Gregory Rodriguez has an excellent article at the Los Angeles Times about the nature of conspiracy theories and why people believe them.
The real truth is that, as weird as they are, rumors and conspiracy theories can only thrive in the minds of people who are predisposed to believe them. Successful propagators of fringe theories don’t just send random balloons into the atmosphere. Rather, they tap into the preexisting beliefs and biases of their target audiences.
Plenty of studies have shown that people don’t process information in a neutral way — “biased assimilation” they call it. In other words, rather than our opinions being forged by whatever information we have available, they tend to be constructed by our wants and needs. With all their might, our minds try to reduce cognitive dissonance — that queasy feeling you get when you are confronted by contradictory ideas simultaneously. Therefore, we tend to reject theories and rumors — and facts and truths — that challenge our worldview and embrace those that affirm it.
This is true for all of us, including me. I try to be very cautious when confronted with news stories that fit my world view a little too neatly, although I’m fooled occasionally. Sometimes I have seen others on the Left supporting “facts” that turn out to be unfounded. However, I think most of us on the leftie blogosphere have a healthy enough dose of skepticism about everything that we are not fooled much.
For example, if anything, I see more “Obama is just as bad as Bush” on the Left than “Obama is perfect.” I don’t see anyone saying he’s perfect.
But the other truth is that most of the Right is living in fantasyland. And they’re too far gone, too invested in the fantasies, to be reasoned with. I stopped trying to engage them in conversation years ago. My chief concern, beyond offering comfort and solace to the sane, is to try to reach the not-crazy but not well-informed who don’t know what to think. There must be a few such people out there, somewhere.
It doesn’t help that we can’t get straight information from news media, or that it’s rare for a television or radio “anchor” to attempt to sort fact from fiction. And it certainly doesn’t help that large chunks of what passes for “news media” are entirely given over to generating lies and rumors. Old-media journalists still blame the Internet for the misinformation, but often investigation into the real “story behind the story” is prompted by Web journalists like Josh Marshall. Otherwise, stories like the U.S. Attorney scandal would have slid by entirely unnoticed.
And, unfortunately, sometimes facts do no good.
Ronriguez cites a 2004 study in which people representing a spectrum of political views were shown facts that proved or disproved their beliefs. People whose worldview was contradicted by facts (in this case, righties) rejected the facts and held on to their worldviews even more tightly. This has been my experience with trying to “reason” with wingnuts, which is why I don’t bother.
There’s a saying in Buddhism that your outer reality is a projection of your inner reality, which means that a big chunk of the American public has a pretty twisted inner reality. But what do we make of Richard Cohen (beyond dude — retire already), whose column for today criticizes President Obama for not acting like a president. I’m serious. After eight years of the Oval Office being occupied by animated clown shoes, we once again have a president who is focused on his job. And Cohen now decides that the President needs to be presidential?
From what I can decipher of Cohen’s column, he thinks President Obama is not “presidential” because he didn’t react to the announcement of Iran’s nuclear capabilities with hair-on-fire hysteria. Oh, and he didn’t announce to the world all the steps he might be taking to counter Iran. Cohen compared the Iran announcement to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which it resembles very little, but as I remember none of us knew what was going on between the White House and the Kremlin until some time after that crisis had ended. Like, some things really are state secrets, Dick.
Recently I came across a sentence on some leftie site — I regret I don’t remember who said this — “machismo is not a foreign policy.” Part of the problem is that in a wingnut’s projected reality, bombast and chest thumping equal “strength” while reason and temperate speech are “weakness,” whereas in my book just the opposite is true. Apparently Cohen has gone over to the chest thumpers.
But then we also get this clown, who thinks President Obama is too angry and demanding. And dare I say … too uppity?
It’s all projection, and it’s futile to try to talk people out of their projected realities. I don’t know what to do about that, but there it is.