Perpetual Pessimists

Let’s do a thought experiment: Suppose we work in an office and you were home sick one day, missing a staff meeting as a result. Having returned from work, you hear a rumor that employees will have to work a full shift on Saturday from now on. Naturally you’re not too happy with this, especially since no explanation as to why everyone should work six days a week was given.

Now one day I hear you grumbling about this in the break room. I was actually at the meeting and it becomes apparent that you were given bad information. As it turns out, working on Saturday won’t be mandatory. In fact, what was really discussed was allowing some employees to work on Saturdays if they needed the hours, and they could only work a half day schedule.

How would you receive this information? I think most people would be relieved. Turns out you were upset about nothing. In fact, since you know you won’t have plans every Saturday, this is actually an excellent opportunity for you to make some extra cash when you’ve got a free weekend. Not bad at all.

But suppose I tell you the same information and you react in a different way. You get upset and insist that yes, we are going to have to work all day on Saturdays, and it sucks. You attack me for being a mindless sheep, or insinuate that I’ve been paid a bonus by the management to spread disinformation about our new weekend timetable. When I point out that I was actually at the meeting, thus having an edge in knowledge about the topic, you totally dismiss this. You’ve been to meetings too. Perhaps there was no meeting. Maybe it was called but never held so as to give the new weekend timetable a faux-democratic character. No sir, you know the truth! And the truth is that we’re definitely going to have to work weekends. I suggest not going to work on Saturday to see the reaction from the management. You refuse, saying that they will surely fire you. Since you don’t want to give them the satisfaction and don’t want to sit through that conversation, you have decided to quit this afternoon.

Obviously this second reaction is absurd, at least in this simple scenario. Having to work weekends at a job where you never had to do so before can be an outrage, but it’s easy to calm down when someone informs you that you were mistaken and will not be required to give up your Saturdays. Strangely, however, the second reaction tends to be more common when the outrage is many times more severe.

Take your average GMO opponent or anti-vaxxer. If we get at the root of these trends and strip away the context, is logical to be concerned about potentially tainted food or the possibility that a widely-used substance causes autism in children. Most of these people are simply ignorant about genetic engineering and the microbiology associated with vaccines. The problem comes from when they are confronted with the truth- that genetically modified foods aren’t inherently dangerous because the genetic material of all life on Earth is remarkably similar and has the same origin, and the fact that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, whose causes are in fact still unknown. A rational person, having their ignorance extinguished when confronted with the facts, ought to be quite pleased. No need to worry about the hazardous effects of “contaminated” food. No more worrying that protecting your child from diseases that used to kill scores of people might be a trade-off with autism.

Of course in the real world, this isn’t what happens. In the real world, you’re accused of being a shill for Monsanto and “Big Pharma.” If you’re not getting paid to put this “disinformation” out there, you must then be a hopeless, conformist sheep who just believes whatever your government or “the corporations” tell you.

It’s hard to run out of examples of this kind of idiotic thinking whether you’re talking about the US or Russia. Imagine how much happier your Fox News-viewing relatives would be if they actually woke up and acknowledged that no, illegal immigrants aren’t taking jobs and sucking our nations resources dry. No, the government isn’t going to come take your precious guns. No, US sovereignty is not going to be given away to form a North American Union with Canada and Mexico. Welfare queens, common core, martial law, voter fraud, Shariah law…The list is endless. Just look at the kind of behavior grown adults are capable of engaging in when they subscribe to this kind of chicken little thinking.

In Russia there is a fine example. Every good Russian “knows” that the US is trying to destroy Russia. It always has been. It wants Siberia and its resources. Of course the country that could barely manage to handle Iraq and Afghanistan is secretly planning a 21st century Barbarossa invasion against nuclear armed Russia! You can point out the massive reduction of US military personnel in Europe, which while halted after almost a year of Russia’s war in Ukraine, is still moving forward. You can point to all the US investment in Russia, which with other foreign investment made massive contributions to Russian living standards during the last decade. You can point out that the economy of the US is geared towards selling products and services, especially to large overseas markets, thereby making it ridiculous that the US would deliberately want to deliberately cripple one of those large markets. You can point out the fact that since 1991, the vast majority of Americans don’t give a shit about Russia. Yeah let’s all laugh about how many Americans can’t find Russia on a map, but let’s never mention the fact that they don’t have to.

None of this matters: Dulles’ Plan! Grand Chessboard! NATO encirclement! Color revolutions! Does this sound familiar to you? Here’s the American version: Gun grab! Death panels! Common core! Benghazi! BENGHAZI! BENGHAZI, GOD DAMN YOU! BENGHAZI!  

