A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.—Eric Hoffer
There are many reasons I didn’t remain a political science major in college. One of the chief reasons would be because politics (especially as it’s now devolved, with its heavy emphasis on gossip and conspiracies) is too illogical for someone who is obsessed with logic and facts. It certainly didn’t help that, at my university, political science majors would receive a bachelor of arts rather than bachelor of science degree. If any field deserves a BS degree …
How can you explain people who believe that something is true simply because they were told that it’s true, or that something has been debunked simply because it was denied? How can you make sense of those who decry the “sheep” of the other side when they’re simply repeating the talking points of their side?
That doesn’t stop me, though, from watching from the sidelines to marvel at the idiocies and mouth-frothing insanity that make up politics today, especially when I get sucked into reading contentious comment board entries.
Hey, everyone needs a hobby. I could use a less stomach-churning one, though.
Longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer could have been talking about the current fanatical atmosphere in his book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, published in 1951. Several passages seem quite prescient of the current situation, but as a believer in fact-checking who has been gobsmacked by some rather unbelievable claims, one in particular stands out to me:
“All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. …
“It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith, as Bergson pointed out, manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move. And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.
“Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.”
That fact-proof screen seems to be in full use by fanatics today, regardless of political persuasion. The most ardent Clinton supporters might completely ignore her very unwise decision to use a personal email server, while the most extreme Trump fans will believe he didn’t say something that was caught on unedited tape. Both will use the most convoluted reasoning in their efforts to defend their idols, and will only get angry and scream “bias!” if you dare point out evidence that might belie their beliefs. (And evidence means actual proof, not that your idol or a minion said something. Disappointing, I know.)
Because obviously truth is a lie … if it doesn’t match your beliefs regardless of mountains of evidence.
The propaganda used to further political ends isn’t all-powerful, though, as Hoffer points out, requiring fertile soil to grow:
“The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already ‘know.’
“Propaganda by itself succeeds mainly with the frustrated. Their throbbing fears, hopes and passions crowd at the portals of their senses and get between them and the outside world. They cannot see but what they have already imagined, and it is the music of their own souls they hear in the impassioned words of the propagandist. Indeed, it is easier for the frustrated to detect their own imaginings and hear the echo of their own musings in impassioned double-talk and sonorous refrains than in precise words joined together with faultless logic.”
Confirmation bias does come in handy, now, doesn’t it? Those who are willing to believe anything bad about people they hate make especially good followers. Less of that messy thinking, you know.
It doesn’t help matters when so much of what is passed around this election season is pure Gish gallop, or proof by verbosity. RationalWiki calls it “the fallacious debating tactic of simply drowning your opponent in a torrent of small, interlocking arguments intended to prevent your opponent from being able to rebut your conclusions in real time.” If you throw as much stuff at an opponent as possible in a small amount of time, you can then claim victory if that opponent is unable to disprove all your points in the same amount of time, regardless of how non-factual, nonsensical and/or repetitive most of those points are apt to be.
Is it any wonder I get frustrated? I need some sleep. And chocolate. And a fuzzy cat.
On the bright side, in two weeks, this will all be over, and the fanatics will slink back to their corners until the next big scandal arises (countdown starting …).
What won’t be over is the lingering distrust of the media. Yes, there is bias in the media, but not really where so many of those screaming about it seem to believe. Try looking at the echo chamber, such as Free Republic, Democratic Underground, Breitbart or Think Progress, rather than most traditional news sources. (Want to see how biased your favorite source is? Try mediabiasfactcheck.com; FYI, the Democrat-Gazette shows up as right-center.)
And no, it’s not just me saying media bias is overblown. Dave D’Alessio of the University of Connecticut has studied media bias and presidential elections extensively and found no statistically significant liberal or conservative bias in the newspaper industry (wanna bet on how many people misread that?).
Of claims in the current campaign, D’Alessio told Melody Kramer of the Poynter Institute, “the very nature of bias is that it’s a perception—it’s something that people see, and they base it on what they see. There’s something called a hostile media effect. Basically whenever people are engaged in an issue—and there’s no one more engaged than a presidential candidate—they see coverage as biased against their position, no matter what is it.”
Oh, but the absence of bias … well, that ruins a good froth. Truth is just not frothy.
An update for a few people who’ve asked: Yep, the bruises are out in force, and I’m still pretty sore after my fall this weekend. Luke has almost forgiven me for falling over his steps, and so far has managed not to step on the bad foot. That’s a good thing since it’s still tender and not so pretty. But my nail polish is pretty …