WHY FACTUAL PERSUASION WON’T WORK THIS ELECTION
Some of my friends spend a lot of time debating Trump supporters on-line. I assume it’s because they believe suffering builds character, and jamming box nails into their eyes with ball-peen hammers is no longer doing the trick.
Their frustration, which I sense by the fact they’ll call me after one of these arguments and just scream “FUCK!!!” into the phone eight or nine times and then hang up, stems from the fact that no matter how cogent their argument, or how many charts, graphs, peer-reviewed studies, scholarly treatises or well-sourced exposes they link to, the MAGA dude they are arguing with still refuses to admit that maybe Hillary Clinton ISN’T running a massive child-sex ring out of the basement of a pizza place with no basement, or perhaps Joe Biden DIDN’T actually used to be a female Aardvark named Cleema.
Why do so many Trump supporters believe things that are clearly and provably not true? And if the mountain of evidence that what they believe is false doesn’t convince them, what would?
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to, and reading a lot (which is sort of “giving thought” except someone else is doing the thinking) about the nature of knowledge and belief. How do we know what we know? How do we choose what to believe and what not to? And a lot of it comes down to sources. What sources we trust will have a far greater impact on the things we believe than what empirical facts may be.
Think about your birthday. What is it? Mine is June 23rd (and when that date rolls around again, I take a size 17 neck). Of course I have no memory of that day. But my mother told me that’s when “the miracle”, as the world calls it, happened. And because I trusted her, I’ve opened my home to receive gifts on that date ever since. If, say…Mike Pence told me my birthday was actually August 10th, I wouldn’t believe him because I trust my mother more than him. Although, I’m still open to receiving gifts on that date.
The fact is that we all have some sources of information we trust blindly. There are others we trust with a grain of salt, and still others we reject out of hand. We can’t do independent studies or research on everything, so we simply have no choice but to establish a hierarchy of trust. And not only do we tend to adhere to our hierarchy, we are hostile to information coming from those who’ve adopted a hierarchy we find illegitimate.
How we choose those sources is tied up in many things, including exposure, peer pressure, and especially confirmation bias. We want to receive information that confirms what we already suspect is true and we gravitate towards sources that make us feel that we are smart, and, increasingly, that those who disagree with us are stupid, unpatriotic, and evil.
The difference is that the left has, generally, chosen sources of information that lean heavily on experts, science, data observable with our own eyes, and those who have chosen similarly. The right, generally, has explicitly eschewed these in favor of sources such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, some anonymous dude on the internet and the My Pillow guy. That’s why whatever the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control says falls on deaf ears when it conflicts with the incoherent ramblings of the My Pillow Guy, who is not only clueless about medical issues, he’s not even good at making pillows. By the way, I’m told Dr. Fauci makes a terrific pillow!
I’ve been struck by how unshakable this source bias is. A few years ago a man named Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21st, 2011. People not only believed this guy, but they acted on that belief. They gave away their possessions! They quit their jobs and prepared for the rapture, which (spoiler alert!) never happened.
But the kicker is, the same guy had predicted the world would end, causing people to put their affairs in order, several times previously, all of which (and, if you’ve suffered numerous head traumas, SPOILER ALERT!) also didn’t happen. But yet people were willing to trust this guy repeatedly. This is baffling to me. You know the old expression, “Make me give away my stuff because the world is ending once, shame on you! Make me give away my stuff because the world is ending twice, shame on ME!”
This may not be how the world should work. But it’s the way the world DOES work. Your statistics showing that two people died during the the Ebola outbreak during the Obama administration while 175,000 have died from COVID will be like Silly Putty against a brick wall in the face of Laura Ingram saying that Trump has done such a better job at pandemic management.
You can link to all the Harvard studies or Washington Post articles you want. Because for every such source, your opponent will be able to come right back at you with a link to a contrary article in “Conspiracy Digest” or a YouTube video of a dude wearing a “Slippery Rock” T-shirt with a strangely untreated skin condition. And while the obvious superiority of your experts may be compelling to you, your opponent will know that your sources are mere “libtards under the spell of the Deep State”, or “paid off by George Soros” who your friend will know nothing about other than the “fact” that he pays off everyone who disagrees with him.
All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t make the argument. Source-adherence is a continuum, and if we can move even 5% of Trump supporters, that will make a difference. But this phenomenon suggests that a better use of time might be increasing enthusiasm and turnout among people already predisposed to support us. Because yelling obscenities into the phone at our friends probably isn’t the most constructive thing we can do for the next 76 days.