The Dupes of Hazzard
In her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild seeks to explain why people in the most environmentally damaged areas of Louisiana remain unwaiveringly loyal to the corporations destroying their land and all the vile promoters and propagandists who assure their constant suffering. The book is fascinating and the professor’s thoughts on the cause of the malady are well-reasoned and help us to better understand these victims of the regressive juggernaut. While the full exposition is rather complicated, one complaint common to all subjects is that liberals believe they are stupid. When this topic arose, despite the claim that they had no respect for liberals, this notion that liberals held them in contempt was a constant annoying sore. It made them feel degraded.
This belief that liberals think about them often or with anything other than concern is one of the many delusions constantly injected into their heads by their preferred sources of information. These people, whose homes had been swallowed by sinkholes, whose pristine bayous had been poisoned and whose air had been tainted by foul, flammable and carcinogenic gases, still maintained a religious dedication to their oppressors. While I suspect that “liberals” are not preoccupied with the fates or states of these people; one thing, nonetheless, seems clear: Any rational person asked to assess the situation Professor Hochschild describes will undoubtedly detect that, somewhere in this scenario, there has been a mental failure.
That failure was exploited by Louisiana corporations, government and religious infrastructure for their own profit. A mythic narrative was woven artfully into these people’s heads that diminished their understanding of worldly destruction by emphasizing how this suffering would earn rewards in an inscrutable paradise after this world is left behind. That mythic narrative excused all manner of chemically induced disease, destroyed property and wasted wetlands. The mythic narrative replaces reality.
The Capital Invasion
While thinking about this I looked at the photograph of the insurrectionist at Nancy Pelosi’s desk ($170.00 on Getty Images). Sitting in the Speaker’s chair, booted foot resting on the desk, a face betraying the gleeful confidence of the new cult member before the final toast with the sacred elixir; his religious devotion has been demonstrated. He has appeased his deity and his reward is imminent. When his transcendent joy encounters the real world, what will happen?
Like Professor Hochschild’s subjects, these insurrectionists have been deluded and duped. They were susceptible to Trump’s con and the propagandists’ false narrative because they, like the subjects in Louisiana, were lost. Like so many post-Fox News Americans, their clearly defined world had become sinister, their identities were tainted by those who challenged their tribe, their tenuous hold on meaning was strained. Where were the simple truths of their parents’ faith? Where was the clearly defined morality of the Commandments? Where were the answers, the unassailable answers, that provided them with comfort and certainty during their troubled upbringing? Something was wrong with everything until Trump supplied the certainty that they craved.
The certainty, like the Louisiana mythic narrative, was provided by the Republican Organization through its well established propaganda machine. Trump, the current most excellent manifestation of the Republican vision, has become the deity that Yahweh never was, a deity that is right in front of them. Their prayers are heard by the actual ears of the real and manifest god. That benefactor directs them along the ways of his divine plan and, as with the god of their parents, there is no gray area, there are no eternal verities to ponder. The world is simple and next steps are dictated by a benevolent leader who loves them and will grant boons.
The Embodied Mind
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in 1999, sought to understand how centuries of philosophy kept running into problems with simple issues like: what is reality, what is perception, what is the essence of me. These are the very questions to which Trump’s followers have identified a simple answer. The credible answer that Lakoff and Johnson explore in their book Philosophy in the Flesh is illuminating but also challenging — a challenge that denies the desired black and white distinctions.
They emphasize that intelligence is not manifested in some disembodied rational mind (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment might claim) but with a real and tangible brain which chooses and reasons through an evolved committee comprised of the conscious and unconscious mind influenced at every turn by beliefs, feelings, memories of success and failure and constructed guideposts such as evil, beauty and corruption. Intelligence is a whole body experience, it is what Lakoff and Johnson call the embodied mind. Intelligence takes place most explicitly in the massive neural network in the human brain. That network must be trained over a lifetime by the specialized system we call the conscious mind. The conscious mind submits requests to the massive unconscious neural network in the brain. The result is evaluated against the available reality and, case-after-case, that internal neural network is trained until the results tend to be mostly consistent with reality.
The complicated part is that your neural network and your conscious mind are part of your entire body. Your stomach ache, your libido, your memory of your first pet, all impinge upon the complex operations of your intellect. Rational people are viscerally aware of the effort required to prevent their environment and mood from corrupting reason. This is almost the essence of what we mean by the word “reason” and even rational people may sometimes fail at that goal.
Hundreds of citizens somehow decided that it would be wise to grab some knives and sticks, invade the U.S. Capital and take over the government. It was not cool rational minds that decided to storm the Capital, it was embodied minds. The decision was made by their conscious minds influenced, perhaps, by intense memories of the abused child, the humiliated teenager, the uncountable offenses against the parents’ inscrutable religion. Aside from memories, the current experience of failure and loss, the demeaning job, inadequate resources, the desperate attempts to prove self-worth in a shallow world of commodities, consumers and convenience. These decisions were made by embodied minds consulting with dessicated bodies sheltering in ramshackle perceptual structures that offered no lasting protection against the facts of the world.
In the end, they were not just rejected by their seditionist advocates in Congress and the White House. Well known comedians like Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert expressed the scathing opinion of the rational community. Whether stated explicitly or not, the general consensus became absolutely clear: these insurrectionists are simply stupid.
