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Feb 18

Boredom, prejudice, and changing minds

My job is boring. This will come as no surprise to most people. I have it on good authority that this is a common, perhaps even global, phenomenon. My day is essentially nine hours of mindless labor punctuated by brief periods of intense thought. Unfortunately the thinking parts, the parts where I solve a problem in my head before fixing it in the real world, are very fleeting. One of the advantages of a job that makes so few demands on my brain is that I get to let my brain think about other, more interesting things. This past week I realized that the nature of my musings might be a little different now. Instead of just letting the by products of my gray matter fade into oblivion after I punch the time clock I could spill them here for everyone to see. It won’t be pretty. It may not flow like great literature or even a hack dime novel. In fact it is probably going to meander quite a bit. I apologize in advance.

For a long time I subscribed to the notion that a well reasoned, heavily evidenced argument was the key to changing people’s minds. I came to this conclusion largely because the method had proven so effective in changing my own opinions as I transitioned from an evangelical Christian to an atheist. As I came to embrace the full merits of reason I began to cut my teeth in the fine art of argumentation. I think I quickly became conditioned to expect good arguments to change opinions. As a Christian I had actually been a reasonable person. I asked questions and I weighed evidence, or at least what I believed to be evidence. What kept me in the fold wasn’t an inability to think so much as it was ignorance of contradictory evidence or alternative points of view. Somehow I just assumed everyone else was like I was in that respect. Later on, as I began to venture outside my immediate circle and engage a more diverse crowd, I realized quickly how rarely these tactics actually worked on other people, people whose opinions REALLY needed to change. At this point I assumed the problem was my own. It took some time to realize that you can’t simply reason people out of opinions they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. Sometimes you can and it is a rewarding experience but the odds are always against you.

Most of the prejudices we face every day are largely irrational. While most people are perfectly capable of being reasonable about most things, their brains, like all human brains, are actually quite modular. We compartmentalize different types of information or decisions with ease. The modules of our brains that decide what people we allow into our circle of empathy don’t necessarily work according to the same rules as those we use to pick the best university to attend or what to have for dinner. It is how our brains evolved to function. For tribes living on the plains of Africa and even those that ventured out to inhabit the rest of the globe this compartmentalization was essential, or at the very least beneficial, to the survival of the tribe. It is from them that we have inherited our brains, for better or for worse.

We are no longer hunter/gatherers ranging across the savannah nor are we roving bands seeking villages to raid. We live in a world that our biology hasn’t had the time to accommodate save for a few critical factors, the relationship between our brains and our culture being the most notable. Only with much work can we overcome those tendencies forged over hundreds of thousands of years by natural selection and that adapt us to fit tribalism like a hand fits in a glove. It takes effort to use our faculties to forge cultures and minds capable of surviving in the modern world while at the same time trying to respect the rights and freedoms of humanity as a whole. We can force the opposing forces acting inside our brains to follow the same rules if we choose to. I knew this was possible. I had seen it. I had done it myself. Yet time after time my attempts to guide and nudge people to do the same thing failed.

What hope is there if you can’t really change people’s minds I wondered. As I paid attention to the news I got progressively more cynical. I watched the vitriol coming out of Cranston in the Jessica Ahlquist case. My head would hurt watching and listening to the horribly stupid and bigoted ramblings of GOP candidates. I watched Americans rail against marriage equality and attack liberty with ideas that humanity should have outgrown decades, if not centuries ago. After some time I realized that these new stresses could be traced to two distinct facts: I didn’t understand why people thought the way they did and I didn’t know what could be done to change it. This was territory that was new to me, not so much because I didn’t know the answers. I didn’t know the answers about most things. It was new because I didn’t fully understand the question but it was there. For me such a realization usually means only one thing. It was time to study.

Most of the challenges to equality, liberty and the constitution that had been frustrating me seemed to be springing from religious ideologies. Even the political battles could all be traced to people prioritizing their religious convictions over the rights, responsibilities and ideals that form the backbone of any democratic society. So the first and obvious obvious question was why, exactly, was I of all people so goddamned confused. Religion had been my field of study for over a decade. I had studied its history and evolution. I had probed its origins and development. None of my knowledge seemed to bridge the gap to the questions I was pondering. There was nothing in the religions themselves that explained why people were so willing to believe such nonsense and so vile. Fear of death, fear of the unknown, wishful thinking, overactive agency detection, none of it accounted for the range and degree of stupid that I was seeing in the world. Quite unexpectedly the insight I needed arrived by way of social psychology.

