Justice Morath, a professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College, doesn’t remember the quote that caused the teachers to call his parents, but he still remembers the story fondly.
“I always love telling that story,” Morath said. “It was not like a science fair, but it was a poster board presentation of some famous person you look up to. Everyone’s doing, like, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and Princess Diana. And then I did Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys.”
The Dead Kennedys, an American punk rock band from the 1970s and ’80s, were famous for songs that played as political satire.
“I only knew about him [Biafra] at that age because my stepdad was an old punk,” Morath said. “But I chose him because he’s super political. I always like the sarcasm of his music.”
When touting Biafra’s music, Morath used a few Dead Kennedys lyrics which may have stepped over the line.
“There’s definitely some curse words that pushed it over the edge,” Morath admitted.
Morath appreciates when things are pushed to the edge. He is a co-founder and the current executive director of the STEAMpunk Academy, a group that focuses on “science, technology, engineering, the arts and math with a punk ethos.”
“I grouped up with a couple of other people to start doing these science talks in bars, and that was under the name Science On Tap, which is kind of a common thing across the country,” Morath said when asked about the genesis of STEAMpunk Academy.
Eventually, Morath left Science On Tap to create STEAMpunk with co-founder Sky Hatter.
“We wanted to include other aspects of academia besides just science,” Morath said. “Which is why we went with the name [STEAMpunk] because that’s the acronym: Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math.”
Morath says STEAMpunk is not only a group where people can learn about any one of the disciplines, but it can also be more than a “TED Talk in a bar.”
“We have events where people actually engage in and do little science projects,” Morath said, adding that STEAMpunk is for anyone who wants to learn something in a fun and engaging way.
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in STEAMpunk’s plans; the academy still meets online for virtual science happy hours and recently held an Adult Science Fair at Kiitos Brewery with a small crowd that wore masks and socially distanced.
“It was a success,” Morath said. “We’ll definitely be doing it every year and make it bigger and better.”
On Dec. 5, STEAMpunk plans to host a gingerbread bridge building competition for its next in-person event. Morath acknowledges that if the pandemic worsens, “things might have to change.”
Morath has been a keen observer of COVID-19’s ability to cause change. In May, he wrote an op-ed article for the Salt Lake Tribune titled “Fear in a pandemic leads to right-wing radicalization.” The article focuses on how hardship and isolation during these trying times have become a breeding ground for anger and fear.
Morath says he’s been meaning to write a follow-up because some of the things he predicted have happened.
“Some of the conspiracy theories have taken a much stronger root in the groups that I was mentioning,” Morath said. “It’s now a bigger part of their platform, which just shows that radicalization is just happening.”
Morath says that people gravitate toward conspiracy theories because they can supply answers in a world that often does not offer solutions.
“The world’s a complicated place … and there’s a whole lot of unknowns. Conspiracies can offer a kind of comfortable, almost security blanket to be able to say, ‘I know what’s going on, I know why the government behaves this way.’”
Morath notes that the Salt Lake Tribune changed the title and “specifically added the right-wing radicalization.”
“Everyone falls [into] traps through the same kind of faulty thinking and conspiratorial thinking,” Morath said.
In the op-ed, Morath says those who have been radicalized tend to reject anyone who is not a part of “the in-group” and this “prevents them from considering opposing views.” He believes the answer to this issue is communication.
“Research suggests one of the best things you can do to change people’s views on especially politically polarizing issues is literally just talking to each other,” Morath said. “Once you start talking to your neighbor who thinks differently than you, there’s really more in common than you realize.”
In order to have a positive engagement with someone who has a different point of view, Morath suggests packaging the conversation within their worldview.
“If you think about the anti-maskers, they come up with all these claims like ‘Oh, it depletes oxygen levels’ or they’re worried about that it’s government control overreach or something,” Morath said.
At the core of it, he explains, people on both sides are often concerned about safety.
“We’re starting from the same point, the same motivation, the answer is just different,” Morath said.
According to Morath, building a metaphorical bridge to those who you view on the other side is respecting their worldview.
“Come from a similar vantage point, relate with them and then try to meet them on some sort of level ground and have a real conversation,” Morath said.
And once you’ve done that, invite them to build an actual gingerbread bridge with STEAMpunk Academy on Dec. 5.
For more information on STEAMpunk Academy, visit their website or follow them on social media @steampunkacademyslc.