Thursday, March 26, 2020

Identity quakes and the art of changing minds

Our beliefs are often bound up with our sense of self. That’s why giving them up can be so painful.

Recently I entered into a discussion on Facebook with an ex-student I had taught while I was a part-time lecturer at the University of Oxford. Although we fundamentally disagreed on the issues, the back and forth was cordial. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, her tone turned hostile. I was accused of endorsing views I do not hold, and associating with people I had never met. I tried to reply, but by this point had been blocked. My former student had decided I was something I was not and was no longer interested in civilised dialogue. More upsettingly, there was a clear implication that by challenging her political opinions I was posing a direct threat to her sense of self.

Such experiences have helped me to realise that, for many people, politics is not so much a belief system as a kind of identity. This is perhaps why a study in Scientific Reports in 2016 found that most people perceive challenges to their political beliefs to be personal attacks. The ideological civil war over Brexit, which has driven families and friends apart like no other recent political dispute, is the most obvious example of this phenomenon. In Carol Hanisch’s famous 1969 essay she declared that ‘the personal is political’. Now, it seems, the political is personal.

It would be tempting to put this down to the tribalism that has been fostered by social media, but in truth people have always reacted badly to the experience of having to rethink their most deeply held convictions. In his book Dominion, the historian Tom Holland notes that the paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who was raised a Quaker and taught that the Bible was the literal truth, was ‘so unsettled by the dinosaurs he found entombed in rock that they came to visit him in his dreams’, where they would kick and trample upon him. A similar crisis of faith befell Charles Darwin, who could not reconcile the notion of a ‘beneficent and omnipotent God’ with the brutal reproductive practices of the ichneumon wasp, which paralyses caterpillars with its sting so that its larvae can develop inside a living host. Darwin’s Christian identity was shaken by the evident cruelty of the natural world.

Such realisations are known as ‘identity quakes’, described by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay in their book How to Have Impossible Conversations as the ‘emotional reaction that follows from having one’s core values disrupted’. I am reminded of Edmund Gosse’s autobiography Father and Son (1907), in which he recounts how his father, the naturalist Philip Gosse, was forced to confront the ways in which the emerging facts of evolutionary science were contradicting his literal belief in holy scripture. His solution was elegantly expressed in his 1857 book Omphalos, in which he argued that the creator had left deliberate markings on the Earth to suggest that it was much older than it was. After all, the first trees in the Garden of Eden would have had growth rings and yet were brand new. This would account for the existence of seemingly ancient fossils, as well as Adam’s omphalos (the Greek word for ‘navel’), which was suggestive of a mother that did not exist.

There is something profoundly moving about Philip Gosse’s need to incorporate these fresh scientific discoveries into the purview of his Christian faith. This was an identity quake so seismic that it could easily have driven him to despair. Omphalos was widely ridiculed at the time, but I cannot help but sympathise with his efforts, and the sheer poeticism of his vision. For anyone who wishes to understand the emotional impact of identity quakes, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is a good place to start. (The Oxford World’s Classics edition is recommended, as it contains extracts from Omphalos in the appendices.)

The identity-quake phenomenon should be taken into consideration by anyone who is serious about their views and seeks to persuade others of their validity. From the late medieval period, students at Oxford and Cambridge were taught the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. The latter is best defined as ‘the art of persuasion’, and there is something to be said for attempting to reinstate this discipline in national school curricula. But one doesn’t need to be a rhetorician to understand that people are rarely persuaded by having their beliefs insulted, particularly when said beliefs are such an elemental feature of how they perceive their role in society.

That political affiliation has become a form of personal identity presents difficulties for those of us who still believe in the importance of discussion and debate. Leaving aside the obvious merits of decorum for its own sake, the hostile approach is always counterproductive in purely strategic terms. It is difficult to maintain respect for an interlocutor while he’s shouting and slinging mud. We argue because we value the opinions of others and seek to interrogate our own certainties. We argue because by doing so we refine our propositions and our ability to persuade. Above all, we argue because we know that there is a kernel of truth in every viewpoint. Only the most narrow-minded of us would dismiss the possibility that we might be wrong.

There’s a moment in Father and Son in which the young Edmund Gosse kneels and prays to a chair in order to test whether God would react to such flagrant idolatry. Nothing happens, and he is left questioning whether God even exists. For a child raised in the evangelical traditions of the Plymouth Brethren, this was no small matter. We all need to be willing to challenge our most treasured convictions, and to be empathetic when we challenge those of others. It isn’t easy to abandon or modify one’s belief system, especially when it has become so interlinked with notions of personal identity. Changing minds is necessary, but it is never painless.



Coronavirus Communism Comes to California

Bernie Sanders supporters learn what life under socialism is really like.

A few weeks after Californians cast their votes for Bernie Sanders, there are huge lines to buy toilet paper. Toilet paper, like dairy products and cleaning supplies, are limited to two per household.

Savvy shoppers have learned, like their counterparts in the old Soviet Union, to get what they need by bartering what they can buy. Toilet paper for antibacterial soap. Milk for wipes.

Yakov Smirnoff had spent his career joking about standing on line to buy toilet paper and discovering that the government store wasn't even selling toilet paper, but something to be bartered for it.

"If I start making jokes about a shortage of toilet paper in America, it won`t make any sense because you walk into a store and see 15 brand names of toilet paper," he had once told a newspaper.

"Yesterday I stood in line for two hours waiting for CVS truck to unload. Everyone was waiting for alcohol and toilet paper. I felt like I was back in Soviet Russia," Smirnoff, who now lives in California, tweeted.

The old Soviet anecdotes finally make sense to Americans. All it took was a little taste of the real deal.