I mentioned my long standing bias against psychology in my last post. Now here I was trying to understand what went on inside the brains of humans that seemed to think nothing like me. I was reading a post at freethought blogs and someone linked to a book called The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. I had read some intriguing blog posts prior to this that had started me thinking about how being exposed to people who represent a group to which one is prejudiced can alter that prejudice. It had already been suggested by someone that the single biggest factor in decreasing prejudice in people is the positive exposure to the objects of their prejudice. The book reiterated this idea but it went a step further. Where before I had only anecdote, now I had data. After reading The Authoritarians I went to Google Scholar and tracked down relevant research. I read everything I could find.

I now feel like I have a much better grasp on the situation. In psychology there is a scale developed by Altemeyer called the Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale. It measures certain traits and dispositions and does a remarkable job at predicting other traits, opinions and behaviors. Prior to this I hadn’t realized that this was something that had been intensely studied for over half a century. The ease with which people were led to commit horrible acts in World War II had been a wake up call for many researchers and many studies were undertaken soon afterward to understand what was going on. Researchers were not prepared for what they found. It turned out that people, normal people with no pathology whatsoever, could be easily persuaded to do some very horrible things to other people. As study after study was accumulated though, another picture started to emerge. Not only could authority be used to easily manipulate the actions of a person against their own conscience, authority was even more effective at sculpting the very consciences of certain types of individuals.

People with high RWA scores tend to be very submissive to those they recognize as legitimate authority figures. This can be political and religious leaders, heads of family, media personalities, etc. They often will tailor their own opinions to fall in line with those whose authority they respect, even if it those opinions conflict with some of their other beliefs. They are the Jedi masters of compartmentalization. They tend to be highly aggressive toward minority groups designated by their authorities as targets. They resist new experiences and often feel like they are under attack when exposed to individuals that fall outside what they consider to be normal or acceptable. Another noteworthy trait of high RWA individuals is their more fearful interpretation of the world around them and the way they interpret events within the context of that fear. This is a very real set of traits that describe a surprisingly large subset of the population.

There are disagreements over what has the greatest influence over these aspects of a person’s personality. The standard nature versus nurture arguments apply here but either way the data makes clear a few salient points. Where a person rates on this scale can be affected by circumstances throughout a person’s life. Bigotry and prejudice can be molded or thwarted with much greater effect, however, the younger the subject is. Being positively exposed to the objects of one’s existing prejudice can significantly reduce the extent of that prejudice while positive exposure when young can counteract the indoctrinating effects of environmental prejudice altogether. This is good news. I highly recommend reading up on the literature if you have the time.

So what does this mean for my dilemma? Well it means that some people really can’t be reasoned with. It means that in many cases, should you try to change someone’s mind, you will fail. But it also means that if people continue to do what they’re doing, continue to speak up, to let themselves be seen and heard, the next generation will be less prejudiced than the one before it. On some level our opposition realizes this. In my own state we have dealt with proposed legislation for the last two years that would prohibit any school faculty from even acknowledging the existence of homosexuals. Needless to say that makes counseling gay children or openly discussing homophobia, and the associated bullying that results, problematic. One of the unspoken purposes of this legislation is to keep young people ignorant of the realities of homosexuality. Only when you limit their exposure can you maintain the cycle of prejudice. We saw the same mentality in the don’t ask don’t tell legislation. We see it in the war against marriage equality. The authorities that these people bow to know what threatens their prejudice and they will fight to maintain it.

I guess the purpose of all this rambling is to show you some of the process that led me to this one insight. Standing up and demanding to be seen and heard is very important. It isn’t just important for us. It is necessary if we ever hope to see a world that is truly free. Our opponents are targeting schools especially and they do it because their hold on this world is dying. They try to insure their future influence in the education system because that is where we can hurt them. Education and free inquiry are the enemy of ignorance. It is its poison. A would be bigot who grows up having an openly gay friend is almost guaranteed not to mimic the prejudices of his parents. A Christian who grows up with openly atheist friends is not going to be as ignorant as her parents about the realities of religion and disbelief. The same things apply to all of the objects of prejudice. Our enemy needs ignorance to thrive. Without it their power dies and their ancient, outdated, superstitious and bigoted hold on people’s minds dies with it.

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