A Current Example of Frightening Extremism in the Name of Our Beliefs
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
There is a frightening, hateful turn of events taking place right now that anyone involved in the GMO issue, or the vaccine issue, or the climate change issue, or any risk controversy, needs to know about. In fact, it illustrates an even wider phenomenon that explains why advocates deny evidence and distort the facts, why society has become so partisan and polarized, and even why extremists in many places turn to violence. The episode, still developing, illustrates the power of emotion over reason in shaping the views we have, and the dangerous lengths those emotions can carry us to.
Mike Adams is the self-professed Health Ranger and runs a highly successful for-profit empire through his Natural News website. Adams is way more extreme than others who profit by taking advantage of our innate belief that anything natural is less risky and anything human-made is risker, like Dr. Mercola or the FoodBabe or Dr. Oz. But he is widely followed by many because he espouses their general worldview; nature is good, and humans and technology and rich corporations are screwing it up.
Yesterday Adams posted a piece (not his first) suggesting that anyone who says anything uncritical or open minded about Monsanto, or biotechnology/GMOs, is the essentially the same as a Nazi collaborator, using science as a justification for genocide.
which included this generic but quite clear death threat!
“…it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”
Several people, principally Keith Kloor in his blog at Discover Magazine, called Adams out on this extremism.
Adams responded today by posting a site that names names…targets. Really. He posted an update to his screed with a Monsanto Collaborators website http://monsantocollaborators.org/ complete with a swastika next to the headline Monsanto (the banner photo above), and a list of ‘Collaborators’ that includes Kloor, environmentalist and GMO supporter Mark Lynas, Brooke Borel (who writes for Popular Science), Jennifer Ackerman (National Geographic), and others, along with publications that could be targets, including MIT Technology Review, National Geographic, Discover, and Alternet. He is also preparing a list of scientists he will also label collaborators.
The collaborators’ crime? Either supporting, or writing open-mindedly, about biotechnology. Make no mistake. Adams is naming potential targets for what he says is the moral right and obligation “…of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”
This is no different than Right to Life activists calling for the murder of abortion doctors fueling the hatred that leads some to commit such murders, or people so angry at the government that the bomb government buildings and kill innocent victims. But we can’t write Adams and other extremists off as deranged whackos. We all do the same basic thing. Adams is just taking it to a vicious extreme.
We all shape our views by interpreting the facts through the lenses of our instincts and feelings and life circumstances and experiences. And when it comes to risk issues, we shape them in ways that allow us to feel safe.
We also shape our views so they agree with the views of the groups we associate with, because tribal cohesion and being a member-in-good-standing of our tribe helps keep us safe. One of the ways we do this is by uncritically adopting the views espoused by our tribal thought leaders, like Adams and the other peddlers of the “Natural is automatically Good, Human-made is automatically bad” tribal mantra.
We then reject facts that conflict with our feelings, and accept and facts that reinforce them. And we feel hostile toward people who take opposing views, because their views challenge how we feel, and our feelings help us feel safe…so anyone who challenges our views threatens US, which makes those people a threat.
This is innate and powerful, way more powerful than reason. It’s what triggers the physical Fight or Flight or Freeze threat response when we argue. Blood pressure rises, muscles tense, listening goes down and shouting goes up…and minds get more closed. and sometimes, violent.
This produces advocates who deny scientific evidence in support their view. It explains the ferocity behind polarized societies in which people are overtly hostile to ‘others’. You do this. So do I. We all do. It is an inescapable product of a human cognitive system designed to keep us safe and alive.
Certainly we should all call Adams out for his extremism. But in a way we should thank him, for challenging us all to think a bit more carefully about issues we feel passionately about, and not just blindly adopt as 'fact' the views of overtly biased advocates, especailly those with views we generally agree with. And even as we challenge him, we should thank Adams for revealing to us all the ease and power with which emotions overwhelm reason and open-mindedness…and the danger we face if we blindly let these instincts control how we think and live.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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