I think it must be something to do with the architecture of the brain ….
Why is it that we resist thoughtful, rational consideration of ideas? We revert into camps, oversimplify and exaggerate our positions, fail to see, admit, acknowledge legitimate points that don’t support our camp. We circle the wagons. We are not honest.
I say this is not honest for one reason. When we talk about ideas, our reasons for embracing or rejecting them are often muddy. They overlap. It is a combination of personal experience (which is unique), emotion, semi-conscious processes, and logical arguments. The logical arguments are marshaled to serve the non-logical impulses. We resist looking too closely at what is happening in our own minds. And we dursn’t publicly admit things that weaken our position, things that might make us look bad, selfish, anti-intellectual. We operate in a mush of ill-considered half-thoughts, yet we defend our ideas with a ferocity I can only describe as demonic.
Don’t get me wrong. It is certainly defensible to hold a view based on personal experience – what is reasonable for me to believe based on my experience would not necessarily be reasonable for you to believe. That doesn’t mean that truth is multiple, just that perspectives are sometimes so divergent as to be unable to communicate with one another. I can’t, with any justification, make the assumption that your beliefs based on your experiences are unreasonable because I can’t view them from your perspective. By the same token, I don’t believe you can make the reverse assumption about me. You could be right. I could be right. We could both be wrong. All three are possibilities. We obviously believe we’re right or we wouldn’t hold that belief … at least I hope so.
Equally, making decisions and adopting beliefs from an emotional perspective has some merit. Personally I find this risky because my emotions are transient and unreliable. Nonetheless, for something to be be both useful and true, it must be able to speak to my emotional circumstance. Truths that are not useful don’t matter much. What appears utilitarian but remains untrue will have mixed results – sometimes these are harmless; but they often have very sinister potentials. The point, emotions factor into beliefs. It can’t be otherwise. [I have an analytical side – so that if I can determine a thing to be untrue or at least internally inconsistent, I tend to reject it even when I am emotionally invested in it. But I readily see the burden of proof for this is far higher than for disinterested inquiry.]
Semi- or even unconscious processes also play a major role in the beliefs we hold. This strikes me as far more dubious. People have a view of themselves that they must hold on to in order to bear to be, in order to get up in the morning, in order to sleep at night. We don’t consciously do this; it is the way we see ourselves. Considering ideas that directly challenge that self-perception becomes almost impossible for us.
Some people have a need to see themselves and think they are seen as intelligent. Objectively, I’d call this a foolish need; but subjectively, I fall into it as much as the next person. It leads one to align oneself with what is considered or viewed as intellectual; and it leads one to dismiss what is considered or viewed as stupid. These are not real categories; they are fashionable labels only. The problem here is that one accepts the ‘intellectual’ uncritically, and one dismisses the un-’intellectual’ without a hearing – which is the opposite of intelligent behavior.
Some people have a need to imagine they are compassionate. They need not actually be compassionate; they just need to maintain the self-perception. Most people I’ve met believe themselves to be good workers – better than most. From a purely practical point of view, I’d never hire many of these “good workers”. We like to think ourselves current – once a thing is labeled as outmoded, we can have nothing to do with it. It is inherently laughable without any joke actually being made. We like to think ourselves honest … well, more honest than others. But the weight of the lies we tell begins to accumulate. We like to see ourselves as empowered, as having choices, as being the masters of our fates. And we can maintain these fictions in the face of all contrary evidence … almost to the point of death. We trample over others who are less fortunate – who have had less kind fates – because … well, since we’re masters of our fates, they must have brought it on themselves.
So many of our needed self-perceptions spring from things that happened to us when we were small. We are reactive, reactionary. But we don’t even fully realize it.
Then there are things like envy, jealousy, attraction, repulsion, fear, greed. All of them factor into beliefs we adopt, political positions we hold, actions we take. We seldom admit this; and we seldom acknowledge it to ourselves.
Then there is peer pressure. Even the phrase contains an unexamined assumption – that we have peers. What exactly are peers? But, there is a pressure exerted on us by the group – a desire to fit in, to believe we’re alright, to be accepted. We often say the things we need to say to get this desired result. And the conflict between what we believe and what we say and do is disconcerting. It will ultimately be resolved in favor of our actions.
