Part 4—Sources of tribal belief: Increasingly, it's becoming clear. Like the very bad people known as The Others, we liberals love our tribal stories.
Melinda Anderson told a good one at The Atlantic this week. As you may recall, the story started like this:
ANDERSON (12/7/15): Tunette Powell travels across the country counseling families and mentoring youth. An award-winning motivational speaker and author, her professional work in the education field ranges from training nonprofit leaders to consulting for colleges and universities. But none of Powell’s career-related skills could prepare her for the frustration and helplessness of seeing her two sons suspended from preschool, which she pegged to overly harsh and racially biased discipline. In a July 2014 Washington Post opinion piece that gained national attention, Powell relates how her boys—ages 3 and 4—were suspended from their Omaha preschool program eight times total in one year. Once published, the essay resonated with readers nationwide. “So many parents reached out [to me]...a lot of black mothers” who shared her experience with excessive suspensions, said Powell. “We live in a time when we just say, ‘Suspend them, get rid of them.’”Increasingly, we liberals seem to love stories of that type, even when such stories are false. For yesterday's report, click here.
A glance at news headlines confirms that Powell and her sons are not an anomaly...
Alas! Contrary to what we were told, Powell's experience with her sons' preschool seems to have been a giant anomaly. We base that judgment on a statistic Anderson mentioned early in her report, and on a few other statistics she apparently chose to withhold.
Alas! According to Anderson's cited sources, only one preschooler in every 400 gets suspended more than once in the course of a single school year. If Powell's sons got suspended four times each in that single school year, her experience had moved past the realm of the merely anomalous. She had entered the rarified statistical air of near impossibility.
Alas! We liberals simply adore stories of this type. We seem to love these stories so much that we're willing to overlook the "false notes" which would suggest, to honest brokers, that the stories we're inclined to love are quite possibly wrong.
In the case of Anderson's story, the first "false note" was throbbing and flashing right there in paragraph 3, as we described in yesterday's report. We began to click and seek withheld facts, as we frequently do.
Sure enough! The story, of a type we love, turned out to be crazily wrong. But there it is, in The Atlantic!
Alas! We've had this experience with great frequency as we the liberals have continued to build a culture of true belief. In the case of Anderson's story, two questions come to mind:
First, does The Atlantic still employ editors? If so, what editor would have failed to spot the "false note" which throbbed and flashed and sounded so loudly in Anderson's paragraph 3?
That's a fairly narrow question. Here's a broader question:
What explains why we liberals are such suckers for such inaccurate tales? What makes us blow past a story's "false notes? What makes us swallow the "con?"
In last Sunday's New York Times, Maria Konnikova sought to answer that question. Having said that, we once again note a difference:
Konnikova wasn't discussing erroneous tribal belief. She was asking a somewhat similar question: what makes otherwise sensible people fall for the stories of "con men?"
What made an otherwise sensible college student blow all her money in a game of three-card monte? What made two otherwise sensible people fall in love with romantic hoaxers?
What made an otherwise sensible person fail to spot the warning signs in an art forgery scheme? On their face, Konnikova's case studies struck us as relatively trivial. But when we started reading her explanations for the power of the con, we felt that she was answering some of the questions we've been asking for years:
What makes us liberals fall in love with tribal stories which are grossly simplistic, perhaps to the point of being false? What makes us such easy marks?
What makes us liberals such easy marks? We were struck by the broad shape of Konnikova's implied answer.
Why do people fall for the stories of con men? Konnikova's explanation has two basic parts.
First, she notes the sheer power of stories. Good "con men" are skilled at telling false stories, Konnikova says. And stories are powerful tools.
"Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us," Konnikova writes. "Caught up in a powerful story, we become blind to inconsistencies that seem glaring in retrospect."
A well-told story is highly persuasive. "Faced with incongruous evidence, you dismiss the evidence rather than the story," Konnikova says. She quotes psychologist Seymour Epstein:
“It is no accident that the Bible, probably the most influential Western book of all time, teaches through parables and stories and not through philosophical discourse.”
A well-told story can sweep the listener away. As we noted long ago, Jesus employs no charts or graphs at any point in his ministry.
That said, why do we find some stories highly convincing—so convincing that we blow past their glaring "false notes"—while other stories may not grab us at all?
We were struck by Konnikova's suggestive answers. She was trying to explain why people fall for con men and hoaxers. But we kept reading phrases that sounded familiar to us.
According to Konnikova, we humans tend to have "a deep need to believe in a version of the world where everything really is for the best—at least when it comes to us." For us liberals, that may be a world where everyone else is abusing black kids, while we, the very good people, are appalled by those peoples' misconduct.
According to Konnikova, one of her victims "wasn’t greedy [for money]; she was just greedy for a certain reality." And that's where the talented con man comes in. For us, this passage rang quite a few bells:
KONNIKOVA (12/6/15): The stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives—reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.Con men make us feel "as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act?" We've long suggested that the need to feel that way seems to lie at the heart of our liberal tribe's familiar tribal tales.
We humans! “When people want to believe what they want to believe, they are very hard to dissuade.” So says David Sullivan, a professional cult infiltrator Konnikova quotes in her piece.
“There’s a desire to have a coherent worldview," Sullivan further says. Later, Konnikova quotes him again:
KONNIKOVA: Nobody thinks they are joining a cult, David Sullivan explains. “They join a group that’s going to promote peace and freedom throughout the world or that’s going to save animals, or they’re going to help orphans or something. But nobody joins a cult.” We don’t knowingly embraces false beliefs. We embrace something we think is as true as it gets. We don’t set out to be conned. We set out to become, in some way, better than we were before.In Konnikova's view, "we set out to become, in some way, better than we were before." Might this lead us to believe the worst of everyone else, even where "false notes" are blaring, with warning lights flashing, in one of the stories we love?
The world of conservative talk became a bit cultish decade ago. There's nothing so dumb that it won't be believed as long as it comes from a tribal leader—and as long as it reinforces a certain highly simple-minded view of the wider world.
Are we liberals designing a similar culture? If so, can our all-too-human instinct and impulse really be good for the world?
Tomorrow: A well-received book
Small world department: Way back when, we took a freshman seminar, "Theory of emotions," from Professor Epstein, who Konnikova quotes. Improbably, we refer to the school year which started in September 1965!
Professor Epstein was extremely nice to us clueless freshmen. We always felt our work with him would eventually pay off!