So I then think back to that man at Pelosi’s desk. Unlike the dog chasing the car, he has actually caught it. Teeth buried triumphantly in sturdy rubber, now what? When this person reflects upon this moment, what will he recall? Will he feel triumphant or will he feel for himself the same contempt that he attributes to liberals? Will he feel even more intensely stupid than before, nurturing that same nagging self-doubt that led to this childish pose in the Speaker’s office? Will this lead to revelation and reform or to a continued spiral of flawed thinking and failed function?
How stupid does one have to be to do this? Too stupid to repair a car? Too stupid to prepare a latte? Too stupid to clean a house and raise children? Clearly the vast majority of people in that mob were capable of those complex behaviors; and yet plenty of mechanics, baristas and homemakers would be horrified to find “insurrection” jotted into today’s calendar.
No, this is not “stupid.” This is an alternate world.
The powerful exemplars who provided the disjoint plans for those insurrectionists do not have to actually occupy that world. Seditionists direct their insurrection from the comfort afforded them by the chaos they impose on their wretched followers. Tucker Carlson, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump lead boldly from behind.
Worse than That
One may ask, “can we change these people’s minds?” and the answer to that question is a resounding “no!” The apparatus driving these people’s actions cannot be rightly called a “mind” per sé. We would more accurately call it a fiction engine. The unfathomable facilities of the brain have been fed the components of an artificial world. The natural tendency of the brain is to complete missing structures and associate similar facts using constructions of its own design. Were this not possible then a friend’s description of eir father would form a Frankenstein monster in the listener’s brain due to the missing explanation of how the hair is combed or the specific shape of the belly. Instead these missing pieces are easily filled in with harmless generic parts until further description is provided.
This natural tendency of the brain to complete and fill in as best it can levies a crucial responsibility on us all: important, life-affecting information must be conveyed with great care. Any important missing piece may become the seed of delusion. Propagandists make use of this fact. They identify specific pieces of the corrupted self-serving world into which they invite their followers. The strategic gaps will be filled in by their sycophantic listeners. Soon the followers will make it sensible enough that others may accept that same fiction. As the fiction grows, guided by the seditious provocateurs, it becomes more complete, more consistent and better propped up by faulty logic and disjoint patterns until an entire mob may believe that they can and should bring down the government for their noble President.
This is why these minds cannot be changed. What is required is an orderly shutdown of each fiction engine until an actual unburdened mind is exposed. Lakoff and Hochschild clearly identify how to do this. You must find a common ground between your mind and the other’s fiction engine. Lakoff calls this a “frame.” Hochschild calls this a “deep story.” Having found a common belief, one in your reality and one in the other’s, you form a bond with that person and help that person to understand that you are not enemies but friends. Once that bond is formed, you then introduce the item from your reality that you seek to implant in the other’s reality. Then, gently — ever so gently — you associate that new idea with the common understanding over which you have bonded. Given time, the other’s fiction engine will incorporate the needed scaffolding to secure that one new idea into their fiction making it decidedly less fictional. The problem is that that process may take months and you’ve only incrementally changed one person. Given a few years, it may be possible to introduce a fair amount of reality into that person’s head. So how do we deal with the millions of other people who need to re-enter the world of generally accepted facts?
We Won’t Like the Solution
This is why the fiction engine is worse than stupid. Stupid is corrected through innovative teaching and enthusiastic explanations of the techniques of critical thinking. Stupid leaves the stage when a welcoming community of interesting rational thinkers provide example after example of good versus bad choices. To stop being stupid is a choice that every rational person in the world makes as soon as ey realize ey are misunderstanding something. Those whose minds are sublimated by a fiction engine will simply incorporate the new information into their disconnected private world as further evidence of its validity.
So, stupid is manageable, this is not. Without an innovative new approach by rational individuals, we may be doomed. What we know is that facts and reason will not solve this problem. As a start, let’s make sure we recognize that this is not as trivial as stupid. This is the first assault in the upcoming zombie apocalypse but the zombies aren’t brain-less, they are mind-less. The effect, as we saw on January sixth, is frighteningly similar to the cinematic version — things that look like humans are moving with deadly force through the civilized world dismantling the life we cherish. Reasoning will not stop them, force will only encourage them and the fact that they are all disguised as white people means that law enforcement is powerless against them.
What will happen to the joyous acolyte having conquered an old neoliberal’s desk? Will his next action be more violent or is there some sort of shock that may shatter that false world and choke his fiction engine? Will the pink untested skin of his newly exposed mind glory in its freedom and venture into reality or suffer from exposure and seek the shelter of some other propagandist? We must find a way of addressing this but it cannot be done using reason. Do not allow the fiction that these minds can be turned to distract you from the actual job at hand. These people must be provided with a new and appealing world for their fiction engine: a world that satisfies their unfortunate needs but is also less dangerous for the rest of us. I believe that that is the direction we must explore. We must market to these hollow humans a benign world that satisfies their primitive need for clear distinctions and unassailable truth without driving them to violence or encouraging them to vote for a fascist father figure. That, in all honesty, may be the best we can do.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen, a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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