Never Underestimate the Stupid in Powerful People

In Large Groups… Or something like that….

I’m going to take a few minutes away from my usual trafficking and irreverence to talk politics. Sorry, not sorry. One need only turn on the TV for affirmation that our society has lost its collective minds. The idea that our culture is under attack is not a stretch. But from whom?

In the 1950s, social scientist Solomon Asch, formulated an experiment to study the effects of peer pressure in large groups. The result was that, when faced with being the lone voice of dissent, most subjects adheared to patently wrong answers of peers. Asch tried varying versions to find that lynchpin scenario that kept people from going along with the crowd, but never found it. (Hence the failure of programs like DARE.) People were more likely to dissent if there was someone else doing it first, but those scenarios required substantial conditioning.

Twenty some odd years later, another social scientist [Stanley Milgram] wanted to test the boundaries of authority on normal people. How far would they go and how readily would they dish out inhumane treatment if assured it’s not their responsibility?  Milgram discovered that the color of authority, from his prestigious school and title had more to do with the maleability of normal people than the actual effects or consequences of the acts.  I strongly suspect this phenomenon informed the social justice campaigns of the era.

Imagine the impact of both phenomenon.  These authorities divest their audience of responsibility, introduce, then reinforce the counterintuitive ideaologies. Most people will go along with it while simultaneously assuming the others are conforming out of agreement. Dissent is actually quashed and negative feedback becomes a form of electroshock [that was only simulated in the experiments]. Students are then encouraged to become the enforcers.

In Asch’s experiments, he discovered that half of the subjects that conformed, did so, knowing they were wrong. The other half of conformists truly believed and defended their acquiescence to the group, in spite of evidence to the contrary. The people who consistently and fervently dissented were easily quieted from argument by labeling them deviant and subjugating their stance.

As I hinted earlier, these two studies gave birth to a host of similar studies and experiments that found that children are even easier to trick into trusting authority or conforming. Ever wondered why they stand in line for everything, are assigned seats, and are required to provide similar school supplies? Group compliance makes the dissenting children “deviants.”

So, fast forward to today. Nonconfomism is the in thing… as long as you also comply with the authority. We’ve spent years adhering and trusting authority. We view people in suits as more trustworthy or knowledgeable. Doctors are infallible. We presume college degrees are synonymous with knowledge. What was once argued as a fallacy of debate (call to authority) is now the basis of debate and defense against logical dissent. In fact, we’re so mired in the fight for conformity and compliance with our authority, that the topic of the discussion is of little real consequence.

The recent election is a prime example. Love or hate the outcome, no one has held the media accountable for prognosticating a Clinton victory. Nor have they been held accountable for any of their missteps. Michael Crichton called it years ago, when he went after the media for letting go of journalistic values, in favor of profit and sensationalism.  They get away with it, in large part, because they are viewed as authority and we’re programmed to avoid dissent. We might lash out at one side or another but the media is the greased pig in every debacle.

There are easily another dozen social scientists and psychologies we could draw from, to explain today’s climate, but I chose these two for good reason.  They support my opinion. See how that works? I also chose them, because they’re the basis for my following suggestions on how to combat rabid extremism in the left and right. If you think your side doesn’t have it, please reread the part where half of Asch’s subject didn’t think they were wrong.

1) Do not debate a group.  If you’re on social media, tell the person you’ll gladly have that duscussion via private chat.  If you’re at a party or family dinner, politely offer to take the person to coffee and discuss it one on one. If they ask why not now? Simply reply, “You don’t have to, we can go burn one outside if you like.”  The whole point of discussion is to communicate ideas. Removing the pressure of performance and embarrassment allows for more honest discourse.

2) Establish common ground to start. If your argument is religious in nature and your conversation mate is atheist,  obviously quoting the bible won’t work. When non-Catholics ask me why something is the way it is, I start with, “I can explain it, but we’d have to start with mutual agreement in the teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. ” That’s a show stopper. Have a reason based discussion planned or do not engage.

