I spend a lot of time wondering about how reasonably intelligent people start to believe in not-so-intelligent ideas, especially since I myself have been down a few rabbit holes of idiocy at several points in my lifetime. But while the “why” is very important, there is also the matter of what to do about it. Are there things one can do to avoid falling for wholly irrational, tribal worldviews? Is there a vaccine against this? I have a couple suggestions.
When looking back on some of the dumber ideas I fell for in my youth (not counting the religious conservative worldview I was raised with), I sometimes wonder if they were unavoidable, and that if I went in one direction rather than another this was only due to circumstances and experiences. I believe to some extent that young males, well into their twenties, are imbued with a sense of hubris that emboldens them and motivates them to hold fast to the most idiotic beliefs at times. Witness the confidence of some of these alt-right followers display when expounding on society and politics and you’ll see what I mean. Each one is a Dunning-Kruger case study. Now granted, many people carry this overconfidence well past their 20’s, but that’s the thing- either you become self-aware, grow up, and correct yourself, or you remain an overconfident blowhard to the end. The latter of those, incidentally, can lead to a very lucrative career on Youtube or if you’re lucky, Fox News.
What is it that young males (and let’s face it, males tend to fall for this far more often) are so susceptible to? If I had to define it in one word, I’d say epiphany. By epiphany I mean this specific realization that one factor somehow explains the whole system, and when you come to that realization, that epiphany, you now have gained all the knowledge you to truly understand the world around you. That knowledge is like a filter you can apply to any situation, be it a news story, an upcoming election, or some kind of international conflict. In fact, a lot of people who fall for this kind of thing have given that epiphany a name- the red pill. Being “redpilled” has different meanings whether it’s being used by MRAs (“Men’s Rights Advocates) or neo-Nazis; the former see the red pill as understanding that women secretly rule society while the latter say it’s the Jews, although there’s a lot of overlap between the two ideologies these days.
There are left-wing versions of this too. These can range from the general “anti-hegemony,” Chomsky-ite worldview, whereby everything bad can be explained by the influence of the US and its close allies. Or it can manifest in an extremely mechanical application of Marxist class theory, whereby everything is reduced to class, and specifically class as understood by Marx in his own time, rather than material reality in the present. Marx’s greatest contribution to history was an analysis and critique of capitalism. He did not develop some kind of esoteric knowledge which could explain the workings of all things and allow those with that knowledge to control the flow of history. Some leftists either do not know or forget that Marxist theory is a method for analyzing certain aspects of human society and its evolution, not an answer to all life’s questions or a cure-all for in any every social problem. The misapplication and manipulation of Marxist theory has been disastrous, to say the least.
A corollary to the epiphany is that it is typically forbidden or taboo, and this is used as evidence that it is correct. For example, there is a quotation misattributed to Voltaire which goes: “To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?” In fact, the quote in question most likely originates from the white nationalist leader and convicted pedophile Kevin Alfred Strom. There’s a good lesson in that; sure, it may be taboo to praise Hitler in public or to defend the gulag system in our modern society, but it is also taboo to defend pedophilia or cannibalism. In other words, being taboo doesn’t necessarily make something right, either factually or morally. Some things are taboo for a reason and they should remain so.
So my advice to the young men out there (because again, it’s mostly a male thing) is this: If anyone tells you this one weird trick that explains the whole system, be very cautious. Remember that skepticism is the default position you should be in with all extraordinary claims, and any claim that purports to explain the whole world is certainly extraordinary. Yes, material reality shows we live in a capitalist world divided into antagonistic classes, but there are many other factors outside of these two established facts which weigh heavily on events. Even concepts like determining who has power and how doesn’t can only really work as rules of thumb. And I don’t think I should have to even point out that any theory that claims the world is run by a cabal of Jews, secret societies, feminists, etc. is clearly bullshit and can be simply dismissed.
While that advice is for the potential audience for such flawed ideologies, what can society do to help foster critical thinking? I have often noted how for many people, the response to the “America can do no wrong” narrative of their upbringing and our political discourse is simply “America can do no right,” as opposed to a more critical and nuanced point of view. It is this kind of thinking that leads “dissidents” to identify with and praise regimes that have done either worse things than the US, or at least did no better.
It seems to me, though I may be wrong, that if we didn’t teach American exceptionalism, if we didn’t teach the “America is the greatest thing in the history of anything, ever” narrative in schools, then we might prevent the opposite idiotic idea, that any regime in a spat with the US must be good or have a righteous cause. In many ways, that view seems to stem from the aforementioned epiphany, and the idea that America and its hegemony is the lens through which we should view all global politics is basically an epiphany. It is and example of “everything they taught you was wrong, here’s the truth.” So what would happen if we didn’t teach that way anymore?
If we just taught US history accurately, warts and all, then revelations of its crimes wouldn’t seem so groundbreaking because, after all, they’d already be revealed. The fairy-tale version of American history is lying to children, and when people figure out they’ve been lied to they tend to get angry. So angry, in fact, that they might even be receptive to someone else’s lies, so long as they go against the lies they’ve already been told.
Of course it’s one thing to say how history ought to be taught and another to actually get the system to teach it. I remember Cracked.com’s Jason Pargin making the very correct point that the reason country’s teach history in schools isn’t to actually teach what happened, i.e. history. The “lesson” you’re supposed to get from history class is that the present order in your country is fair, just, and good, and more importantly- people did certain things in the past so you should do them too. If we taught history as it is, the authorities would have a revolt on their hands.