Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Brain

One benefit, if that's the right word, of using social media is that they bring me into fairly direct interaction with people who are ignorant, misinformed, and don't think very well.  Over the years I've been rather spoiled by reading the work of people who work hard to inform themselves, do their best to think critically, and do a pretty good job of it, at least within the pages of their published writing.  I've also exposed myself to media from a variety of positions, so while I'd hardly claim to be the most informed person on the planet, I'm better informed than most people I talk to.

So it's not surprising that when I've had a discussion with people who not only haven't read much or thought much or ranged beyond the corporate media for news, but who have actively sought to shut out of their awareness anything but Fox News or or WorldNewsDaily (or Occupy Democrats or Daily Kos), I've been baffled.  I've been asking myself just how much thinking it's fair to demand from people.  As much as I demand of myself, I suppose, but that seems to set the bar much higher than I realized for a long time.

I remind myself that I've arranged my life so as to leave plenty of room for reading and thinking and learning.  People who chose to raise families, who've had demanding jobs that took time away even from spending time with their families, have a legitimate excuse for not pasturing their souls.  Still, I don't think I (or anyone else) is obligated to respect or take seriously the opinions of people who haven't bothered to inform themselves or consider alternatives.

It's a popular notion that people aren't equally gifted intellectually, and I try to bear that in mind.  The doctrine "All men are created equal" is dismissed lightly, mostly it seems by people who assume themselves to be in the superior ranks; again, they don't seem to have reached that conclusion by examining evidence, they just take it for granted.  Yet I find that if I dismiss such people's misinformed, irrational opinions, they indignantly appeal to egalitarianism: Everybody's entitled to their opinion!  My opinion is as good as yours! You're just a smart-aleck know-it-all, you think you're better than everybody else!  It's not really elitism. however, to say that some opinions are worth less than others, and indeed many aren't worth a damn.  (This is where I part company with someone like Noam Chomsky when he says "It is not possible to respond to opinions," especially when he then proceeds to discuss how you can respond to opinions.  Yes, debating opinions is messy and difficult, but so is debating arguments, which Chomsky thinks is possible.)  I think it's significant that people who insist that every opinion is as good or another don't extend that dogma to other people's opinions (mine, for example). 

Politics and religion are probably the most vexed areas for this.  I've come to realize that partisans, whether of Obama or Clinton or Trump, don't care about reasons or factual accuracy where their heroes are concerned.  It's probably not a complete waste of time to show why Donald Trump is a liar, a racist, or a corrupt thug, but it won't have much effect on his supporters, who mostly like his lies, racism, and corruption.  The same is true of Hillary Clinton's supporters.  (And of Obama, but he's old news now.)  On one hand they prefer to be uninformed about her record, but when it gets right down to it they mostly agree with her destructive, warmongering foreign policy history, her corporatist economic policy, and her support for structural racism in the drug war and the private prison system.  Dishonesty and irrationality go with electoral politics like a horse and carriage.  Besides, half of the population is below average, so we must have a meritocracy: our elites have never led us wrong before.

There are other takes on the problem, and all this is preamble to one of them.  Someone I know shared this meme on Facebook yesterday.
He remarked, "... sorry about my many deeply bigoted friends. i suppose they're doing the best they can to get by in a deeply crazy time and place."

I commented, "I can love my neighbor while disapproving strongly of her religion or other beliefs. I disapprove of all religions. This meme reeks of 'Some of my best friends are,' which is one of the Seven Warning Signals of Bigotry."

He responded, "on disapproving of religions. i hate their hierarchies... not their believers (the sin, not the sinner, as one tires of hearing). the believers generally seem to be honestly trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand. when all they have to say is some stuff i've known about since grade-school, it can... it does... become tiresome very quickly. but, with some good faith on both sides, sometimes i can get something out of such a discussion (namely, a chance to tell them something about my life; nothing in social life with one's clothes on can match the feeling of being listened to with attention)."

I replied:
"Hierarchies" are only part of religion, and they are not limited to religion anyway. My objection to religions is that they are false, hierarchies or no. And I didn't say anything about "hate," which is a meaningless buzzword and a sign of bad faith.

"the believers generally seem to be honestly trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand." Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but once it becomes clear that they are not interested in discussing in good faith, I tune them out. There's nothing wrong with that; life is short. Bad faith and dishonesty are part of human nature, but I'm not obligated to pretend that they're anything but spinach, and I say the hell with it.

