Monthly Archives: January 2022
An alarming number of Americans believe some Trumped up version of reality that is so far from the truth – and so outrageous – that you have to wonder what is happening to the political communication process. Of course, examples are easy: Hillary Clinton kept children in a basement, or Obama was actually born in Kenya and is not a “real” American, or Covid vaccinations are a government plot, ad infinitum. At first blush you just figure that these people are playing with you, that they don’t “really” believe such things. But then you discover that they are serious, and their delusions are legion.
And the majority of these theories are right wing theories that seem to be most susceptible. A band of conservatives who dislike a political candidate for a parallel reason are available for the next delusion. A common refrain is to “think for yourself.” They are encouraged to find information, process the information, and come to a conclusion. Consequently, to “be your own man” is somehow associated with an individualism and is sufficiently justificatory such that simply convincing yourself that you “thought for yourself” is good enough. I have an opinion and by God I’m going to stick to that opinion simply because it is mine.
I do the opposite. I tell the holder of these inaccurate beliefs to get their opinions from someone else. Don’t think for yourself because that will just lead you down a crooked path besieged on both sides by bad information, inaccurate facts, warped conclusions, and a general bias that reflects pre-existing attitudes that work like barriers to more defensible reasoning. This is no trivial matter because the people in the news who are delusional are not only the likes of QAnon, The Proud Boys, or evangelicals selling redemption for votes. Rather, they are prominent politicians, media figures, corporate leaders and their foundations, and yes US senators and congress men and women.
Finally, we should not ignore the role of education with respect to reasoning and decision-making as well as recognizing false argument and various biases. Citizens in a democracy must learn how to make the best decisions possible and utilize the tools of reason and science as well as the humanities. Improving one’s ability to strengthen opinions takes time and experience. The education process is the best way to spend that time and gain that experience.
It is true enough that the left has some share of exaggerations about say political conspiracies, corporate plots, or climate change. But it is safe to say, and I believe this can be defended with empirical precision, that leftist and more liberal groups are not making wildly fringe arguments based on “the big lie” or Jigged-up fear about government plots in control of your body. Democrats are simply more likely to rely on science and trust the authority of experts along with an increased willingness to deliberate and subject ideas to the best forms of analysis and criticism.
I would recommend the following book as an excellent place to grapple with these issues.
Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro (2021). “When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People.” Princeton University press.
There is a useful phrase that mostly circulates in academic discourse termed “moral panic.” Moral panic is the exaggerated sense that some cultural phenomenon poses such a threat to society that “panic” is called for. Some behavior is considered to be outside the boundaries of acceptable moral behavior and thus a threat to the culture. This is true even for culturally trivial matters. When young people in the 1960s started to wear their hair at shoulder length there was a segment of the population that considered this to be disrespectful, unpatriotic, and even dirty. It was perceived as a threat to the social order. But the threat is exaggerated. The media is fundamentally responsible for reporting on these supposedly aberrant cultural behaviors, and stirring up controversy stimulated by the binary differences between the groups. So, one of the divides in society is between long-hairs and those with conventional haircuts.
The current threat to society resulting in moral panic is “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). The definition of of CRT is not simple and I do not want to dwell on the details here. But at its core CRT is an academic concept that assumes race is a social construction and that race divides people of color against white people. Perhaps more importantly, as demonstrated by the 1619 book, race is more than an individual prejudice or bias but also something embedded structurally in the legal and political system.
So historical patterns of racial discrimination continue to find their way into social policies. In the 1930s the government literally drew lines to create neighborhoods and prevented African-Americans from living in these neighborhoods. To this day, whites continue to benefit from housing appreciation values and developed equity, where blacks have failed to benefit from these policies because of rank discrimination.
Liberals and conservatives draw sharp differences between one another on the basis of their CRT stance. Conservatives contend that when CRT is taught in the schools it undermines patriotism and warps the master American narrative. And those liberals who want to teach CRT in the schools claim that it is an accurate anecdote to the misrepresentations of American history. CRT is a prototypical basis for moral panic.
The problem with moral panic is the experience of the word “panic.” Ideologies like CRT do not warrant panic – which can be dangerous and devolve into violence. Panic ratchets up the intensity of the disagreement and increases the distortions in the positions of each side as well as the perceptual differences that result from intergroup conflict.
There should be a frame check such that what actually happens in the schools is based more on liberalism (I don’t mean progressivism) then a tenacious clinging to an ideology. As I’ve argued before, schools should “teach the conflict.” That is, CRT is a defensible response designed to correctly expose those aspects of American history and the past which are based on white supremacy and racial discrimination. Slavery is certainly a basis for American wealth and structural racist oppression has too easily slipped into the background.
The liberal response to CRT means that it should be taught in the spirit of open-ended inquiry and the rigorous challenge of opposing ideas. Those issues most associated with CRT can be taught in a defensible intellectual manner. America is certainly strong enough to expose its ugly mistakes as they bubble up from liberal foundations of inquiry.