost daily; makes immigrants and others feel unwelcome and uncomfortable; and demagogues with abandon.

She defends the right of bakers not to purvey a wedding cake to a gay couple.

Think about the hypocrisy here: Sanders believes a bakery should be able to refuse service to gay people  if homosexuality violates the bakers’ values.

But she maintains a restaurant should not refuse her service because she violates the values of the owner and employees.

The always “thoughtful” Twitterverse was apoplectic.

Many of those who condemned the bakers for refusing the gay couple applauded the Red Hen for refusing to serve Sanders.

Now, in my view, the two refusals are in no way morally equivalent. There’s a vast difference between denying service to someone based on who they are and denying service to someone because of actions they choose to take. 

But that’s just the point—it’s my view.

In my view, the gay couple has done absolutely nothing wrong, while Sanders has violated important, if not sacred, values.

But from her point of view, hard as it is to imagine, the gay couple is violating her values, while, apparently, she finds justification for dishonest demagoguery.

Three Chicago-area psychologists recently proved experimentally what this incident demonstrates anecdotally: both conservatives and liberals endorse discrimination against those each group perceives as violating its fundamental values.

That is, both liberals and conservatives were willing to deny free speech to, and even justify harassment of, those who they believe violate their quite different values.

(In truth, liberals’ support for punishing value violators is mitigated, but not eliminated, by their value-based opposition to discrimination.)

This all starts from birth.

Yale psychologist Karen Wynn found that even babies younger than 1 preferred those who shared their opinions over those who didn’t.

In her experiments, babies in the lab were given a choice between, say, two snacks or two mittens. They then saw two puppets offered the same choice, one of which made the same selection as the infant, the other of which made the opposite choice.

Over 80 percent of the time, the babies preferred playing with the puppet who shared their view.

Moreover, while adults tend to dislike mean people generally (Trump excepted for some), the babies preferred individuals who were mean to puppets which did not share their preferences.  

But the babies do better than adults in this respect: Infants are not motivated by arbitrary commonalties, only by shared opinions.

Adults not only like those who make similar choices, but also embrace those with similarities that don’t result from choice — hair color or random assignment to a particular group.

It seems we are wired to appreciate similarity and dislike difference. Though it is vital, our ability to work together, despite our differences, does not come naturally.

In our diverse country, that ability seems to be collapsing, to our detriment.

We need leadership from the president, his press secretary and others to develop the sense of oneness, of community, that can keep us whole.

By fanning the flames of division, they may be ushering in the great unraveling of American society, for which we will all pay a steep price. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group. He served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.