3) Fact check your sources. If you don’t read the studies I supplied, I’m talking to you.  Just because something seems reasonable and fits your narrative or worldview, doesn’t make it valid or true. I’ve seen some really compelling arguments for the Earth being flat, alien visitations, and shadow governments being operated by lizard people. These appeal to me, because the idea of humans being so evil makes me sad. I wish there were lizard people behind all this…. I bet you’re thinking it’s time to check my sources.

4) Stick to I statements and avoid detraction.  “John Smith is a racist.” Unless you’ve seen John Smith participating in a lynching or him saying, “Hi, I’m a racist.” Chances are, it’s detraction. Instead, say, “I have concerns about John Smith’s policies towards minorities based on….” Then provide source material. The media is not a source.

5) Guilt by asociation is real, but there are qualifiers first. Association is not synonymous with endorsement. Using the example above. Let’s say John Smith has been convicted of a hate crime against a minority. He sports all the tatoos and has a youtube channel exhorting the wonders of bigotry.  If he thinks my work is meaningful and he wants to help, that’s association. If I say, thanks but your support will hurt my mission and alienate key members of the community that I need. That’s a weak refusal, and may give the impression that I would welcome Mr. Smith’s support if it weren’t for those people. So, guilt by association would apply. If I say, “I’m  glad you agree that child exploitation of any race is a travesty and great evil, but I disagree with your ideaologies, and even feel they are part of the problem. I do not want them associated with my cause.”  That’s strong enough to say I don’t qualify for guilt by association.  There’s a big “but” here. I would be stupid not to continue the dialogue with that person, and try to bring him back from evil. That’s evangelization, not association. Just like a Christian talking to atheists, the discussion doesn’t diminish their beliefs.

6) Learn the meanings of the words you’re using. Muslim is not a race. It’s a religion. African American is an ethnicity, not a race. White is a race, not a nationality. Mexican is a nationality, not a language. Spanish is a language, not a culture.  Culture is where it gets tricky. Culture is influenced by all of these and geography, though it’s not limited by it. Texan is all of these, because we’re superior.  You can fact check that, it’s never been debunked. While we’re at it, theories are not facts. Medicine is not science. And politician is not a profession.

7) Don’t assume you know what the other person is going to say. Query your friend and find out the basis of their viewpoint. “Just so I know what we’re talking about, what do you believe?”  They’ll usually cover why, but if they don’t say, ask. Control your reaction and resist the urge to jump into debate.  Restate their opinion back, and make note of the bullet points. Do not resort to “you people” generalities. This is your friend, not “one of them.”
8) Remember that study? Half are believers, half are followers.  If they are a follower, you may find that their ideas are influenced by trauma, misinformation, or even misunderstanding. Their opinion will seem like spite, not reason. Attacking that, will lose the person and reinforce their position. If they are  believer, they will resort to ad hoc arguments and generalizations either regurgitating unverified reports or prognosticating unknowable “facts.”  For instance, “if we continue to do x, y, and z, the effects on the economy will be negative.” That’s prognostication and unknowable.

9) Know your subject matter and do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d like to explore that with you.”  If you don’t know your topic and engage in this exchange, without a willingness to be humble and honest about your knowledge-base, you will affirm the misinformation being spread.

10) Do not use weaponized empathy, emotionalism, lies, or stunts to make your case. If your perspective is reason based and supported by documented fact, there is no reason to resort to that.  If the other person does it, ask, “Do you have any facts or just your feelings?”

11) Agree to disagree is a good outcome. If the only thing the two of you accomplish is stating your perspectives, feeling out weaknesses in the other’s stance, and saying, “this has been interesting, I’d like to talk about it again, when we’ve both had time to think about what the other said.”  This demonstrates that neither side is the devil and civility is possible.

12) “They” want you to fail.  I usually discourage resorting to anonymous “they” but in this instance, it is vital to understand that there are truly people out there with a vested interest in watching us spiral into chaos and hatred. Who “they” are is another topic of debate, but regardless of whom you or I think it is, everyone can fight it, by following the above guidelines.

So, as I said, the two studies I supplied are barely scratching the surface. My hope is just to get you thinking about how the other side got to that point. I have been calling it “progressive cannibalism,” but I suspect the truth is more insidious.  Here’s links on how to have a good discussion, fight with a loved one, and types of logic fallacies that impede meaningful conversations.

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