Several days ago I saw a comment on Facebook; someone I didn't know responding to a friend. The friend was saying that she was leaning toward voting for President Obama in the upcoming election, because she felt the President had more integrity than his opponent. The comment in response was, predictably, incredulous; how could she possibly believe that Obama actually has integrity when, in the writer's words, he "tried to force wounded veterans to pay the bills for their own war injuries"?
Let's stop there for a second. This is, of course, far from the only thing, not to mention far from the worst thing, that the residents of the GOP/Fox/Drudge paracosm believe about our President, that is just simply untrue.
But it got me thinking, and I want to use it and hone in on it to explore a larger concept, something I've been trying to figure out. Follow me below the sqiuggly thing.
We all know about epistemic closure and confirmation bias and all that; there's no need to re-hash that here. We also know that whenever Fox or Drudge or anyone else over there starts breathlessly "reporting" some outrageous outrage like this, and claiming that the "liberal mainstream media" is "ignoring" it or "refusing to report" it, 100% of the time we find out that it's either (a.) completely made-up nonsense, or (b.) not even close to what the folks in the paracosm are making it out to be.
My natural instinct when I read or hear something like this, which I imagine is rather like many others' here, is to say to myself, That can't be true, and take a few minutes to do some research to find out what it's really about. And, 100 times out of 100, I find out within two minutes that it is, as I suspected, either (a.) or (b.). In this case,
Obama tried to force wounded veterans to pay the bills for their own war injuries.becomes
At one point early in the development of the health-care reform law, one idea that was considered was for veterans with private insurance to have their service-related treatment covered by their private insurance carriers instead of by the government, at no additional cost to the veterans themselves; veterans without private insurance would continue to be covered by the V.A. and not be required to obtain private insurance.This is my explanation of what actually happened as I understand it, based on what I discovered in a few minutes of research. It turns out also, and not surprisingly, that the former meme started with (what else) a viral email containing a made-up quote attributed to the President that had actually been written by a right-wing "satirist." I'm at the point now that whenever I hear something like this from the paracosm, I immediately know it's not true without having to do the research; this is what happens every single time.
I've often wondered, though: How do I know, how do any of us know, that those who believe the former statement (hereinafter the "Meme") are the ones living in a paracosm, and those of us who understand and accept the latter explanation (the "Explanation") as the truth are the ones living in the real world? Put more simply, how do we know the Meme is wrong and the Explanation is right? That the Meme is a lie and the Explanation is the truth? How do we know the Explanation is what really happened, and the Meme isn't? How do I know that the Explanation is not just my own bias talking, something I only want to believe, especially since I admitted that I instinctively didn't believe the Meme when I first read it and decided it wasn't true before I did any research? Do I want to believe the Explanation as badly as my friend's friend wants to believe the Meme?
The reason why this is such a difficult question to answer stems from the fact that when you confront a believer in the Meme with the Explanation, he will most likely reject the latter out of hand as having been drawn or derived from the "liberal media" or some other obviously biased source, thus deliberately calculated to mislead and brainwash you, which of course is what you were thinking about the Meme and is precisely what you did in response thereto, so the Möbius loop draws us in and takes us nowhere. It only brings us back to the question, how do we know which version of reality is, well, "real?" How do we know that "our" sources are telling us the objective unbiased truth and "their" sources are biased, lying to them and programming them, not vice-versa?
I don't know if there's a good answer to these questions that applies to everyone. It's not just that the Meme is short and simple where the Explanation is somewhat longer and more complicated. The Möbius loop I mentioned before is a lot more scary and dangerous than people think. The fact that anyone can simply dismiss information and ideas that don't validate one's existing prejudices as being the product of unfair and arbitrary "bias," and therefore imagine and perceive reality as being whatever one wishes it to be and reverse-engineer one's knowledge to conform with one's prejudices, all while believing the opposite has taken place, can't possibly lead anyone to a good place. The fact that so many elected officials and media figures are enabling this may be the most irresponsible collective act in history. But I'm not here to analogize Orwell.
It's taken me a long time to get to my ultimate point, which is simply this: The Explanation is reasonable, the Meme is not. To me, and to my mind, that's the bottom line. I can't explain it any better.
One of the first things I learned in law school is that much of the law is based on what is reasonable; that you have to have a good idea of what "reasonable" means, and of what is reasonable and what is not, to do well in law school, pass the Bar, and be an effective attorney. Now, of course there are plenty of attorneys who have done all of this and are still wingnuts; I even had a law professor who turned out to be one (during my semester in his class I discovered, quite by accident and much to my surprise, that he was a contributor to The American Thinker). But being willing or inclined to believe unreasonable things because they validate emotional prejudices is not the same as being unable to objectively distinguish what is reasonable from what is unreasonable.
The problem with understanding political events is that everything we know (or think we know) is second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-hand. Since neither I nor my friend's friend nor anyone else among us was a direct observer of or participant in these events, the only way to determine what's "true" is to determine which second-, third- or fourth-hand account of what happened is reasonable; which one makes the most sense irrespective of whether it validates our prejudices.
It is just simply not reasonable to believe that any American president would "try to force veterans to pay for their war injuries." It just doesn't make sense. There's no reason to do it, the president in question would have nothing to gain by doing it and would not accomplish anything by doing it. Not only that, it would be completely unreasonable for him to think that he could gain or accomplish anything by doing it. And it's unreasonable to believe that an American president would be that unreasonable, let alone to think you can read his mind. The whole thing is just preposterous. Not only is it unreasonable, it's not believable.
On the other hand, the idea of having private insurance instead of the V.A. be billed for veterans' health care, with the proviso that it only applies to veterans who have private coverage and it won't increase the cost or deprive any veteran of treatment, is eminently reasonable. That this was an idea floated by unnamed members of the administration, not an active, direct pursuit by the president himself, is also reasonable. More importantly, however, it is reasonable to believe that this is what actually happened, that this is the version of reality that, between the two available choices, is more likely to actually be true.
I won't even ask or try to trace intellectually how a reasonable proposal made by unnamed officials to shift the coverage of veterans' war injuries from the government to private insurance becomes "Obama tried to force veterans to pay for their war injuries." I won't even ask or try to explain why so many people, given a choice between an unreasonable Meme and a reasonable Explanation, choose to believe the Meme, find the Meme reasonable and the Explanation unreasonable, and find the Meme more believable than the Explanation. Validating emotional prejudices is part of it, yes, as is cognitive dissonance.
What I wonder, though, is how do we satisfy ourselves that we're right, that the reality we see and perceive is the "real" one and not the paracosm, that our "facts" are facts and not mischaracterizations, that our Explanations are true where their Memes are false. The only way I can do it and keep my sanity is to approach things the way I described above, which is to seek a reasonable Explanation for an unreasonable-sounding Meme ... and hope I'm not doing myself and everyone else a disservice by enabling a lot of really, really bad behavior.