Stuck in Hogwash

Years ago I read that if you wanted to change someone’s mind you had to do it within the construct of his existing belief system. You had to take what was already in his brain and build on it. You could never hope to take someone 180 degrees in one try, but if you made alterations repeatedly, over time you might make some progress and eventually he’d see the light.

Perhaps the opposite of this is true. Perhaps if you want to cement what is in someone’s brain, even if it’s false, you can continually reinforce those falsehoods. Over time you will have someone with such an entrenched belief system that he will require no introspection and he will brook no contradiction. This is how you get people who are willing to believe untruths. Because the untruths fit into their already established narrative.

It’s stunning to me that so many people believe hogwash. I am trying to understand why. As recently as August, 2016, a poll showed 41 percent of Republicans still thought Obama was born outside the U.S. A boatload thought he was Muslim, too. These things are demonstrably untrue. So why do people persist in believing them?

I was talking to a retired professor of botany at a small Midwestern university. I remarked on the freezing March weather. A staunch, life-long Republican, he used my anecdotal observation as an opportunity to put down climate change. He is a scientist who refuses to believe in science. Because entrenched belief systems are more powerful than truth and logic.

Another friend says that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Yes they are. But facts are facts. And if you believe things that aren’t true, the world will continue to turn without you, regardless of what you believe. You will have spent tremendous energy resisting truth, hanging on by your fingernails, and for what? You will be left behind. The only comfort may be others in your tribe who share your beliefs. Secure in your belief system that’s designed to defy change.

And this is where the anger comes in. Perhaps they are insecure in these beliefs deep down. Perhaps, for example, those who brandish the Confederate flag know that despite generations of loyalty to their heritage, they are wrong to defend it. But to admit that would be to admit their ancestors have been wrong, that things they learned growing up were wrong. It is too much to admit, because that is their identity. It is who they are. So they are threatened. And angry.

I don’t know what can be done about it. Do you?