There’s a concept in psychology known as the fundamental misattribution error. Basically, it says that, for people we don’t know well, we tend to view individual interactions with them as indicative of their entire personality, when they’re often nothing of the sort. For example, imagine standing in line to get a coffee, late to work, because you’ve just learned that a family member is very ill. If the barista asks you to repeat your order, you might well snap at them, the combination of stress and frustration and worry. The barista, seeing this, is likely to make the (probably) incorrect assumption that you’re simply a crabby, mean person, based on nothing more than this single interaction. It’s a foolish thing to do that often leads to dangerous misjudgments of others, but we do it all the time.
By the time this blog post is actually published online, a few weeks will have passed since the 4th of July, the yearly Instagram competition to see who can come up with the cleverest caption beneath a photo of fireworks. It’s a holiday in which we all come together to celebrate how much we love America… and having a day off of work in the middle of the summer. But when you spend three of your formative summers at book camp, reading Frederick Douglass’s “What, To A Slave, Is The Fourth Of July?” every time that national holiday rolls around, you can’t help but come around to a slightly different perspective about the Fourth Of July, one that you realize is by no means new when you start to listen to the perspectives of people of color. Namely: The Fourth Of July, and the exclusionary principles our nation’s founding is built upon, can often seem like something of a cruel joke, a way to mock those denied the promise of America. For many people it’s hard to celebrate on the Fourth Of July, especially with the current administration in charge.
At first glance, these two things might seem to have no connection to each other, but I’d argue that nowhere is the psychology of patriotism more on display than during the 4th of July, and the idea of fundamental misattribution error is an important part of understanding it. When I look at the current occupant in the White House, the current administration’s actions, I feel comfortable saying that it’s an aberration, a deviation from what America is supposed to be. Fredrick Douglass might, however - and a great many Americans certainly do - look at the current political atmosphere and see it as nothing more than the truth of America finally coming out. When I look at oppression coming out of our national government, I can think that the country isn’t working as intended, that anyone calling this emblematic of what the United States has always been is under the fundamental misattribution error. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I’m right.
After all, perhaps the most profound reason I can think that my country’s inherent nature is good and aspirational is that I, personally, have never been oppressed by the national government of the country in which I live. It’s what I’ve taken to calling “The Privilege of Patriotism” as I write this blog post: Not just the privilege to love your country in the uncomplicated way so many people do in America, but the privilege to think of your country at all as something to be proud of, rather than an entity with a shameful history and which we can only express our love for properly by trying to improve it. Perhaps the answer isn’t so straightforward - or rather, perhaps the answer is something that we make ourselves. If there is something I’m confident saying about America’s character, it’s that it’s always been an aspirational country, one that places its faith in its ability to be something more… but it only becomes something better if we make it so. I suppose that’s the most patriotic thing I can muster, something that feels oddly fitting of the country that proclaims itself one made “by the people”: if we make it so, it really can be a place where patriotism isn’t a privilege.
With excitement and optimism,