Many have noted how public policy discourse in America has become bogged down in lies. Where there was once a debate about pros and cons of various policy options or candidates, today we have a war of words where right-leaners make bizarre and deceptive claims without shame and also without being effectively exposed and discredited. Death-panels, Obama-as-Muslim, climate-warming-isn’t-real, women-who-use-contraception-are-bad – the list is long.
What is strange is how successful this strategy has been. Even when the misinformation is contested and challenged, exposed and refuted, so many Americans choose to swallow it all anyway, voting against their own interests, electing politicians who actually make things worse than better. Why would people live in the age of smartphones, the Web 2.0, driverless cars, and artificial intelligence – how can they be so willing to become partners in their own deception?
Explanations used to be given as poor education, but it has become clear that the problem is deeper. Chris Mooney has pointed out that the more educated a person is in the conservative world, the more likely he is to embrace misinformation and become an active participant in his own self-deception.
Charles Simic and others talk about willful ignorance, where we have a cultural norm for people to make decisions about what is true and real based on coded language by conservative political and religious leaders. The words “ignorance” and “self-deception” are used more and more now to describe this phenomenon.
Certainly, there is a group-think problem happening (psychologists have long documented people saying the most obviously false things if they perceive others around them believe it). So group-think is helping, but there is more to it than that.
I think Phil Rockstroh writes very eloquently about the heart of the matter in his essay about Self-Deception in southern states, where he talks about people being essentially afraid to admit that beliefs they have worshiped for years (in this case, the promise of capitalism) are not true. They have hitched their own egos, their own sense of identity to these beliefs so much so, that it is unbearable for them to consider letting go, because they perceive such a release as a threat to their very identities, to their very selves, to their very existence. (Of course, this is false – they would still be themselves without their jobs or beliefs, and could recreate themselves in any number of ways – but fear is a strong motivator and something we humans are very good at, a capacity we have been cultivating for millennia.)
There is a decline happening in America – the rich are getting far richer than ever before, the rest are getting poorer, with less access to education, healthcare, capital, and opportunities. This decline in buying power and living power is felt by everyone, and most strongly by those who have lost the most so far – working-class people, and rural southerners. So there is a strong trigger to the fear, and it is easily used by opportunists and charismatic fearfuls.
When people suffer, it’s natural to look for something to blame, and often, people misplace that blame. Until people take responsibility for their own role and their own choices, they will see themselves as victims, and will seek out external objects to blame – blacks, women, gays, immigrants, poor people, and the government. It seems counter-intuitive to blame the very institution that has maintained as much fairness as exists in the market (the government) or blame those who are vulnerable rather than the powerful who have dismantled market mechanisms to ensure fairness (gov. regulations), but when one sees oneself as a victim rather than a co-participant in the decline, one is already half-way down the road of self-deception. (The truth is that when one does wake up and take responsibility, there are so many options for betterment and change.)
It’s also a particular world-view that everything is an inherent hierarchy and competition, where those “beneath” me should stay down and those “above” me should be worshiped so that I might one day be allowed to climb up to their level. Until one recognizes that everyone’s fortunes actually rise and fall together, it is hard for people to let go of the fear and the hate.
So it isn’t so much ignorance, but a belief in negativity that is at the heart of the problem. Right-wingers have a very negative view of themselves, other people, and the world. “Life is short, brutish, and cruel”, “Other people are mostly obstacles to my success”, etc. This negativity is a belief-system that goes hand-in-hand with religious beliefs that condemn and judge people for never being good enough or having ‘original sin’.
So it is not the thinking (or lack of it – ignorance, education, etc.), instead it is the feelings that people have that are at the core of this incredible mass self-deception. Thus, no matter of logic or argumentation will sway these conservatives, since it is a matter of emotions they are mostly not even aware of having. And since their feelings are so much beneath the level of awareness, their rationalizations to themselves and to the public often make no logical sense. (i.e., Judge Kennedy justifying the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of allowing police strip-searches of anyone arrested by saying that Timothy McVeigh was originally only arrested on a traffic violation – as if strip-searching him would have brought his terror plans to light.)
So the core problem is at the level of unconscious negative feelings – a world-view of fearfulness and a self-view of victim-hood. Once we can recognize that as the real issue, we can consider how to address it in effective ways, but not before. It is natural to be incredibly frustrated by the incredible disregard for truth and the desire to control and manipulate and destroy reality. However, if we want positive change, we need to accept that the challenge becomes how to address the fear and anger and unconscious emotion that is fueling the willful ignorance.