I’ll be honest. I thought that the United States had made a lot of progress in the last 5o years. Apparently I was misinterpreting improving public dialog for genuine improvement of society. Instead, for some large swath of the country, it was just a mask they felt obliged to wear while they privately stewed in a fantasy world of fear of people different from themselves.
I honestly didn’t realize how mainstream the peddling of ignorance and fear had become. I guess that probably mostly comes from not consuming news programs supported by ad revenue.
This American Life ran two episodes in October that were rather eye-opening. The first was “Seriously?” in which they explore how people have become convinced that interpretation is the same as fact. And in “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” they explore the anti-Islamic movement that seems to have taken over the Republican Party.
In the latter episode a reporter looks into the anti-Islamic movement specifically in Minnesota. I was honestly dumbfounded by the fever-pitched fear-of-others being fueled by ignorance. I also learned about and gained a respect for Congressman Tom Emmer. I greatly disagree with him on a good many topics, but I was impressed by his push-back during a town-hall meeting he hosted with his constituents:
Sue: You’re our only chance.
Tom Emmer: For what, Sue? What is it that you want?
Tom Emmer: What is it that want from me?
Sue: I think I speak for a lot of people. I think the city of St. Cloud needs a breather. And we need to assimilate with the people that are–
Tom Emmer: What does that mean? What does that mean?
Sue: It’s a break on the influx for a period of time, so we could take a little breather.
Tom Emmer: Here’s the thing, your last statement, though, “take a little breather.”
Tom Emmer: You guys, could you just hold on. Say it out loud. Are you suggesting that no more immigrants should be allowed to come to St. Cloud?
Sue: A moratorium for a short time.
Woman: For the whole United States!
Man: The whole United States, yes.
Tom Emmer: All right. All right, here’s the thing. All I can do is respond as open and honest as I can, Sue. That’s not something that I can do. That’s not something that our constitution says that we do with people who are–
Earlier he said this in response to the same sentiment:
I’m going to say it out loud– when you move to a community, as long as you are here legally, I am very sorry but you don’t get to slam the gate behind you and tell nobody else that they’re welcome. That’s not the way this country works.
His constituents are telling him they want him to stop immigrants from moving to their city (and the whole country). And he flat out tells them that’s not an option. And they were not happy about it. I think that must take real guts as a politician who, presumably, wants to get reelected by these same people. Good for him.
Later on in the program the reporter, Zoe Chase, goes to South Dakota to witness a meeting by, essentially, an anti-Islamic evangelist. He’s not a preacher of religion, but he has a donation basket and spends his time traveling around telling people how Islam is destroying America.
After the meeting Chase spoke to a state representative who attended:
In this hotel ballroom in Aberdeen, South Dakota, people aren’t interested in a debate over the economics of immigration. This is a conversation about fear. The most memorable conversation I had was with this state rep Al Novstrup. He’s been in state government for 14 years, and he came to this meeting to get more information on Sharia law potentially taking over his city. Like it has other places, he says.
Zoe Chase: Like where?
Al Novstrup: Dearborn, Michigan?
Zoe Chace: Have you seen that happen there?
Al Novstrup: I haven’t been to Dearborn, Michigan.
Zoe Chace: From my perspective, as a national reporter, there’s still the Constitution. There’s no Sharia anywhere.
Al Novstrup: You don’t think there’s Sharia anywhere in the United States?
Zoe Chace: Correct.
Al Novstrup: I think you need to read more.
Zoe Chace: I do read.
Al Novstrup: You don’t think there’s Sharia any place in the United States? You don’t think– wow. OK. You don’t think there’s Sharia? I’m just blown away. We’re living on two different planets.
And clearly Representative Novstrup has one thing right: we’re living on two different planets. The planet he lives on is a fantasy world of fear fueled by confirmation bias and willful ignorance.
