The day after last summer’s Ontario election, I was speaking with a man dressed in blue and he was not a cop. I asked whether his colours were in celebration of the blue wave, a Progressive Conservative majority government victory. “Hell, no,” he replied. It was pure coincidence, whereupon he launched into an attack on then-Premier-elect Doug Ford for being sued by his sister-in-law.
I said nothing. It was the edge in his voice that persuaded me to “let it go.”
But I was left thinking that public discourse had come to a new low: We can’t talk politics and the flimsiest of evidence, even bald-faced lies become rock-solid fact. And if you have the nerve to disagree, brace for emotional impact.
Just about everything has become politicized. Sexual assault accusations (undermining real stories by real women) demand guilty verdicts before we know if there is a victim or evidence. Matters of science are now so politically charged you check the company you are with before making it known your position on the weather. If you think the idea of manmade global warming is overblown alarmism, then you’re a red-necked climate denier. There are a legion of scientists who will agree with you but your place at the bottom of the food chain has been assigned.
The “obvious facts” are fueled by those who see themselves as so tolerant they are quick to point out, for your own good, that you would be an idiot not to agree with them.
British author Mark Lynas is my favourite example of this intellectual totalitarianism. Lynas was a leading environmentalist who denounced modern farming techniques and screamed about the evil of genetically-modified foods and intolerant multinationals. Then he changed his mind. In 2013, he defected from the environmentalist camp. His announcement came with a heartfelt apology speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in England. Lynas admitted that he was no scientist and as he began to understand the science, he realized there really was no debate. Three trillion GM meals have been eaten, he said. “You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.”
When we spoke, Lynas told me that environmentalists’ only appeal is emotional. They play on people’s fears. Environmentalists, and he included himself, cannot see their biggest flaw: Motivational reasoning, also known as ‘confirmation bias.’ That is, they start with a conclusion — they are opposed to modern agriculture — and then they rummage around for evidence, no matter how flimsy, to back it up. A contrary position is simply disregarded because “obviously, it is wrong.”
Lynas said his passionate opposition to GM food was genuine. He never knowingly lied. Then it occurred to him, due to outside pressure, to look at the actual scientific evidence. He almost immediately changed his mind.
We all suffer from motivational reasoning at some level, dismissing every opinion but our own. It can bring out the worst of behaviour when things get politicized.
Free speech has fallen prey to motivational reasoning. We must all hate the same thing. But if you don’t, you become hated — and as a bonus you’re labelled the hater. In this world, it makes perfect sense to withhold grant money for hiring summer students when a woman running a pick-your-own has the hate-filled idea that children in the womb could use a little legal protection.
Black Lives Matters was one of the biggest offenders. The movement incited people to go around breaking things and killing police officers. Of the many cops killed, remember five shot dead in one day in Dallas? Remember the chant? “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now.” Yet the movement believes the real problem are police officers and white people.
No one is immune to motivational reasoning. Some years ago, in a poll of 600 American lawyers, more than 85 per cent rejected the U.S. government’s Warren Report findings that only one shooter was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Most of the lawyers had seen Oliver Stone’s concocted version in the movie JFK and many had read conspiracy books. You might think that trained lawyers would understand the need to hear both sides of a case, but most of these lawyers saw no reason to even read the Warren Report because they had concluded it was wrong anyway.
Motivational reasoning is the faux-intellectuals’ new normal with so much energy going into one side of an argument they can’t see how it could be superficial or biased. The aversion to test their premise contributes to the current regression of civilization, steering us toward a new tribalism as the Western world becomes more polarized, more confused and more dumbed down.
Patrick Meagher is editor of Farmers Forum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.