Unencumbered By The Facts...


Friends often exclaim to me about Donald Trump voters (some of whom are near and dear to them), “Why don’t they see what Trump’s doing? Why don’t they change their minds?” And of course some people have—probably those who harbored doubts even while voting for him. Yet a solid majority of his base remains unwaveringly loyal.

Why is that, really?

A friend of mine, who is a member of that devoted base, thought that Trump would do well with the Saudis because he’s done business with them and knows how to make deals with them. My first reaction was scoffery—how could this president do well at anything? But, out of respect for my friend, I paused to consider his point. I had to say, maybe. Am I so certain about all of my own facts that I can scoff with impunity? It was an interesting seed of doubt that I decided to follow down a few logical rabbit holes.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a graduate student in California, my doctoral advisor was Norman O. Brown, a fascinating, surprising, and sometimes difficult man. He started out as a classicist, spent World War II as a code-breaker for the OSS (now the CIA), and eventually worked his way out of classics into the study of Freudian psychology, only to become an icon of 1960s thought. His most revolutionary book, Love’s Body, mingled snippets of his vast learning into a comprehensive meditation on the big questions of life.

Anyway, he would often come to seminars with two books that he was reading under his arm. He instilled in us that we should never draw our opinions from one source, no matter how apparently primary—we needed to look for the other side of the argument. Sometimes, when this proved elusive, two books on different subjects—here he would smush together the volumes that he had brought with him—might have a “wedding” (his term) that would bring us to an insightful conclusion.

In many ways, we Liberals like to think of this sort of reasoning as part and parcel of our position. We stay open to new ideas. We dip into Fox News or Drudge Report in order to hear from the other side. We work to tolerate people’s differences. We delight in critical thinking. Or do we? When my friend suggested that good things might happen from Trump’s visit with the Saudis I, unencumbered by the facts, was ready to make a vigorous counter argument. The government of modern-day Saudi Arabia is a subject on which I know very little and, for me, the event was illuminated only by my disdain for all things Trump. All things, and that’s a lot. Am I actually not receptive to thinking there might be something of value in the man’s effort without fully exploring the issue? Where did my liberal values slip?

I am reading a fascinating book by Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. It focuses on George Bush’s presidency after 9/11, and his decision to opt out of the Geneva Conventions armed-conflict protocols regarding imprisonment and torture. It’s not for the squeamish. Mayer’s book also dwells a great deal on how the Bush administration willfully disregarded reports that torture doesn’t work as reliably as empathy-based interrogation techniques—a fact that has been documented since something like the 12th century. Bush officials also ignored reports that did not presumptively suit or advance their agenda, for example the fact that no links were ever found between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime, or that Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were effectively non-existent by the end of the 1990s. Why did these people not pay attention or take these findings into account? Why the heck not?


Another friend, who often has insightful things to say about this blog, sent me to a podcast that had set her thinking—specifically, three episodes from You Are Not So Smart titled “The Backfire Effect.” They dissect and analyze the phenomenon of fitting the facts to suit one’s preconceived notions, or clinging to notions once we’ve established them for ourselves. Why do we do it? Does it serve us in any way? To go deeper: Does it have some sort of evolutionary value?

So there they are: Ostensibly nothing to do with Trump, but I’m reading The Dark Side, listening to “The Backfire Effect,” and thus attending the wedding of two different analyses in a way that would make my wonderful mentor proud. Here’s the LINK to the “Backfire Effect”—don’t miss it. We all need to understand the consequences of our own assumptions if we are ever going to turn this country around in a constructive and lasting way.

This blog was previously published on www.sanitypapers.com on May 27, 2017. Check out the Sanity Papers FaceBook page to stay informed.