It’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.
Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.
That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.
I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”
I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.
They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.
Over the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.
If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.
But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.
Conformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.
There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.
You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.
There is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.
It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.
Political correctness is one of those things that conservatives love to hate. Understandably; there are few areas where people can indulge in righteous disdain and still maintain broad support (instead of just looking like jerks). And why not? There aren’t many people, I think, who enjoy being on the receiving end of the language police. It’s understandably infuriating to be told that you said whatever you said the wrong way, even though your meaning was obviously clear.
Liberals tend to dislike the label “political correctness.” But that doesn’t stop them from patrolling the boundaries of acceptable language and bending over backwards to avoid including offensive words in everyday life. And why not? There are histories of oppression baked into our language, just as they are baked into every other part of our society. Language often contains fossilized prejudice, and we do well to root it out.
Where these two views conflict, I think, is in their understanding of what we’re supposed to be fixing. For liberals, changing language isn’t the ostensible goal—it’s a marker for change in attitudes. But for conservatives, the narrative of political correctness is the opposite—that changing language is just about framing your attitude in a different way. Continue reading →
“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.
So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.
Certainty is a funny thing. You might think the idea of certainty naturally admits that things are subjective, that absolute proof is difficult, and that beliefs must be updated to reflect changing evidence. But that isn’t how we practice certainty—instead of signaling a spectrum of probable truth, it seems to have become an arbiter of validity.
When someone is certain, that should be a commentary on the evidence they have for a position. Somehow, though, certainty has been divorced from that spectrum of evidence. Instead of certainty being the extreme end, it has become the correct end; the rest of the spectrum is collapsed and we are left with the binary of certainty and uncertainty. It that strange dichotomous world, anything uncertain isn’t worth considering—as though lack of absolutism frees us from any tether to the real world.
Some years ago, I got feedback from some of my colleagues that, on occasion, they needed me to “grab hold of the wheel instead of constantly reinventing it on the fly.” It was brilliant, pithy, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also judiciously ignore it. But the spirit of that piece of feedback, and thing that sticks with me, is the tension between two ways of approaching the world.
No matter what I do, I find myself compelled to find ways to do it better. Seeking and finding those things is one of the most fulfilling things I do in life, professionally and personally both.
I also happen to think that an ideal of recursive improvement is a fundamental necessity. If we don’t make seeking improvement a habit, we get pulled in the opposite direction and reject it even when it is sorely needed.
Richard Feynman famously described science, and curiosity broadly, as “the pleasure of finding things out.” There are certainly few things I enjoy more than to turn over ideas and work them through to some new place, even moreso in quick and intelligent company. I consider it a life philosophy to avoid stopping at the obvious conclusions, and instead to see what more may be learned with a few judicious questions. It isn’t science per se, but it has in common a reliance on method. In learning, as in science, one must start with the assumption that one is wrong.