Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against the truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.
— Pascal, Pensées
The news has a distinct physiological affect on me, personally. The abundant hot takes, clickbait, and senastionalized headlines tend to cause me a great deal of stress. That’s why I quit reading and watching all news media for a stretch of about two years starting in 2014 — and it felt as if my life, or at least my health as it related to my stress level, was improving. This was before “alternative facts,” but not quite before confounding conspiracy theories began to surface in mainstream society courtesy of outlets like Infowars, and certainly before the alt-right came to cast a shadow over what was typically considered alternative as it relates to the mainstream.
Even then, it seemed to me that mainstream progressive ideals were being squashed, in a very effective way. Trust in the government and every part of the existing establishment was beginning to erode. The United States and the world at large were becoming more polarized — more extreme in our views and language. Harsh critiques of the Capitalist establishment were rightfully beginning to emerge in the mainstream. With all of that, gray areas were being overlooked, and the public was beginning to align their views with extremes. We began to see a continuing rise of populism — after all, populism can survive only amid polarization.
The truth is increasingly harder to spot, especially when that truth threatens to go against personal feelings and beliefs. To combat this, communicators seem to have doubled down on intensifying appeal to emotion and fighting bias, rhetoric and propaganda with more of the same.
But if the left wants to hold the mainstream media and right wing media accountable to the truth, it would be wise to make a conscious effort to shine a spotlight on the actual issues and the gray areas that exist. To combat bias, rhetoric and propaganda in the media, we must hold ourselves accountable to rising above it and not respond in kind.
What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable beliefs.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Beliver p. 79
I have many personal interestests, but none as great as my interest in people. One can tell a lot about people through what they believe. It is our beliefs that make up our worldviews, and understanding the worldview of another is the key to understanding what motivates them. Through years of being fascinated by and researching cults and religions across the globe, it has always been clear to me that we are all succeptible to the tenets that make movements grow and become a force in society, including conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.” I, myself, have always believed that we are all human — that no matter our natural or learned ability to think critically, we are not infallible. Behavioral economics, behavioral psychology and neuroscience serve to shine a light on ways in which we fail to make logical decisions, make decisions that are not in our own interest, as well as confirm to ourselves our own ingrained biases. When we are focused on winning, on being correct, then this makes perfect sense. To combat confirmation bias, then, it only seems natural to seek out alternative views and opinions to our own.
But when those alternative views and opinions are fallacious, or as inherently biased as those we already hold, we’re still neglecting to lead ourselves to the factual truth. This suggests that accountability should be shared equally by the public and all those who would present and spread information via all corners of the media and online.
The fanatical Communist refuses to believe any unfavorable report or evidence about Russia, nor will he be disillusioned by seeing with his own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land.
It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith … manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move. And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer p. 79-80
The truth lies in gray areas. It is gray areas that force us to let go of doctrine and begin to think freely enough to piece together a puzzle that more closely reveals what is really going on. Gray areas help us to arrive at conclusions that are more sound. But gray areas don’t help communicators to advance biased points of view or appeal to emotion as easily as forcing others into black and white thinking can.
I thought, for a long time, that encouraging people to share stories and induce empathy was the key to resolving conflict, and creating peace and understanding. This is done through sharing personal stories that show vulnerability and another’s emotional as well as physical reality. But in an environment where everyone feels bombarded by false truths, seeking empathy only backfires. Rather than drawing validation, it becomes that appeal to emotion critical thinkers and true believers alike hunker down against. Sharing stories in an attempt to seek empathy looks like an attempt to force heart above mind, and makes manipulators out of those seeking to connect in a more profound way to win hearts and minds. In an age where Photoshop may be used to easily misrepresent photographic evidence and the public knows it, even tangible proof risks becoming just as intangible as one’s emotions.
Do not seek Adolf hitler with your brains; all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts.
— Rudolph Hess, when swearing in the entire Nazi party in 1934
Adapted from Konrad Heiden, Der Fuehrer p. 758
How, then, do we work to create a society where the truth is valued without losing our empathy — where both heart and mind factor equally into our conclusions and decisions?
In The True Beliver, Hoffer notes through the writings of French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian, Blaise Pascal, the apparent connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and being vulnerable to the tendency to be too ready to believe that something is real or true:
The urge to escape our real self is also an urge to escape the rational and obvious … The refusal to see ourselves as we are develops a distaste for facts and cold logic … The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and lead.
He also notes an association between believing and lying that is childlike in nature but not limited to children:
The inability or unwillingness to see things as they are promotes both gullibility and charlatanism.
As with so many questions regarding change, I believe the answer lies within. True, lasting change comes about when we, ourselves, make the conscious effort — not when we seek to control those whom we wish to change. It is only when the left can begin to stop lying to ourselves about who we are and that we are being lead to fight fire with fire — combat bias, rhetoric and propaganda with more of the same to spread a version of the truth, often leaving out the gray areas, rather than the truth itself — that we will begin to effect change based on honesty and guided by the very principles of community we seek to instill in individualists. It is only when the story becomes less about winning and more about truth that we will begin to see real change.
And I believe the public is hungry for it — this honest version of change based on the truth.