The same is true of science cultists and conspiracy theory mongers. They too are trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand, but I'm not obligated to pretend that they're either right or honest. We're not children anymore, and there's no obligation to pretend that the crayon scrawl that's supposed to be a superhero looks like anything but random lines. For a five year old, of course; for a thirty-year-old and up, no.
I hadn't really thought about the condescension in his remarks about his "deeply bigoted friends," but it's definitely there.  For whatever reasons, he sees them with a patronizing contempt.  I added that he should extend the same indulgence to the shadowy overlords who control our thoughts with their media machine (my allusion to "conspiracy theory mongers" was directed at him).  Of course the same accusation might be directed at my analogy to children's drawings, but I don't think it's just.  It's my friend who was infantilizing his "deeply bigoted friends."  I -- we all -- expect adults to do better than random crayon scrawls.  There's certainly no reason I can see to pretend that their misinformed, wildly irrational opinions are as good as anyone else's.

One point that I consider revealing is his bit about "their hierarchies... not their believers (the sin, not the sinner, as one tires of hearing)".  The believers are beside the point for me: it's their beliefs.  In practice it's not so easy to distinguish between them, since people are apt to identify themselves with their beliefs, and contrary to "generally seem to be honestly trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand," many believers revel in their bad faith.  I'm not talking only about your schlub in the street, but about educated and sophisticated thinkers.

I can see that my acquaintances, both far-right wing and center-right plus not a few of the lefties, have no idea how to proceed when someone disagrees with them.  From both positions I've been attacked for criticizing what they post.  For them to post something racist, inflammatory, or generally dishonest is exercising their sacred First Amendment rights; for me to disagree with them is to violate their freedom.  I've also been accused semi-teasingly (presumably a "microaggression"), usually by liberals, of "stirring the pot," of just saying what I say to "stir things up."  This is flagrantly patronizing, and I've slapped those people down without compunction.

Are my acquaintances, most of whom are in their fifties at least, too old and set in their ways to learn to think critically?  I don't know how to answer that question.  I don't believe one is ever too old to learn; age is not an excuse.  Be that as it may, I'm old and set in my ways too.  But at least aged bigots, having apparently led sheltered lives, need to be confronted with opposition when they blurt out their bigotry.  Their families may have to let their poisonous views pass, but I don't have to.

I've long suspected that many people love social media because they can jeer at people they think they hate from a safe distance; that their targets might talk back is unthinkable to them.  (Has anyone else noticed how many people will respond to material about a celebrity by stating their love and devotion to the celebrity directly in comments, though the material wasn't posted by the celebrity or her spokespeople?  It's like yelling at your TV in the belief that Dumpf or Hitlery will hear you.)  When one of their targets does talk back, they're flummoxed.  Like most people, they have no idea how to proceed from the point of disagreement.  Come to think of it, since they're not interested in questioning their loyalties and beliefs anyway, I guess there is no way to proceed.  And where would they have learned to think critically in the first place?  The Right has always treated the teaching of critical thinking in school as a threat to civilization, along with the Jews and gay marriage.

The question of 'media brainwashing' is important too.  The media would like to think they can affect opinion, even to manufacture and control it, but this is false advertising much of the time.  Sometimes they pander to opinions already held (jingoism, religion, partisanship, racism) and can intensify them somewhat, but rarely for long; giving them credit for the opinions seems like giving them credit for the rising of the sun because they printed the time of sunrise in advance.  It's a less persuasive claim now of all times, when Trump and Sanders have confounded our wise rulers in politics and the media.  Despite a relentless flood of apocalyptic propaganda, it appears that English voters mostly favor leaving the European Economic Community.  And so on.  Nothing inspires panic in an elite like the realization that the proles are disobeying orders, and they often do, for better and worse.  I often ask those who talk about media brainwashing how they managed to resist it; I've yet to get an answer.

In the end, shadowy overlords or no shadowy overlords (I don't think they're shadowy at all, if you bother to pay attention, but it's comforting to think of yourself as one of the few who can see what the Sheeple can't), we are responsible for what we take from the media, the pronouncements of our politicians.  No one can know everything, of course, but it's possible to apply the basics of critical thinking (summaries by Deborah Meier and Walter Kaufmann quoted in this post) and start asking sensible, relevant questions.  Then it's necessary to recognize that one might be wrong, and to pay attention to differing views until you've evaluated them.  (Whining that someone is making a career out of picking on your beliefs, that they're just a smart-aleck trying to stir things up, is not an acceptable substitute.  I don't believe I've ever done that myself, at least not since the age of six; when someone corrects me, I check the correction, and admit my error if I have made one.  Most of my friends do not.)  What to do from there is another problem, harder to answer, but the same critical tools can help.