The Desire to Believe

23:56 Tue 05 Oct 2010
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Apparently quite a few people believed last year that the Obama administration really was going to seriously try to get a public option included in the health care bill—and, further, continued to believe that they had tried to do so even after no such option appeared. It is now quite clear that this was, so say the least, naive.

What about the desire to believe, though? In the linked article, Glenn Greenwald notes that the column he wrote at the time about Obama’s lack of commitment to the public option generated vast amounts of intense hate mail. Clearly there were many people who really wanted to believe, and who objected strenuously to Greenwald’s attempt to puncture their bubble.

Some of it, presumably, is due to tribal affiliation, with those identifying as “Democrats” defending the Democratic President. I suspect that’s not quite all of it; I suspect that a lot of the defenders were in such denial because they were clinging to hope, the hope that Obama, such a symbolically potent figure, would actually deliver meaningful results, and change the country in ways that were obviously for the better—in this particular case, change for the better something that is so evidently badly broken about the USA: its appalling approach to health care. In reaction to blatant injustice, many people fervently hoped that, in at least this one arena, the right thing would be done.

That fervent hope, it would appear, led them to loud denial of Greenwald’s factually-based analysis.

How is this denial different from the delusions that the “Tea Partiers” have? It’s quite something to see such opposite fantasies woven around the same figure by the two sides: the far-right claim to believe that Obama is a “socialist Muslim”; the left (not far left, really) seem to think he’s an honest man dedicated to the greater good and unbeholden to special interests and the agenda of the ruling elite. The evidence seems clear that neither of these things are true, but one of them faces more ridicule than the other.

Admittedly disillusionment in Obama has grown, but that’s partly temporal—go back a year, and the fervent belief was quite evident.

You could claim that the “socialist Muslim” thing is more divergent from reality, and that might be true, but is a difference in degree, not kind. The other distinction you could draw is that one side is trying hard to believe in something that they think is terrible, while the other side is trying hard to believe in something they think is good. Fear versus hope.

Is self-delusion, denial, and vitriolic defense of that delusion/denial more defensible when undertaken out of hope rather than fear? Broadly speaking, perhaps, in a moral sense, although you’re still avoiding the truth and distorting the information available to you (which I consider to be morally wrong, although that belief of mine is an axiom of my worldview and not something I can necessarily defend arguing from some other “first principles”). Even so, however, once you bring that into the political arena—which means into any political discussion—then you’re shirking your responsibilities.

Politics, in the broad sense, is how we humans distribute power. It’s other things too, but leaving that as its core, it should already be evident that it’s pretty important. To everyone, even those who attempt to evade its reach. Due to this importance, we are each duty-bound to attempt to do our best regarding it—and by this I do not mean reading the papers and voting; I mean figuring out our own position and then deciding how much we want to fight for it.

Everyone does that anyway, right? Not really; it has to be done with some fucking effort. We’re all quite bad at it, as humans. We’re given to many, many, forms of poor thinking and prejudice. But we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow humans to at least do our best. Not fucking around believing (or pretending to believe) obvious bullshit because it makes us feel better. Feel better deluding yourself about other things, on your own time—not when you’re making decisions (or influencing decisions) that affect a lot of other people. And thanks to network effects, your views do affect other people.

To make choices about important shit, we’re short on tools that actually work. But we do have reason. We’re not very good at applying it, but it’s all we’ve got. Are emotions important? Yes, in two main ways: to generate basic principles (reason doesn’t care about the good of others, but compassion does) and to generate motivation for change (reason doesn’t do that either, but anger can). In both cases, reason needs to be applied before decisions based on the emotions are made. Or it does if you care about making good decisions.

If you don’t, that’s fine too, in a way. Just admit it. And when you talk about your views, be clear about that. Say things like, “I don’t give a shit about making good decisions, but I like the warm fuzzy feelings I get from believing [ridiculous thing X]”.

Actually, I may start internally prefacing all political statements of any kind with that line.

Including, perhaps, my own. But (thanks to the wonders of introspection, which of course none of you can see) I do at least know that I make a fucking effort. And I know that I, too, am suffering from the delusion that I’ve won the ”Magical Belief Lottery”, but I do try to factor that into my thinking when I try to deal with politics.

This has turned into far more of a rant than I’d intended. I should note, too, that this isn’t a rant against hope, nor against the concept that political progress can be made. Even if my cynicism can often blind me to the real possibility of small gains because I’m too discouraged by the larger picture, I still think hope is necessary. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post. But not “hope” as the bullshit claims for “the power of positive thinking”. I just think that hope has to be the hope that we can figure out what’s really going on and what the best thing to do is—and not the hope that some fucking “leader” will show up and do it for us.

As for what to do right now, well, the mention of health care has reminded me to go give money to Arthur Silber.

One Response to “The Desire to Believe”

  1. Will Says:

    Powerful writing Tadhg,

    Do you read Ben Goldacre’s column? I was impressed with his most recent post, on emotion distorting rational outcomes: http://www.badscience.net/2010/10/empathys-failures/

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