Jan 07 2021

The Wages of Motivated Reasoning

It can be tempting, as Adam Savage likes to say, to reject reality and substitute your own. The world is complex. There are difficult trade-offs. Sometimes we are wrong, our “tribe” is on the wrong side of history, or things just don’t go our way.  Any parent has seen how toddlers often respond when they don’t get their way – the behavior can be described as a temper tantrum.

Part of neurological maturity is being able to deal with disappointment, to face an uncomfortable reality. Often adults, however, have the same reaction to reality as a toddler, their temper tantrums are just more sophisticated. This is where discipline, rules, institutions, and critical thinking come in. Society needs these things to function, or else we are living in the Lord of the Flies.

These guardrails of society and human behavior, however, require a shared reality. There has to be some way to determine what is likely to be true, which facts are legitimate and which are incorrect, and to agree upon what has happened in the past. This is no easy task, and we have entire institutions and professions dedicated to sorting this out. There is no process or institution that is perfect, but we need some shared process to avoid chaos.

I am not the first to point out that we are suffering as a society from a crisis of the collapse of a shared reality. Substituting convenient fiction for reality has always existed, but there is a definite change in magnitude. There are critical thresholds, and when a sufficient portion of society is living is a completely fabricated reality, cut off from any valid process, then our institutions fail and society is at risk of collapse.

It should be obvious by now where I am going with this. Trump lost the 2020 election. By all accounts, this was a safe, fair and secure election. All challenges to the process, as thin as they were, went through various other processes to determine that those challenges were not based in reality. Internal controls, such as hand counts and auditing, showed the counts were accurate. Legal challenges were all lost, mostly because they could not provide any evidence at all, or what they did present was laughably weak.

But Trump rejected this reality and substituted his own. He stitched together a narrative based on made-up facts, and feverish conspiracy theories from the most extreme corners of the radical right, to pretend that he actually won the election “in a landslide” and that massive voter fraud stole the election from him. So brilliant was this fraud that it left no trace behind. These allegations were then put forward as sufficient justification, on their own, to nullify the election.

If this were the lone temper tantrum of a grown toddler, that would be bad enough, but others coddled these delusions and made them their own, or exploited them for crass political gain. Factless allegations, absurd conspiracy theories that don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny, and the typical anomaly hunting to look for anything to sow doubt and confusion became justification for rejecting the process (you know, that process we call constitutional democracy).

Predictably, this did not end well. If you convince enough people that something truly horrible is happening (there are satanic cults, communists are infiltrating the government, witches are destroying crops, or the election was stolen) then this will motivate equally extreme reactions. Wrapped in the bullet-proof logic of conspiracy thinking, such beliefs are immune to peaceful and reasonable resolution.

And it doesn’t end there, of course, because the underlying problem has not changed. Now the right wing media is claiming that the violent assault on the capital was a false flag operation made to make Trump look bad, that it was caused by “Antifa” infiltrators.  Because, if you can simply makeup and rewrite reality as you see fit, then why not?

This is an “ignore that man behind the curtain” moment. What you just saw happen didn’t really happen. This other thing happened. This is when mere lying become gaslighting, when motivated reasoning becomes an alternate reality.

Democracy, in order to function, requires a shared reality. Institutions that put into place a process for determining that shared reality are necessary, but insufficient. This relates to the old proverb – in order for a forest to be green, all the trees need to be green. We cannot have a rational society without a critical number of rational citizens. When something like 40% of our fellow citizens no longer can distinguish reality, we are in serious trouble. Imagine if that number were a little higher. How close are we, really, to a “Handmade’s Tale” type of scenario?

This is a good time to think very seriously about what steps we need to take to fix these existential threats festering in our society.

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