His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.
-George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”
To those of you thoughtful (or at least conscious) enough to recognize the process described above, you probably have asked the same question I have: How do people who, for the most part, seem outwardly rational and functioning members of society, believe some of the political or religious ideology that has been spoon-fed to them? Many of the ideas espoused by extremists of all stripes are demonstrably false, so how can people go on believing them?
As far back as 1956, behavioural scientists have published studies dealing with this question – that year, Leon Festinger published When Prophecy Fails, a book that described the reactions of individuals faced with the by now quite common phenomenon of the world continuing on without ending. The individuals were members of an apocalyptic cult who had given away all of their belongings and waited upon the figurative mountaintop for the end of the world, which never came. How did these people deal with the fact that their beliefs, and the actions that followed their beliefs, had been proven unequivocally incorrect? Surprisingly, the cult members’ beliefs intensified, and they began proselytizing even more fervently.
This phenomenon was described by Festinger and his co-investigators as a type of cognitive dissonance, which occurs under specific circumstances:
1. The belief must be held with deep conviction and be relevant to the believer’s actions or behavior.
2. The belief must have produced actions that are difficult to undo.
3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and concerned with the real world such that it can be clearly disconfirmed.
4. The disconfirmatory evidence must be recognized by the believer.
5. The believer must have social support from other believers.
So to create the increased fervor, the members of the group must actually recognize that the evidence is against them. The social support of the other believers is crucial to the continuance of faith in what has clearly been disproven.
So, let’s apply this to those that myself and other authors here on the ‘Kog often find ourselves at odds with: Tea Partiers, religious fanatics, Conservatives, conservatives (note size of ‘c’), climate/evolution/science deniers, racists, alt med zealots, and so on. Our frustration in large part comes not from the fact that people have a particular belief; that’s their right in a democracy and none of us would have it any other way. The frustration arises (for me, at least) from the individuals’ dogged adherence to beliefs and customs that have been clearly shown through evidence to be non-productive, simply false, or even patently absurd – no amount of discussion or clarification will budge them from their metaphoric hilltops. As long as they have the security of knowing that others share their beliefs, they can cover themselves in that fact as with a warm blanket and weather any storms we may visit upon them.
Kinda makes you think, don’t it? Considering this over the past few days, I have recognized my own tendency to dig my heels in and push when encountering opposition; recognized also my quite literal anger at people who refuse to change their minds despite whatever evidence I may bring to bear. I have realized that I will quite clearly never change their minds or cause them to alter their behaviour one bit, just as their arguments won’t change me in the least. Engaging with the zealot on his own terms requires you to become a zealot, to attack the individual and react emotionally to the ‘ignorance’ you must crusade against. I have personally seen this in myself, and walked away grumbling from my computer, my day ruined by my ideological opposite number who has drawn me into reacting emotionally.
But, no more – evidence is evidence, and truth is truth despite some people’s objections to it. Some acts are just and some are unjust, and some ideologies deserve the time and energy that can be committed to teaching and learning different perspectives… And some, as much as my brain craves closure and victory, are not. The secret to creating and maintaining an online persona that carries some weight and the appearance of validity, as I see it, is recognizing the difference. Some people cannot and will not be convinced, so wasting the effort to try is folly. So, I shall no longer feed the trolls. I expect my blood pressure will be better overall as a result.
If you are so motivated, I’d love to hear some discussion of your experiences in the comments. I want this to be the start of a great conversation, not the end.