Sunday, April 02, 2017

The White House of Blue Lies

How can you explain the connection between Homemade Hitler and his voters?  How can the continual lies be told and believed?

Those questions have haunted every political moment since at least the election.  Some social scientists believe they have the answer, which is somewhat enlightening, sort of common sense, and overblown, all at the same time.

It's all about what reinforces the identity of the group you belong to.  The echo chamber of views you all hear, talk about and subscribe to, from the people and outlets you trust to give you those views.  Your own misgivings or doubts don't count as much as the rewards of being acknowledged as a member of the group.  It's an emotional bond, it's a rush, the common laughter, the warmth of belonging.

One article I saw gave it all an evolutionary spin--the human social animal's survival depended on being included and valued within a specific group.  Anything that got you exiled could mean your doom.

Well, maybe.  But it's not hard to understand social pressure.  It was there in 50s suburbia and it was strange but fascinating for me to watch it unravel in the working class culture of western PA during Vietnam and Watergate.

Think also of conversations in the workplace.  Relationships and acceptance in a group depend on gossip about people not part of the group, or at least not there at that moment, as well as on more general outside topics.  In all these cases, the information that binds the group need not be true.  Gossip gets its bad name because a lot of it isn't true, and is often invented or believed because it's a good story, and everybody who shares it is in the devilish warmth of a conspiracy.  In the same way, stories about politicians and how politics works etc. are just different forms of gossip.

That's more or less the positive side: stuff that makes everybody feel good, because everybody agrees and will support each other in other ways, it is assumed.  But people are also united in anger, and that's become more common.

They are often people with a grievance, and they join together based on who and what they blame, and what they see as the solution.  This definition covers some ecological warriors as well as rabid righticans,  people who rant on the Internet and people who become terrorists.  Anger may be only one of their motivations but it's prime.

Anger is hard to sustain, so it must be fed with stories, and they might be true but they need not be true. The anger may begin with experiences and stories that are true, but that quickly expand to dubious and even outrageously false assertions. But they are accepted because they mostly must fit the pattern of what is already believed.  Like gossip--each new tidbit must be consistent with what is already believed.

This leads naturally to the theory of Blue Lies.  They are defined (in the words of this Scientific American article that links them directly to the White House) as "
a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group."

So there are white lies, which don't hurt anyone, and black lies, which are harmful to all.  Blue lies are told against a group that's not your own, but that support your group's beliefs.

This article again gives it that evolutionary explanation, and notes that researchers have found "that this kind of lying seems to thrive in an atmosphere of anger, resentment, and hyper-polarization."  (See what I mean about both overblown and Captain Obvious.)

But the important thing about blue lies is that the lies out of the White House aren't even meant to convince everybody--or very likely, you.  They are meant to garner favor and create credibility with particular groups.

None of this is actually new, not even the social science patina.  And like most social science truisms, the basic mechanisms are pretty familiar from novels and movies.  Even in politics, the Bush II propagandists were pretty clear about it, chiding the "reality-based community" for even thinking all of their stuff was meant for them.  It's about whose buttons to push.

It's not new but in the national public realm of the US (with a global audience) it's more extreme than ever.  It's gone from Reagan's hyperbole and glib fibs to escalating partisan nastiness to our apprentice dictator's obvious and extreme lies, his utter disregard for the truth.  The normal tests for truth that clash with the blue lies are just ignored as invalid and partisan.  But it doesn't matter, as long as the target group gets the message (and adversaries are thrown into burbling, helpless chaos and accusations of untruth that feed into the narrative of their partisan hostility.)  

There are still subtleties and complications, though.  On the minus side, there are the darker beliefs and prejudices and unconscious bias that bind groups, that might not be overt, but might be expressed say in the secret ballot.  On the plus side, there's the human capacity for contradiction.

In a much earlier time, psychologist Carl Jung (who never would make the kind of deterministic, blanket statements that today's psychologists do with their pretty flimsy and flawed information) derived two observations from studying the process of how a normal if precocious little girl figured out the facts of life, and having done so, merely added them to her own fantasy explanation of birth and death.

His first observation was the power of fantasy in the lives of humans of all ages.  Consider how much of our lives is devoted to fantasy and fantasy worlds, and our culture especially.  Our fantasy worlds themselves create a culture, a group that we belong to.  To a degree we could see these fantasy worlds include political parties.

 His second observation was that people could hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and find some way to reconcile them.  He cited as example some tribal peoples who knew very well how babies were made but insisted they were made in another way.

The theory of blue lies suggests that all facts are mere assertions that either please or displease members of a group, and accordingly are either true or false for that group.  This it has seemed to me for some time is the operating belief of Republicans, along with the belief that everyone in Washington is equally corrupt.

That facts as such may no longer exist really alarms people.  For it makes civilization impossible, let alone democracy.  Up until now, we have had accepted tests of what is a fact and what isn't.  Just as we have had accepted evidence of what is a crime.  One of these days I may rehearse what some of those tests are, as I understand them, since they may be slipping out of public consciousness.

But for the moment there are a couple of points to tie this all together.  As important as facts and reason are, they aren't everything.  There are values, beliefs, fantasies, aesthetics, a spiritual realm.  As well as what's bred in our bones from millions of years, and dancing in our unconscious.  Sometimes these facts and these fantasies or beliefs contradict each other in some sense.  Then we have decisions to make.

Sometimes we can reconcile them, even if it means living with a kind of contradiction.  But it also means that accepting new facts need not destroy everything.

There are plenty of stories about culture heroes--or even small, tragic figures--who asserted something that went against the crowd and were exiled, punished, sacrificed.  But then the crowd changed.

Groups do change, and facts can be part of that.  Blue lies become seen as lies. The process may be slow, and it may cause trauma.  What may yet happen to Homegrown Hitler is that he is seen as a traitor, a false messiah.  It may be happening now.  But I think the contradictions are growing, too.  Some people who say they don't believe in climate change,  may also believe in climate change, for example.  They may not say so yet.  But they may look at their leaders differently.  And they may, with their secret ballots, choose other ones.

Meanwhile, the White House of blue lies is also the White House of trying to save our asses lies, and when that becomes obvious, it's a different game.  It may take awhile, as it did in the Watergate era. But the regime seems already down to its core believers, so like a lot of things these days, it might not take long at all. Which in some ways may not be good, because without adequate preparation and a smooth way forward, when the dam breaks, it's chaos.      

No comments: