Content note: this post contains some mild swearing. Sorry, Mom!
Here we are.
Just two weeks into DJT’s presidency, and the shit is already hitting the fan. As I read on Twitter the other day, the U.S had one Black President and white supremacy responded by setting the entire world on fire.
But, this post is not about DJT’s Muslim-ban-that-he-says-really-isn’t-a-Muslim-ban. It’s about me trying to wrap my head around the fact that there are so many people who think the ban is a good thing. They believe that all Muslims are terrorists; that we should be suspicious of all immigrants and refugees; and that the U.S is right to send them back to their home countries, regardless of the violence and terror they will face. They hold these views despite any and all evidence to the contrary.
Last year, I read an interview with Barack Obama in The New Yorker. Speaking with David Remnick shortly after Trump had been confirmed as the president-elect, Obama said:
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” […] “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”
Obama makes a good point, but I don’t think it’s a sufficient enough explanation for why some people will continue to believe what they want to believe, no matter what. I think the issue is that, not only do explanations and denials of climate change look the same on your Facebook page, but they feel the same.
What I mean is, people use social media to curate information that makes them feel good: such as getting updates from friends and family; finding affinity groups for their interests and hobbies; reading news that affirms their worldview; etc. This reinforces a kind of positive emotional bond between the user and their social media feed(s).
So consider this – what if those positive emotional bonds are so powerful, that whenever something shows up in your social media feed that doesn’t make you feel good, you treat it with suspicion? Or maybe even reject it outright?
And what if this response is so unconscious and immediate that you don’t recognize it’s even happening? What if all you do is just say to yourself, “That can’t be right”?
I will admit that I do this. And I know I’m not the only one. That’s what disconfirmation bias is, after all. Everyone is susceptible to it, regardless of our politics or our level of education.1
But, there’s disconfirmation bias, and then there’s deliberately flinging around your own bullshit because you don’t think it stinks. You do this regardless of any actual harm you may cause.
In the case of the U.S.’ immigration ban, this means supporting families being torn apart, 5-year-olds being handcuffed, and asylum-seekers being sent back to their war-torn countries to die.
(I can’t even…)
So does this mean that disconfirmation bias and emotion are connected? Or even that emotion is at the root of bias?
I recently stumbled across a mention of a new book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “Strangers in their Own Land”. It’s about what makes people willingly vote in ways that are, ultimately, against their own interests. According Hochschild, people have
“deep stories” — about who they are, and what their values are. Deep stories don’t need to be completely accurate, but they have to feel true. They’re the stories we tell ourselves to capture our hopes, pride, disappointments, fears, and anxieties. [emphasis in original]
In other words, people believe their bullshit doesn’t stink because it feels true to believe this is so.
I don’t know what makes someone get to this point. I am aware of the research showing that people with rigid conservative beliefs tend to have larger amygdalas (the so-called “fear centre” of the brain) than people who don’t.
There have also been some really interesting studies about “science curiosity“, and about what motivates people to seek out new information that challenges what they know.
And I’m sure that if – when – I read Hochschild’s book, I’ll gain even more insight. It might even validate my quietly long-held suspicion that emotion is the level at which we need to engage people if we want them to change their views. Not just with reason, as we’ve been taught.2
Lately, I’ve seen a number of calls for resisters and supporters of DJT to “reach across the aisle” and find common ground with each other. But, how do you find common ground – at an emotional level – with people whose deep stories are so completely different from than your own? And, even worse, may actually advocate your being harmed?
I’ve no idea. I really and truly don’t.3
All I know is that we can’t continue to rely solely on reason and evidence – as powerful and necessary as I think those tools are – to navigate our increasingly polarized world.
1 This is why I wholeheartedly reject the idea that it is only isolated, uneducated people who resist evidence that is contrary to their beliefs.
2 Thanks to the colonial legacy of Western “rational” thought.
3 At the moment, as a member of at least two marginalized groups who are targets of DJT’s bigotry, I resent the idea that I should have to invest any energy in finding common ground with people who support him. At best, they have no problem looking the other way as the rights of marginalized people are trampled because they think it’ll make them safer, or richer, or something; at worst, they are gleefully doing the trampling because they don’t think marginalized people should have any rights at all… including the right to exist.
As folks have been saying, though, we’re in a marathon, not a sprint. So I suppose, given time, I’ll be able to reach across the aisle when necessary. But right now, I’m not feeling it. (Heh. See what I did there?)