This combination of partial dishonesty and lack of awareness pervades political opinions, religious opinions, individual choices, philosophies, even science, history, art. The more important the issue, the closer it cuts to the human, to the heart, to the soul, the more pronounced the distortion.
OK – so what is the point of this rambling?
What do you do when particular ideas have very bad consequences – in politics, for example, or in religion, or philosophy? What do you do when you see those consequences clearly, but the people who espouse the ideas – who proselytize for them, who seek to enshrine them in law and force others to tip their hat to them – can’t see the downside?
Because such ideas are held for a variety of reasons – overlapping rational, irrational, self-interest, and subconscious need alike – any attempt to persuade (dissuade) based on readily predictable (even already observable) consequences will fail. Now I’m not so much concerned with individual choices here – choices in which a person must alone live with the result – as with the effects of ideas on others. The true believer is immune to suasion; the only other approach is to try to interfere with the proselytization process, to try to win over the disciples. But these do not make decisions for exclusively rational reasons either – a rational appeal will not succeed. Add to that the fact that any such attempt will make an automatic and vicious enemy of the true believer.
Here’s the thing: some ideas are poisonous. They harm whatever they touch. When a certain critical mass is reached, when enough people hold the idea to lend it legitimacy, the culture as a whole (that has come to regard the idea as a legitimate possibility) can no longer see the poison. This is always true. When slavery was commonly practiced, only a very small minority admitted to seeing it for the poisonous idea that it was. In the US, our Constitution reflects this fact, and has, for all its good points, saddled the country with a legacy of hypocrisy. How can one speak of rights (for example in the Declaration of Independence) while acknowledging that this language does not apply to all?
As an idea, eugenics has had a similar history. It is loathsome to me on its face, but it has a proven track record of hideous side effects. After World War 2, eugenics advocates became hard to find. The culture no longer accepted the premise as a legitimate idea. Now it has returned – albeit in somewhat different forms.
Religious compulsion, as an idea, was universally accepted across virtually all cultures. Contrary to popular myth, this has been true regardless of the religion. Pluralistic religions were every bit as rigid as monotheistic religions in their insistence that everyone participate in the public system. Non-participation was not an option. It is only in the last few centuries that this has stopped being universally the case. That development was not a product of the Enlightenment, but preceded and enabled it. That idea is often recognized as poisonous in a variety cultures now. But others still practice such compulsion. And the fact is, even in our most ‘secular’ states, we downplay the negatives of this practice.
This list could go on for hours. The bottom line is this: as fashions change, ideas become acceptable that weren’t, they reverse their status, they become alien to us. None of these are permanent developments. The bottom line is, some ideas are poisonous – they are much more sinister than mere mistakes. Yes, I’m aware of the arrogance needed to say this. I do not claim to know these ideas; I only see a few of them. I have no doubt that some ideas I embrace would fall into the same category. But the ones I can identify, I see treated as legitimate options in public discourse.
So how would one go about trying to oppose such ideas? I have spent most of my life believing in the rational appeal, listening and considering all the details, hearing from all the parties – testing the logic, asking whether or not this represents the type of people we want to be, or the type of world we want to live in. But that’s not how people hold ideas, how we acquire, or why we change them. I’m as guilty as anyone of this.
The reason I’m thinking about this at all is that I just had one of those thoroughly unpleasant political conversations with a true believer. I’m not a fan of politics on the best of days. There are politics I respect, but this is rare. Failing to win me to his position, the true believer pressed me for my reasons. I don’t think he even heard them. It was like a telemarketer’s script with a list of rebuttals. He attempted to pick the objection he thought most like my own (the two had about as much in common as oranges and Saturn’s rings), and launched into a series of talking points. Things no one really believes, things everyone has heard, things that should not persuade anyone. The problem is, I found the idea itself to be poisonous. I was not seeking to dissuade him; I only sought to explain my rejection when asked. But the thought emerges – how would even go about opposing such an idea? If I’m hearing it, if I’m being bullied into it, it can’t be that fringe. I meet a wide range, but I’m not in any ‘inner circles’.