When Popularity Trumps Judgment

R&B singer R. Kelly was “…recently indicted on aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four victims.” The New York Times reports (Feb. 22) that “three of whom were underage, according to the Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx. Aggravated criminal sexual abuse can carry a sentence of three to seven years in prison for each count. Mr. Kelly… faces 10 of them.”

Allegations of sexual misconduct have followed Kelly for years, but since the #metoo movement, some things have changed.

Some things.

“When R. Kelly was released from jail Monday,” The Washington Post writes (Feb. 27), “he was greeted by the sounds of adoration.

“ ‘Free Kells!’ people shouted outside Chicago’s Southwest Side jail as he was released… A woman who said she was a friend of R. Kelly’s, posted $100,000 for his bail…

“A group of mostly women,” The Post continues, “post adoring messages about Kelly with emoji hearts… They share pictures and GIFs from the singer’s music videos and write comments like ‘He’s the King.’ ”

All this devotion for a man who “stands accused of sexually abusing four individuals, three of whom were under the age of 17 at the time of the alleged crimes, which took place between 1998 and 2010. Prosecutors say Kelly’s youngest victim was 14 when the singer began sexually abusing her.”

In Washington, DC, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer,” testified before lawmakers about a laundry list of lies and manipulations by a man who demanded loyalty above all things.

“My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything,” Cohen told the oversight committee, “my family’s happiness, friendships, my law license, my company, my livelihood, my honor, my reputation and soon my freedom. I will not sit back, say nothing and allow him to do the same to the country.”

Now, facing a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to eight charges, including alleged payments to two women Trump had affairs in violation of campaign finance laws, Cohen sat before lawmakers for a second time after lying to them previously.

Cohen, ashamed of what he has done in Trump’s name, described himself as a “fool,” warning Republicans who criticized him of the costs of blind loyalty to a man who continues to demonstrate a blatant disregard for the truth and the rule of law.

Nonetheless, “Supporters of Trump,” USA Today reports (Feb. 11), “[lined] up outside the El Paso County Coliseum as early as 6 a.m., carrying lawn chairs and sack lunches. Vendors sold Trump-themed hats, T-shirts and banners from folding tables.

“ ‘We need to build the wall to stop drugs and illegal immigration’ Randy Ashbaugh said.

“ ‘I think he’s one of the greatest things to happen to this county,’ [Christie] Buckley said… ‘I’m amazed by him. I appreciate that he tells the truth.’

“Sherry Lewis, a school teacher from El Paso, said… ‘I believe in what he’s doing for the country.’ ”

“Meanwhile,” The Chicago Tribune reports (Feb. 26), that “high-profile attorney Michael Avenatti, who earlier this month gave prosecutors a VHS tape purportedly depicting Kelly having sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl, told reporters Monday that he had turned over yet another videotape.”

“Brittany Martin,” The Post writes, “is an active member of the group and a self-described big R. Kelly fan. …said she owns every R. Kelly album and listens to his music regularly. …

“She said she was not swayed by the charges levied against the singer in court, nor the accusations made against him…

“ ‘I believe that he is being a target and he’s being set up,’ Martin said in a phone interview…”

So why do people continue to support Kelly with decades of accusations and now an indictment?

“…few soul and R&B stars have shone more brightly than R. Kelly,” wrote Ernie Suggs in a 2017 The Atlanta-Journal Constitution story.

“…Kelly had more than 7 million fans on his official Facebook page. …has sold more than 30 million albums and won three Grammys,” Suggs adds.

“ ‘It is hard to separate the art from the artist,’ Oronike Odeleye, the managing director of Creative Currents, said. ‘We love Step in the Name of Love, so it is hard to reconcile that person from the person people have been telling us for decades who he was. We cling to what we know to be false.’ ”

In a 2016 article for Psychology Today, Bobby Azarian Ph.D. writes, “how exactly are Trump loyalists psychologically or neurologically different from everyone else? What is going on in their brains that makes them so blindly devoted?”

Azarian offers four possible explanations:

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“As psychologist David Dunning puts it… ‘The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.’

Hypersensitivity to Threat

“These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims and Mexican immigrants as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety.

Terror Management Theory

“…predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity and act out more aggressively towards those who do not.

“Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates.

High Attentional Engagement

“…the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. … He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.

“Of course, these explanations do not apply to all Trump supporters. In fact, some are likely intelligent people who know better but are supporting Trump to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the system. They may have such distaste for the establishment and Hillary Clinton that their vote for Trump is a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington.”

Sadly, when people connect with a celebrity, sometimes the attachment becomes so strong that they ignore evidence that contradicts the belief in their own minds.

American history is full of populist individuals who successfully manipulated a segment of society: evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Louisiana Democratic Gov. Huey Long, Catholic Priest Charles Coughlin.

“Success,” actress Elizabeth Taylor once said, “is a great deodorant.”

However, when individuals lie, cheat, steal or otherwise take advantage of others, they need to be held accountable, regardless of their deodorant.

The more we allow ourselves to be manipulated by showmanship and charisma on issues that matter, popularity will always trump judgment.

2 comments… add one
  • Gary Lange March 3, 2019, 7:03 pm

    What you wrote is very interesting and Dr. Azarian’s evalutions shed some light on the psychological components including people’s addiction to “breaking news”.

  • Jordan A. Castellanos March 14, 2019, 8:36 am

    This was an interesting read. I agree that a person’s popularity can have an influence on how [we] perceive that person.

    Hillary [Clinton] was such a banal candidate and I knew this way back in 2016; and that wasn’t the only reason why she lost. She didn’t campaign enough compared to Trump who campaigned everywhere, including and especially the swing states.

    Now in this case with R. Kelly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a light sentence because of his high status. I would hope he gets a fair trial and that law enforcement performs an adequate investigation.

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