Shibboleths in belief and identity

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the remarkable things we've seen with the polarization of American politics is the rise of the shibboleth.

A shibboleth is something that defines the identity of a group. The biblical basis for the term is found in Judges 12, when the men of Gilead were fighting the men of Ephraim. It was a rout, and the Ephraimites tried to flee to their homeland, but the Gileadites got to the fords on the Jordan River first.

5And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; 6Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

In this case, it was just a word that the Ephraimites could not pronounce to save their lives, but over time it has come to mean what you say to prove you belong to a group. In many cases, you must say you believe certain things.

For conservative Republicans, shibboleths are things like Birtherism (the claim that President Barack Obama was not born in America,) or claiming to believe that Obama is a Muslim. Another is claiming to not believe in climate change.

No amount of evidence will shift these beliefs, whether it's Obama's long-form birth certificate or the fact the Obama for many years attended a somewhat controversial Christian church. Evidence won't shift such beliefs because they were not adopted based on evidence, or any real notion of objective truth. They were adopted to cement a sense of identity.

Normally, when we think of truth, we think of something so logical, so well supported by evidence, that we cannot help but believe it, even if it is inconvenient to do so. But shibboleths are things that you can choose to believe, because it is convenient, because it establishes your bonafides as a member of a group, or even because it annoys people you don't like (which may also establish you as part of a group.)

In many forms of communication, the intentions of the speaker are of the highest importance. To someone who believes climate change has the potential to wipe out humanity and most of the large animals on earth, those who deny climate change no matter what the evidence is appear to be speaking in bad faith. Those who deny climate change, as near as I can tell, do so as part of their identity. More evidence just appears as an attack on their identity, and continuing to deny climate change provides the satisfaction of pissing off those fucking liberals.

I keep seeing climate change deniers try to show bad faith on the part of the scientists who have actually studied this. In part, this is a tactic of agnotology, the science of creating ignorance, and simply serves those who do not want to stop selling fossil fuels. But in part, it's a matter of both sides thinking they are arguing on the same ground. Those who claim climate change is real offer their proofs as if they matter to the climate deniers, and those who deny climate change assume this is a belief that liberals have adopted as part of their identity.

Conservatives have told me that liberals are pushing the climate change narrative because the solutions are liberal ones, like regulation and international treaties. To me, this is an odd argument. Surely, we are not expected to believe that conservatives will only acknowledge the reality of problems conservatism can solve? And in any case, shown that a problem exists, shouldn't they display the superiority of their ideology by showing us a conservative solution?

But the denier assumes that belief in climate change is as much of a shibboleth to the believer as to the denier. Therefore, to them, the conversation isn't even about evidence. Evidence, to them, is a marker in a game that is really about identity.


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