In this post-fact era, people frequently ask me and each other (and the stars in the sky), “How can people still keep believing in Trump when all he does is lie?”
There have been so many answers to this question. Social scientists and philosophers have asked similar questions for thousands of years. Why do people believe the things they believe, especially in the presence of contradictory facts? I have even seen academic studies pronouncing the differences between liberal and conservative reactions, and even brain structure. Even academics are fascinated by this problem.
However, it is not liberal vs conservative thought that I am obsessing over. It is the extremes to which people seem to be going in each direction these days. We all have our own values and we tend to gravitate to politicians and leaders who will enact policy to match them. It is a give and take and overall we end up with a reasonable system. The problems arise with extremism, in either direction, which causes problems. Unfortunately, we seem to be overrun by extremists just now.
To me, it all boils down to one thing. Childhood. Seriously. Most of us develop some sort of worldview during our childhood. Some of us experience some kind of trauma or time of serious questioning during adolescence or shortly thereafter that causes our worldview to shatter. We pick up the pieces and put things back together, often trying to reconcile whatever happened with our previous core beliefs. The more disillusioned we become, the less sure we are about anything. Nothing is quite as concrete after that. That is how a skeptic is born. Parents who shield their children from these types of questions are failing as parents.
The world changes. Civilizations change. Science reveals new theories or reveals proof (or disproof) of older ones. Thousands of years ago, one person’s lifetime may not have been long enough to see earth-shattering changes. In the last hundred or so, one could experience several before reaching adulthood. Understanding how to integrate the changes into our worldview, rather than trying to weaponize our worldview against every change, is an important life skill.
Learning to be flexible does not have to be traumatic, as it was for me. Parents can ease their children into rational adulthood by encouraging them to question things from an early age. Why do you think that? Can we do an experiment to see if that is true? What have other people who have studied the issue thought? Is that an opinion or a fact? What is the difference? (Some adults do not understand this, which is sad.)
It seems to me that the longer one goes in life without having their worldview shaken all the way down to the core beliefs, the more inflexible they become. The more they look for answers in the same book, or from the same set of authors, the more stagnant and solidified their beliefs become. The further they go in life being self-righteous and “Sure,” the more they depend on their beliefs for their self-worth. The more they depend upon their beliefs, the less likely they are to accept contradictory facts and try to re-shape their beliefs to fit reality. Instead, they try to shape reality to fit their beliefs, going back again to the same sources that formed their beliefs instead of looking outward for new ideas.
I have no patience with believers. When someone ignores any fact that disagrees with their beliefs, they live a life of hypocrisy. Not only that, but belief without facts to back them up can make people vulnerable to all kinds of propaganda. Once you get in the habit of ignoring the truth, it becomes easier and easier. Once you decide to only listen to a certain sources, those sources can tell you anything.
It occurs to me that this solidifying of belief systems may be why the farthest groups on both the left and the right tend toward authoritarianism. When your beliefs become so solidified that they can no longer be questioned, it becomes almost logical to look for a leader who will enforce those views on everyone. The only difference is that the right tends toward fascism and the left tends toward communism, but both ultimately end in authoritarianism of some sort once they go far enough into the realm of “belief”.
Take any belief to its furthest extreme and it becomes distorted, dangerous. Right now in the US, we have two groups of extremists battling for control. The the far (“christian”) right has the reins just now, but the far left is attempting to strike back. Those of us who are more moderate in our views are caught in the middle.