When I hear people freaking out about Sharia Law being practiced in the United States I used to assume they meant something like how orthodox Jews live by Jewish Law or Mormons might subject themselves to disciplinary action from their church because they want to. Which, by that measure, I’d be surprised if Sharia law isn’t being practiced within the United States. That’s sort of a foundational principle of freedom of religion. People can choose to voluntarily live by a stricter code of conduct than the legal code prescribes. Not really something worth freaking out about, but people choose to be afraid of things they don’t understand.
But apparently that’s not what is meant by many of the people freaking out. They seem to be of the opinion that the legal code in some parts of the country is now literally Sharia Law. That whether you’re a follower of Islam or not you’ll be arrested and charged based on Islamic legal codes. If so, that would be completely inappropriate, but also really, really easy to prove. But they can’t prove it, because it isn’t happening. But that fact is irrelevant. They apparently want to live in fear and so facts can’t permeate their barrier of intentional ignorance.
Perhaps people of this mindset are simply unaware of concepts like confirmation bias, frequency illusion (sometimes called the Baader-Meinhof effect), declinism, framing effect, illusory truth effect, or a dozen other well studied cognitive biases that cause our perception of the world to be out of sync with reality. Everyone is susceptible to these problems. The best we can do is recognize they happen and attempt to acquire actual data through well-examined methodologies to get past our own psychology.
Perhaps our greatest challenge as a society right now is that technology has perpetuated and encouraged all of these cognitive biases rather than fought against them. Confirmation bias lets us only see what we expect to see, frequency illusion allows us to feel like we’re discovering something novel about the world, the framing effect makes us feel like our in-group thinking is right so long as all new information is framed to fit, the illusory truth effect describes why we’ll begin to believe anything so long as we see/hear it enough times, declinism encourages us to see things as getting worse despite all evidence to the contrary. And cognitive dissonance ensures we’ll stop seeking out contradictory information because it makes us feel weird/bad.
Now go on to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever and realize that the algorithms deciding what you see are exploiting these cognitive biases to drive ad revenue. Playing to these biases gets you to stay longer, come back more frequently, and engage more often; which means they get to show you more ads and make more money. Truth be damned.
If you get fired up about the stupid thing Trump did today and start reading about it and posting about it then Facebook will make sure to show you more and more things like that whether they’re based in reality or not.
If you “know” refugee immigrants are destroying the country and make sure everyone on Facebook knows, then guess what “news” articles are going to show up in your feed. It will be articles about immigrants destroying the country regardless of veracity and you won’t even question the validity before frothing at the mouth about it because your cognitive biases are firing on all cylinders.
Let’s try an example.
Find me the quote where Trump says he’d like to put all Muslims in the United States into a registration database. Many people are sure he said it, but I couldn’t find it. The Washington Post (certainly not a pro-Trump publication) did the best they could to nail this down. Yes, he talked out the side of his mouth a bit and let people draw their own conclusions, but he never actually said, “I want to put them in a database,” or anything comparable. Also, yes, it would have been easy enough for him to denounce the idea entirely and he should have done so. But the discussion isn’t about what he didn’t denounce, it’s about what he said. And he didn’t say it.
If your reaction to reading the above is, “I didn’t know Kyle was a Trump supporter” then you’ve both proved what I’m talking about while completely missing the point yourself. I’m not. You’ve jumped from facts to interpretation. Pointing out that something did or did not happen does not make you for or against that thing. Back up a few paragraphs and try again.
I don’t know what the solution is as a society.
We need to learn to take a breath and step away for a while before responding to things that make us emotional. We need to reward news organizations that don’t focus their reporting on making us emotional. We need to learn to critically evaluate what we’re reading and hearing before responding. We need to accept that we will disagree with each other on topics we feel are really important. We need to understand that the person we disagree with is still a person. The other person may seem smug, arrogant, condescending, and infuriating, but we not only get nowhere by responding in kind we can also galvanize the “other side” in their position (see Backfire Effect).
Possibly the most important thing we all can do is be willing to accept the possibility (no matter how remote it may seem) that we may be wrong about something. When we become dogmatic in our beliefs we guarantee nothing will change.