The Erosion of “AMERICA”

Guest Blog: Jordan Belisle, Phd, BCBA-D, LBA

Missouri State University

Special Note: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone.


At its best, “AMERICA” is a symbol of hope and liberty and the shared opportunity to pursue happiness freely. At its worst, “AMERICA” is a dream not realized by many yet pursued by all. In this entry, I will briefly discuss how “AMERICA,” the word as it is expressed in quotations, is verbal behavior. As such, how we interact functionally with this word and its entailments can have radical implications for how we treat one another. How could the erosion of “AMERICA” as a specific type of verbal behavior, that we call a hierarchical relational frame, impact social behavior that affects us all?

2020 is not how most of us pictured it. The year started with ongoing news of children detained at the United States southern border. Legal debates about the rights of some people (mostly, straight white cis-gendered men) to take away the rights of other people (every other group). On the other hand, there was successful economic growth (but not proportionally for all people). This is something “AMERICA” has been used to for about the past decade as “AMERICA” transitioned out of an economic recession. From a Relational Frame Theory perspective, “AMERICA” is a verbal abstraction that refers to this shared experience. Although the experience differs for groups within “AMERICA,” these groups are still contained under one single, unifying, verbal abstraction. With shared goals, shared values, and shared economic and social resources. Though as imperfect as “AMERICA” is, “AMERICA” is (or “was”) a shared imperfection. “AMERICA” is (or “was”) a hierarchical relational frame.

A “Hierarchical” America

Hierarchical frameRelational frames represent a type of verbal behavior that allow people to relate to their world through language. Hierarchical frames are one of many that may influence behavior. This type of frame differs from coordinated or equivalence frames in that lower-level class members are not necessarily the same but share group membership in the higher-level class. The image to the right depicts this type of relational frame.

For example, “DEMOCRATIC AMERICANS” (DAs) and “REPUBLICAN AMERICANS” (RAs) are both “AMERICAN.” Despite apparent cultural and values differences, DAs and RAs are contained on the same land, deserving of equal access to safety, respect, and pursuit of “the dream.” Although deictic frames of “us” versus “them” may be present between DAs and RAs, there remains an umbrella “us” that functions through participation in the hierarchical frame. In Relational Frame Theory, transformations of stimulus functions occur when relational frames influence other behaviors. For example, imagine you are walking down the street and observe an unmarked vehicle with an individual dressed in military gear abduct a seemingly innocent bystander. What do you do? Now, imagine that prior to witnessing this abduction you are told that the person identifies with the political party “opposite” your own. Does this change your response? “They” are still an “AMERICAN” with (hierarchical containment) “inalienable rights to peaceful assembly.” Moreover, “they” are “HUMAN,” a higher-order hierarchical frame that contains “AMERICANS” and “NON-AMERICANS,” all of whom are “deserving of the right not to be abducted in broad daylight.” Yet here we are.

A lot has happened in 2020. COVID-19 emerged as the latest pandemic, and at the time of writing this piece, over 178,000 Americans have died. The economy is in a free fall. The murder of George Floyd represents another attack against the Black community by law enforcement. What is alarming, at least from an RFT perspective, is an emerging tribalism around these events. Mishandling of COVID-19 at early stages brought about accelerated cases and deaths in majority Republican states. The deaths of “AMERICANS” producing an “I told you so” moment of an apparently deserved fate. “They” should have listened to “us.” In Portland, where (mostly) peaceful protesters are being abducted, gassed, and shot at while exercising their right to protest, the fall into authoritarian control is cheered as “protecting our country” from “liberal Democratic states” and “the mob.” Authoritarianism is okay as long as it is happening to “them,” and not “us.”

An America in Opposition

Frames of oppositionOne perspective is that we are witnessing the erosion of “AMERICA” as a hierarchical frame. If we remove the hierarchical hat, what remains are deictic frames and frames of opposition. “Us” versus “them.” Each likely to identify as the “real” “AMERICA” – a limited commodity at risk of insurgence.

RA: “The radical left will destroy America and we will not be safe!”

DA: “America is becoming a totalitarian dictatorship!”

One perspective is that we are witnessing the erosion of “AMERICA” as a hierarchical frame. If we remove the hierarchical hat, what remains are deictic frames and frames of opposition. “Us” versus “them.” Each likely to identify as the “real” “AMERICA” – a limited commodity at risk of insurgence.

RA: “The radical left will destroy America and we will not be safe!”

DA: “America is becoming a totalitarian dictatorship!”

“Us” vs. “Them” Must Become “We”

Last year, my colleagues and I published a research article showing an increase in the use of frames of distinction in political discourse by the current president, representing a shift from a high number of hierarchical frames used in discourse by the prior president. The degree to which this shift in rhetoric is influencing the erosion of “AMERICA” as a hierarchical frame is not clear. However, in another study, we showed that economic hardship can increase social discounting, or a reduced probability of foregoing access to something valuable so that other people can have access to it. When resources are scarce, the probability of foregoing something like safety or liberty to ensure the safety or liberty for “them” is reduced to secure limited resources for “us.” This is all of course theoretical but elucidating the joint role of collective relational frames that interact with real economic contingencies may hold the key to developing a behavior analysis of divisive political behavior.

discounting graphWe may be seeing a perfect storm of economic and social hardship along with shifts in rhetoric describing a “they” and an “us” that includes only those “AMERICANS” who agree with us. Because of the transformation of stimulus function, if hierarchical “AMERICA” erodes beyond repair, the risk is an increased justification to harm the other, to abduct the other, to cheer the death of the other. This tribalism has, in the past, been predictive of increased civil conflict. And with a potentially contested election in November, we are playing with a verbally abstracted tinder box. But remember, “we” are “the other,” and “we” are “AMERICA.” We must solve COVID-19. We must solve the economy. But we must also solve our own verbal abstractions.

“We are suffering.”

“We are dying.”

“We can solve this. Together.”

Dr. Jordan BeslisleDr. Jordan Belisle is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Assistant Professor at Missouri State University. Dr. Belisle has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, applying advances in our understanding of human language and cognition to improve the lives of people. This work has included research on neurological disabilities such as autism as well as behavioral addictions and applications of behavior science to solve climate change. Since joining the faculty at Missouri State University, Belisle’s work has focused on developing new models of human language learning, including Relational Density Theory, that describes the apparent self-organization of relational verbal behavior. His research lab seeks to provide research opportunities for students and to collaborate at an international scale with practitioners looking to infuse science within practice.