"You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants when children are hungry in this country," Senator Bernie Sanders had once snapped.

And now there are no choices of deodorant. You take what’s on the shelf and learn to like it.

Sanders voters had wanted to live under socialism. And now they have the opportunity to learn what it’s really like. Between the curfews, the shortages, and the absolute government authority, they’re living in the type of system that Sanders and his base have admired when it was far away and safely overseas.

In 2003, Sanders, along with Rep. Conyers, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, had signed a letter of support for Hugo Chavez: the brutal Venezuelan strongman. “If Abraham Lincoln or George Washington were alive and here today, they would be on our side,” they told him.

“These days, the American dream," Sanders once wrote, "is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela."

The socialist dream in Venezuela began with toilet paper shortages, then dairy shortages, and eventually no food, medicine, or drinking water, while the Marxist regime paid its military thugs in food supplies.

A few supermarket lines are only a small taste of “democratic socialism” in action.

The coronavirus isn’t Communism, but it has created social, political, and economic conditions similar to that of Communism, with an authoritarian state, a frightened populace, and resource shortages.

There’s no better laboratory for seeing how the real thing would play out in California.

California’s Sandernistas are invariably on the wealthy and comfortable side. Bernie bumper stickers rarely show up on beat-up Chevys, but on a Tesla, on a Mercedes, or on a Beemer. You can spot Bernie lawn signs outside lavish mansions whose owners imagine that socialism is for someone else.

Someone else’s cars and mansions will be confiscated. Not theirs. Someone else won’t be able to buy basic staples. Not the Silicon Valley tech bros pouring a fortune into the Sanders campaign and its PACs.

Bernie's wealthy donors in the Inner Mission and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, and Echo Park in Los Angeles, are now discovering the lifestyle that they’ve only romanticized from a distance before as they wait on line in empty supermarkets and stare baffled at ‘Out of Stock’ messages on Amazon listings.

To paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, the poet laureate of California socialists, "When Communism comes to California, it will be wrapped in a repurposed paint fume respirator mask, wearing medical gloves, and driving a BMW with a Bernie 2020 bumper sticker while frantically grabbing rolls of toilet paper."

There are two kinds of socialism: the ideal and the real.

Ideal socialism is an entertaining set of intellectual games, castles in the sand, ivory towers in the air, where the right words and attitudes can enable the enlightened to implement heaven on earth.

Real socialism is standing on line for toilet paper.

Capitalism is the best argument for socialism. When the supermarkets are full and there are lots of good jobs, then it’s easy to imagine that the system can be improved with a lot of authoritarian planning. Why not take all those goodies and distribute them more efficiently? There’s so much of the stuff that it seems easy to redistribute it, to add a few zeroes to budgets already filled with imaginary numbers.

And socialism is the best argument against itself.

Socialists always think that they will lose their freedom to a wise ideal, only to discover that they will lose it to a grubby real of incompetent bureaucrats, frightened mobs, and armed men in the streets.

Bernie’s vague rambling plans to nationalize everything from electricity to the internet, to bring into being a nation where the government decides how much deodorant and shoes you get to have, sound great until it stops being a hip ideal and becomes the tawdry reality of waiting on line for toilet paper.

You don’t need a literacy program to realize socialism is a bad idea when you’re living through it.

California politicians have taken a break from a torrent of insane bills that proposed to ban receipts (they’re bad for the environment), ban fur, legalize eating roadkill, (if you run over a rabbit, you can eat it, but don’t you dare wear its fur), and banning separate clothes sections for little girls and boys, to ineptly tumble the state and its major cities headlong into a mismanaged response to the coronavirus.

The incompetence of California Democrats was all fun and games when it led to blowing up the homeless population while wasting billions of dollars, banning police from turning over illegal alien pedophiles to ICE, or accidentally outlawing freelance work across the entire state for the unions.

But now there are real consequences. It’s not just another bunch of zeroes or a handful of victims whose stories will never appear on any cable network except the one no respectable socialist would watch.

Millions of lives have been disrupted. And countless lives are potentially on the line.

Socialism sounds like a great idea if you imagine that the people running things are smart, moral, and competent, as socialists imagine that they are. It falls apart in the real world where people aren’t.

After voting for Bernie Sanders, Californians are discovering what it’s actually like to live in Venezuela, Cuba, or the Soviet Union, where they have no rights, there’s nothing in the stores, and nothing works.




DPA OFFICIALLY INVOKED: FEMA head says administration will use Defense Production Act to obtain 60,000 coronavirus tests (National Review)

CRACKING DOWN: Trump signs executive order to prevent price gouging, hoarding of medical supplies (The Hill)

PRECAUTIONARY MEASURES: How the VA is prepared to handle rising rates of veterans with coronavirus (The Daily Signal)

ENFORCEABLE WITH FINES: The UK goes into full lockdown with the public barred from leaving home for nonessential reasons (Business Insider)

SECOND AMENDMENT SUBTERFUGE: Pennsylvania Supreme Court greenlights mandatory gun store closures (The Washington Free Beacon)

MEANWHILE IN NEW JERSEY... Gun-rights coalition sues Gov. Phil Murphy for closing gun dealers during coronavirus pandemic (The Washington Times)

22ND STATE TO BAN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: Colorado abolishes death penalty (National Review)

COMMUNIST SYMPATHIZERS: Twitter says Beijing's coronavirus lies are just fine (The Daily Beast)

BEGINNING OF A NEW COMMERCE ERA: When coronavirus is through, our economy will look a lot different (Washington Examiner)


For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCHPOLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated), A Coral reef compendium and an IQ compendium. (Both updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog and each day I gather together my most substantial current writings on THE PSYCHOLOGIST.

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