This thinking is really strange to me because while in my life time I have bought into my share of conspiracy theories, I was often somewhat relieved to find I was wrong. In my youth I was constantly hearing from talk radio, relatives, and youth pastors that once I got to high school, I’d find myself in the liberal lion’s den. On one hand we’d be forced to sit through incredibly raunchy sex ed lessons and receive condoms on our way out, but if we males looked at a woman for more than three seconds we’d be arrested for sexual harassment. I’m guessing that contradiction was to be resolved by the mandatory homosexuality lessons. I was taught that the Bible and prayer were banned in public schools, and our teachers would extol the virtues of Communism.

Needless to say, none of that happened. In fact, none of a lot of things I was worried about for years ever happened, and in some cases the opposite happened. To me, the fact that something I was worrying about turned out to be false was a relief. There was one less thing to worry about. I simply do not understand why some people actually prefer to be afraid of things that do not exist. I’m not even talking about religion or the supernatural here. Things like confiscatory gun control or a planned NATO invasion of Russia are testable topics. We can look at the history of US military deployments and downsizing in recent years. We can supplement that by looking at the nature of the US economy and questioning the idea that it would make such an idiotic decision, from an economic point of view, all for the sake of hobbling a country whose economy is comparable to the state of California. In the US, we may look at the history of US gun control legislation. The fact is they aren’t going to go from barely even suggesting any new legislation to a full force confiscation program without a lot of incremental changes in between.

Ah but that’s just what they want you to think, of course! You’re either a sheep or a shill. No thanks; they’d rather continue being scared shitless about things that are literally not happening. I’m not sure how to explain this sort of thinking. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary thing. Humans with a heightened sense of danger or external threats probably survived due to the busted clock axiom. What I do know is that it is annoying as hell in the 21st century, because people have more access than ever before so as to research and identify real problems. Yet it always seems that the more intense a particular chicken little is about who’s trying to kill us, take our jobs, or leech off our tax dollars, the less they actually do to solve any problems whatsoever, including the ones they’re upset about.

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5 thoughts on “Perpetual Pessimists

  1. Asehpe

    Maybe there is something to the “heightened sense of danger increases chances of survival” theory, but I think there is a stronger factor: the desire to be right. I think those people are afraid of something, perhaps because of this heightened sense of danger, but they go on believing it after it’s shown to be wrong because this would imply that THEY were wrong, that THEY held some stupid belief, that THEY were ridiculous. And nobody wants that!… They’ll go on and on happily believing that their conspiracy theories are right so that they still get to call YOU an imbecile for “believing big pharma”, rather than acknowledging THEY were the imbeciles who fell for a dark fairy tale for lack of better knowledge.

    Come to think of it, how could Putin’s strategy even work if people weren’t massively like that? They’d rather believe that the US are secretely plotting to invate Siberia and that the EU has obligatory homosexuallity laws than that they were wrong — because being wrong is, well, rather uncomfortable. If you keep believing you’re right, you get to call other people ‘minions of the West’ or ‘CIA agents’ or ‘useful idiots’; if you realize you were wrong, you can no longer do any of those fun things… and you’d have to go back to looking at your rather boring life and realizing people in the US and in Gayropa have a much higher standard of living and are much freer to express their opinions and affect their political processes…. and who would want that?

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think with most Russians who “made the switch” last year, it’s really more about the normalcy bias. To admit being wrong means that the suspicion they’ve had for years, that Russia is a runaway train heading off a cliff sooner or later, and the “stability” Putin brought was, at best, a temporary illusion.

      Reply
      1. Shalcker

        I would think the opposite – the realisation that stability is temporary is what makes people cling to it more rather then jump into unknown alternatives.

      2. Asehpe

        Like someone who doesn’t want to let to of his Santa Claus beliefs because he’s afraid of a cold, uncaring world without Santa in it? I can see that going in parallel with the desire not to be wrong… In both cases the person is being defensive because he doesn’t want to live in a world in which he is wrong.

  2. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    There was a rather astonishing article in the Guardian last week after we discovered that the left’s candidate for the Labour leadership is a homeopathy fan (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/17/homeopathy-idiots-science-jeremy-corbyn?CMP=share_btn_tw).

    It argues that you shouldn’t call homeopathy fans idiots because it’s counterproductive. This does make sense because, as David Aaronovitch writes in his excellent book on conspiracy theorists, confronted with the facts they just make up new ones or think you must be ‘in on the conspiracy’.

    What the Guardian article does cite as helpful is the role of leadership, either for daft stuff like homeopathy or against and same for conspiracies. With that in mind it is utterly depressing that I discovered a vast number of UK Labour MPs supporting homeopathy http://paulocanning.blogspot.com/2015/07/a-childrens-treasury-of-labour-mps.html 😦

    Reply

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