Our Bigoted Brains

Above photo: From Art Killing Apathy.

If you’ve ever moved beyond small talk and vapid pleasantries in conversation then you’ve likely dealt with the infuriating occurrence of trying to convince someone of a fact they just don’t want to accept. Beyond just avoiding the information, they almost seem hardwired to reject your proof in a phenomenon that I like to call “fact fear.” I noticed a sharp rise in fact fear during the 2016 elections and levels continue to hover at disturbing heights today. So, what gives? Are we really in a new era of idiocy or are we just seeing our particularly vapid and anti-intellectual culture ping off the most base and stubborn aspects of the human psyche? Both, I think.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.” But in the post-truth, anti-intellectual, “I read it in a blog post so it must be true” era, our opinions and beliefs run the ever-growing risk of being founded on complete bullshit. Filter bubbles (which we covered in Episode 132) and digital spheres protect us from ideas and facts outside our own personal shit heaps and only serve up the information we want to see – which is not always factually accurate. Our culture of quick “news” and a growing lack of intellectual curiosity drive us further into an echo chamber of our own ideas – facts and information be damned. In turn, a false but far from flimsy crust solidifies around our minds –- and the soft light of truth and knowledge can’t get in.

Our brains are wired to find comfort behind that crust. In what’s known as the backfire effect, our minds reject new information that clashes with our belief systems and opinions. As David McRaney, author of the books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb explains it: “Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.” In other words, that crust acts as a shield for facts that threaten your beliefs. And you’ve probably seen this in action online. Someone posts something like “climate change isn’t real” so you face palm and proceed to post ample proof that they’re wrong and that in fact, climate change is very real. The problem is that with each fact you post, the crust hardens – for both you AND the other person. Of course, it doesn’t help that you can find just as much if not more bullshit online than you can actual truth but much of it is actually tied to the inherent laziness of our brains. “The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall…In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.”

So does this mean that we should just stop pointing out when someone is wrong? That we should let all kinds of ridiculous notions from lizard people to “homeless people are dangerous” slide? Of course not. Rather, it means that if we want to educate and engage, if we want people to wake the fuck up then we have to consider how the human mind works – and how it doesn’t. Furthermore, our goal shouldn’t be to win an argument as if to suggest that as soon as we win the argument, justice is at hand. Indeed, if your goal is to simply be right, the religious zeal with which you defend your ideas will only turn you into the very monster you are trying to slay. Being right, in other words, is not the point. Progress is not a church. We are not looking for converts. Our aim should always be to engage and empower; to share our knowledge and embrace the knowledge of others. Seek and speak truth – then act on it. And do not think that because you found a nugget of information you hold moral superiority over those who don’t know it. Our minds are just as susceptible to that crust as anyone else’s. We are not special or better. Indeed, we must constantly question our opinions, compare them with facts and new information. By that I mean actual facts, not “alt facts” sourced from a single Google search or indeed even something from a “trusted” publication.

In an interview last March with Robert Scheer of Truthdig, author Joel Whitney discusses the 60 year history of fake news and how it was used in the Cold War era to sew distrust and hatred of all things “commie” and Russian. Major and well-trusted media outlets were a part of the propaganda ring and Whitney notes “that the fearful political atmosphere at the time led to “secrecy being used to preside over and rule over the free press — which we’re supposed to be the champions of.” “They drank the Kool-Aid and thought they were saving freedom,” Scheer agrees. The discussion underscores the need for analysis of Cold War-era media as a way to avoid propagandized journalism today. Scheer says, “I look at the current situation, where we don’t even have a good communist enemy, so we’re inventing Russia as a reborn communist power enemy.” “I call it superpolitics,” Whitney concludes, “where essentially there’s something that’s so evil and so frightening that we have to change how our democratic institutions work.” The latest red scare is but one example of how easy it is to mold minds when you use something like the hatred of Trump as a trigger. Blend some tried and true anti-Russia sentiment in there and you’ve got yourself a brand spanking new enemy – one that allows you to further mold those democratic institutions just as seamlessly as the minds you’ve now crusted and convinced. Russia aside, the same propaganda games go for mass media collusion on everything from fracking to the military industrial complex. For example, leaked email messages show that a writer from the LA times colluded with the CIA not only in terms of getting the CIA’s OK on forthcoming stories but actually offered to write stories for them that would put a positive spin on such issues as drone warfare, saying it would be quote “reassuring to the public” and a “good opportunity” for the CIA. Various other email messages show that the same was true for a list of other media outlets.

All this to say, if I may borrow a phrase: no investigation, no right to speak. Do your own research before you claim to know something. Incidentally this will also help steel you from the rumor mill AND infiltrators. Whether it’s taking someone to task on a rumor or engaging someone in discourse, be vigilant. Be vigilant in your drive, your actions, and be primarily vigilant in your own thinking. Release the flimsy beliefs that would just as soon sink you as keep you afloat. Arm yourself with knowledge and reach out to build and to engage, not to win a Facebook tiff. Consider the goal of engagement and empowerment rather than just being right. Consider the reaction you would have if someone came at you with a barrage of links followed by “read a fucking book, asshole!” You’d more than likely write them off as an unhinged asshole even if their information is solid. Try asking a question or perhaps as Ben Franklin suggested, ask them for a favor, something small that seeds trust, pinging off the human psychology that seeks appreciation and the feel of community. Push past political theory and get down to human connection – to start with. For instance, anarchists in several communities will often engage with would-be white supremacists via the common ground of distrust and disgust in the system. They’ll sit and talk; discuss the pitfalls of a system that’s left them behind and from there grow to a discourse on the roots of their discontent, i.e. not black people. In other words, knock on the door rather than trying to break down the wall. Because that wrought iron shit crust is stronger than steel.

Finally, keep in mind that this won’t always work and nor should it. We have to accept that in our grandiose imaginings of the revolution, many people will either be against us or sitting at home praying we all just shut up. But again, if you’re not looking for converts, if you’re engaging to empower, you’ll not only find more people willing to talk to you, you’ll also more than likely learn something in the process. You might even pick something up that’ll put a dent in your own mental crust.