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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bullshit as myth

by John MacBeath Watkins

Why do people believe things that are demonstrably untrue?

President Obama being sworn in using Lincoln's Bible.
I was thinking about that in terms of some apparently intelligent people I've run into who insist that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. What purpose does it serve to advertise such an absurd notion?

The answer is that like many myths, it serves to define the person who holds the belief as part of a group, and defines people who don't hold it as not part of the group. In addition, it defines President Obama as the Other, one who can never be part of the group.

An interesting aspect of myths is that they do not need to be objectively true. The information they carry is not about objective truth. It is more likely to be about values, identity, belonging, and desires.

Racism is no longer socially acceptable through most of our society, so saying you object to President Obama because he is black is not acceptable speech. Calling him a Muslim defines him as the Other without using racial rhetoric. In politics, this is known as a 'dog whistle,' a mode of speech that will be understood by its intended audience to say something the rest of society condemns, and not be understood in the same way by society at large.

But I don't think the people who profess this belief are necessarily insincere, though surely some are. Perhaps it is better to understand this in terms of what Harry G. Frankfurt was talking about in his brief book, On Bullshit. The problem he addresses is that of the person who  "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

But in a sense, this is what myth has always done. In terms of maintaining a distinct society, the question is not whether the dietary rules in Leviticus or the Ten Commandments came from God, what matters is that you get people to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that define the group. Like bullshit, the question of truth does not arise with myth.

J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that there are things only myths can teach us, things reason cannot convey. But while reason may not be able to convey a sense of belonging to the group and excluding others from it, reason can at least understand what myth is conveying.

One interesting aspect of this is that we sometimes don't recognize a myth as such. For example, those both inside the group and outside the group that claim President Obama is a Muslim claim the 'debate' is about truth, when in fact those within the group claiming he is a Muslim are not persuadable by any proof.

This leads to a discussion that is not about the real meaning of the myth. Treating a myth as if it were part of a rational debate is a bit like treating a dog whistle as music. The point is not how it sounds, the point is who can hear it.

In some ways, the truth we know alone is less powerful than the lies we believe together. Shared beliefs are a form of identity, and can motivate the desired social action without being true. Consider The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document purported to describe a Jewish plan to take over the world by subverting the morals of gentiles, taking over the banking system in order to control the world economy, taking over the press, and bringing down civilization. You can still hear the echos of this in the paranoid rantings of the extreme right.

No matter that it had nothing to do with actual Jewish activities, it motivated people to act toward 'those people' as the authors intended. It appears to have first been published in Russia in 1902, and by 1905 it had been proved to be a hoax.

But it served its purpose. Those who appear to have manufactured the hoax were also involved in inciting the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906, which cost thousands of Jews their lives and caused many more to flee Russia.

The exposure of the hoax did not prevent it from spreading. Henry Ford paid for the publication of 500,000 copies in English in 1920. By 1921, The Times of London had exposed the hoax for readers of the English edition, but it was not until 1927 that Ford apologized for this and other anti-Semitic publications. The first translation by a Muslim Arab came in 1951, three years after the foundation of Israel.

The anti-Semitic agenda was about tribalism expressed as religion, about controlling "those people," anyone who did not belong to the dominant group. There was no rational basis for pogroms or for antisemitism at all. This was not an issue of reason, it was an issue of emotion, of paranoia about those who are not part of the ruling group.

One way to become a leader is to organize the march, then position yourself at the front of it. Those who manufactured The Protocols were not just expressing their hatred, they were also using that hatred to achieve prominence.

And the themes of The Protocols are still in use. A quick online search reveals that a wide variety of conservative yakkers are pushing the idea that President Obama is trying to destroy America, or capitalism, or Israel. If they can make people afraid, they can motivate action, and be seen as leaders.

Fear is a great emotion for overcoming the restraints of reason. One reason it has not worked terribly well against our rather quiet, cerebral president is that nothing about him seems ominous, and he's good at getting people to stop and think.

Thinking is the enemy of both myth and bullshit. So, think about it.

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