Till Death Do Us Part
A rigid belief system is an ideological house of cards. It’s often described with terms like “fundamentalist,” “purist,” “traditional” or “orthodox.” In this type of thought system, foundational beliefs support other, higher-level beliefs. For example, if a woman believes that, under no circumstances, guns should be regulated, she probably advocates for liberty and freedom (at least theoretically). If a person’s foundational belief is under attack, then that person’s entire identity is at risk; the house of cards might come tumbling down if the attack isn’t thwarted.
The inability of people with rigid belief systems to adapt their worldview, in response to changing circumstances or new discoveries, means that facts are irrelevant. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” tagline didn’t usher in the age of post-truth, but it did give a fun new name to this era’s most dangerous political weapon: lies. Falsehoods are especially useful to people whose core beliefs about the world are threatened by the brute facts of reality. Politicians know this and are happy to spoon-feed the masses exactly what they need to protect their worldview.
Let’s Debate: Truth Always Wins!
The standard format for pitting two viewpoints against one another is the debate. This used to be a common way to identify the right course of action to take or which policy to adopt. Our decisions should be based on reason. Debates occur formally on televised events and college campuses, but also takes place informally on a daily basis. In a debate, the two sides attempt to make their case to the audience (or to each other) that their viewpoint is the correct one. They use arguments, which consist of conclusions that are arrived at by premises. Facts make up these premises. Facts are the DNA of an argument. While the style, poise and charm of debaters also influence the audience’s perception, the point of the exercise is to show which side has the better argument, assuming it’s grounded in facts. Obviously, the facts that debaters use to make their case are not always true, however they are still presented as facts.
Unfortunately, getting people to use facts in arguments is just half the battle. A fundamental assumption of the debate concept is that the audience will be swayed by the stronger argument, i.e. that the audience members will synthesize the arguments presented to them and side with the stronger case – just like scientists revise their conclusions as new data becomes available. However, as we all know, this doesn’t always happen. At least in America, that level of objectivity is a pipe dream. If a person’s belief system hinges on an idea or belief that’s under attack, there is no limit to the mental gymnastics that he or she will perform to minimize any uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.
If someone is unable to alter their perspective based on new evidence, then facts lose significance. People like that are dangerous because time is running out on some of the most critical issues threatening mankind. To them, altering their worldview would mean having to change their very essence of self and who they are as people. They have abandoned all pretenses of intellectual integrity. These rigid belief systems handicap their victims’ ability to find solutions to problems because they often negate reality and promote delusion. A rigid “house of cards” belief system is an intellectual slaveholder. These people are literally enslaved by their inflexible worldviews.
What Tribe Are You From?
A notorious component of the “house of cards” worldview is tribal affiliation. A person’s group association is a huge part of their identity and is often directly correlated with their belief system. A person sees herself or himself as a member of a tribe, team, club or some other type of a social group. Politics, religion, culture and other influences converge to form a comprehensive network of identity. The belief system is a package deal when a person is part of a tribe. A membership in a particular group mandates that the members adhere to the same ideological template.
A good example of this is a fraternity. New pledges are indoctrinated into the lifestyle of the brotherhood. The pledges are expected to conform to the tribal philosophy in ways such as dress/attire, social habits (alcohol consumption, romantic pursuits), adopting the fraternity’s hatred of competing fraternities and even altering their political affiliation.
It must be noted that tribes or social groups whose ideologies and worldviews are flexible, and can be modified based on new discoveries, are not malignant. Here, new information warrants reexamination of doctrines, practices and stances on relevant issues. Scientists who come across new evidence that contradict previous consensuses are happy to change their positions. The true cancer of reason comes from social groups whose “house of cards” worldview is unchangeable or whose ideological evolution moves at a glacial pace. New information does not cause introspection. It causes anger.
Retaliation from new information, at the expense of truth, means that the electorate is no longer informed. Citizens that aren’t familiar with the issues or that don’t know the facts pose a huge threat to the system. An informed electorate is the bedrock of democracy. Ultimately, humanity’s well-being is on the line, which isn’t a hyperbolic statement. Often, these close-eared groups create dishonest or pseudo-scientific movements that are aimed at thwarting public consensuses that conflicts with economic, religious or political interests. These groups are infected by the “house of cards” belief system, which makes them think that altering one facet of their belief system will destroy their identities.
This scorched-earth philosophy isn’t necessary. We must find the middle ground between violent retaliation and utter surrender of one’s identity. But, in order to accomplish that, people have to recognize the way that their sense of self is constructed. It’s a house of cards. That’s a recipe for disaster. If our identities don’t become more flexible soon, we’re in deep shit.