Monday, April 25, 2011

Reason To Believe

When people are attached to a falsehood, the emotional price of letting go of the lie is higher than the price of being seen by others as silly or wrong.
Amanda Marcotte "Why The Trig Palin Obsession?"
An interesting observation, to be sure, but I suspect that it's not quite accurate. First, the focus on falsehoods/lies is misleading. I doubt that you could find anyone who would claim to actively believe something that they know to be a falsehood and not also find some evidence of mental illness. Secondly, in a lot of cases, I suspect that we're not really talking about a solely emotional price.
If, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, well, that means the world is random, and the people who wield power or influence can screw up like everyone else. No one wants to believe that.
David Weigel "You're All Nuts!"
I think that David Weigel has it closer to the truth, although again, this is a broader phenomenon than simply conspiracy theories.

Under normal circumstances, we don't care what baggage people attach to the things that we consider true, but I could be just as adamant that the refraction of sunlight causes rainbows because there is another important concept bound up in that as I could be about the idea that Hurricane Katrina was triggered by a Russian weather-control superweapon or the Sendai earthquake was triggered by underground nuclear weapons testing. If I don't want to think that Mother Nature could simply get it into her head to drop an anvil on us, I'm not limited to linking that solely to falsehoods, lies and/or conspiracy theories.

The price of letting go of dearly held ideas is, as Amanda Marcotte points out, generally much "higher than the price of being seen by others as silly or wrong." And this is often because that price is, rather than just emotional, often nothing less than our sense of legitimacy. Now, there are a number of different ways to look at this, but you can see it in a number of places. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a reputation for being perhaps the world's most vocal Holocaust denier. But when I've heard (or heard of) him talking about the subject, you quickly realize that this isn't about whether or not some number of Jewish people were killed by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. It's about the legitimacy of the State of Israel. If you assume (and I think that this is President Ahmadinejad's reasoning) that the land upon which Israel sits was basically given to them as reparations for the Holocaust, if you debunk the Holocaust, then you undermine the reason for the land grant, and legitimacy reverts to the dispossessed Palestinians, whom President Ahmadinejad supports. And the stakes can, of course, go even higher, even going as high as one's life. True, the idea that it was humans building massive dams, and not Mother Nature, that triggered the 2008 Sichuan earthquake doesn't seem very comforting at first, but when you think about it, it points to the idea that if people just stopped monkeying with things, everything would be okay. And that can often seem like a superior alternative to the idea that every so often, the planet just twitches - and tens of thousands of lives are simply snuffed out without pity and with no way to prevent it.

These ideas, that disasters are random, that a small handful of religious fanatics living in caves somewhere can commit mass murder or even that the values that we hold dear aren't shared by the people around us, can be more frightening than those of us who are okay with such things generally give them credit for. It's worth keeping that in mind. Because if you don't either de-link or assuage the underlying idea, the "facts" to which it becomes attached aren't going anywhere either.

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