There’s a lot of talk on the Internet right now about confirmation bias.
I’ve put a lot of effort into looking “outside my bubble,” or outside my circle of confirmation bias. I’m actually pretty good at talking with people from the “other side” of various issues. It isn’t that hard — at least, not after nearly forty years of (professionally) trying to suspend confirmation bias long enough to dig out what is really causing a piece of software to malfunction.
But when it comes to the so-called conservative/liberal divide, while I can go through all the same steps, when I get to the bottom — well, it’s more work, because people are evasive in ways that hardware and software are not, and in the end, it’s always a bitter disappointment.
One example in particular stands out in my mind. I wrote something, and a reasonably articulate fellow called me a fool and a lot of other things, including a “typical liberal.” I engaged him in conversation: real conversation. I asked questions. Lots of questions. I did not challenge the truth of anything he said. I asked him to clarify things I didn’t understand. I repeated back what I thought he had said, in my own words, and allowed him to correct me. I really tried to gain a coherent understanding of his point of view.
In the end, I succeeded.
He offered the key by volunteering that, really, the basis for what he was saying was that he believed in Satan as a literal manifestation of pure evil, and that Satan was in control of the President of the United States.
If what he believed about Satan was true, then his conclusions were not entirely unreasonable. I understood his point of view.
Of course, if what he believed about Satan was not true, then his conclusions were bat-shit crazy.
I write a little fiction, mostly sci-fi and urban fantasy, and a big part of world-building is starting from bizarre premises — say, telepathic dragons at the top of a food chain that includes humans — and working your way through to what human society would look like under those conditions. Would we even bother to build cities? Would we live underground? Would we sacrifice virgins and worship the Great Worms, or would we fight against them, or would we just shrug and say, “Well, at least he didn’t eat me,” and go on about our business?
So yes, I can absolutely go there: a world where Satan really exists and controls whoever gets into the Office of the President. It’s actually kind of an interesting premise.
But is it real?
Seriously. It’s not real.
Satan does not control the President of the United States, though the next-best-thing, Monsanto, has inordinate influence. But Monsanto is not actually Satan. They have chemists working for them, not imps, for God’s sake. And no pentacle or hexagram or binding spell or prayer of any sort will limit the destruction that neonicotinoids wreak on honey bee populations.
“But how do you know it’s not true?” the true believer asks. The answer is that, if it were true, it wouldn’t work out the way it has.
I’ve just read Fred Clark’s The Anti-Christ Handbook. Fred is a devout Evangelical, and he has deemed the book, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the worst book ever written. I haven’t read Left Behind — I got over my interest in Rapture porn back in the 1970’s, and really don’t want to go there again, ever. But after reading Fred’s passage-quotes from the book and his hilarious chapter-by-chapter analysis — call it Mystery Apocalypse Theater 3000 — I have to concur with him. Left Behind has to be the worst book ever written.
I don’t know how Left Behind ever got published, much less go on to become one of the biggest best-sellers of all time. The writing itself is … well, “putrid” is entirely too timid a word, and “horrific” conjures images of something far more interesting than the writing deserves. It’s just bad writing. Really bad writing. But in the end, as Fred points out, the single thing that Left Behind accomplishes, and does quite well, is to establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the Premillennial Dispensationalist Rapture and the events supposedly prophesied to follow could never, ever happen. The Rapture might — the fantasy-writer in me allows for that — but it would set into motion a chain of events that would render every subsequent “prophecy” completely impossible.
It’s like writing a story where you say, “On Thursday, aliens blew the planet Earth to smithereens. <new paragraph> The next morning, John was irritated that his bus, the 14th-Street crosstown, was a full ten minutes late, and he had a very important presentation for a prospective new client.”
We can suspend our disbelief in aliens long enough to accept the premise that they might blow the Earth to smithereens on a Thursday morning. But if they do, John is not going to be “irritated” that his usual bus is late, much less ten minutes late — implying that it’s still running its route, despite the fact that the East end of 14th Street now sticks out about ten feet into the vacuum of outer space. Assuming John has survived at all, the last thing on his mind will be impressing a potential client who is most likely a charred corpse floating, frozen, in an independent orbit around the sun. If a bus ever shows up, it will be something like ten billion years late and driven by something with six arms, and John won’t be around for that.
This story about Satan controlling the President isn’t true, because it doesn’t make any sense. What’s Satan doing up there? Biding his time, setting the stage for his Big Get-Down Evil Plan by — bwa-ha-ha — providing federal medical insurance exchanges for families? Right.
Even applied to Dick Cheney, one of my favorite candidates for an avatar of pure evil in US politics, it doesn’t make any sense.
I’ve grown tired of trying to make any sense of the modern conservative point of view, because every time I’ve tried, I’ve eventually hit a point where I hear that Satan controls the President, or something even more bizarre. I’m tired of venturing into those waters, and trying to understand the crazy.
I no longer think there’s anything out there but the crazy.
So I’m going to stay in a bubble of not-crazy, and call it good.