I’ve been thinking a great deal about belief lately. About how we come to hold certain beliefs, and why some of them are so hard to change. About why some people seem to embrace new perspectives and why others seem to never let go of viewpoints they learned as a child.
Recently, the town of Klamath Falls convinced itself, with help from local law enforcement, that buses of anti-facist protesters were being organized to come and damage property and hurt people within the town. Of course this never happened, because for one, antifa is not a formal organization, just a collection of autonomous groups that have become a political boogeyman for the right. For two, people of color and allies are way too smart to travel hours to a podunk town to start a fight with heavily armed white people when they’re in the midst of advocating for mass social, legal, and governmental change. The only result was that the local Black Lives Matter protesters who were peacefully protesting had to deal with the stress of this same group of heavily armed white people harassing them from across the street.
And when these buses full of boogeymen failed to appear? Some of the armed white people declared victory, claiming they had scared them off. Their deep belief in their own conspiracies even led to them denying that the local Black protesters lived in town.
Can you imagine? Being so ingrained in your own perspective that when you see a person of a different race from you, you just refuse to believe that they can even possibly live in your town?
Now, I’m not going to delve too much into the fact that law enforcement promoted this false antifa claim, except to say that it’s yet more evidence that local police have deeply problematic ties with conservative and white supremacist culture. Which of course is why Black Lives Matter protests are happening in the first place. (And in case you were wondering, the law enforcement who promoted the idea are still claiming it was real information, even after the buses never materialized.)
But stepping away from the general cringiness of the people who believe Facebook posts about roving buses of anti-fascist criminals for a moment, I think it’s interesting to look at why they believed this so unabashedly.
Because on one hand, there are some things we need to believe in without seeing them. There is the need to believe people when they tell us their truths. We need to understand that the world we see and experience is not that same as what others experience. Even if there is no video evidence, even if it’s not “proven”, we owe it to others, especially those who are marginalized, to believe in what they deal with every day.
So in one case we should believe without seeing, in the other, it was a mistake. What’s the difference?
All of us live in our own reality. In the Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz refers to it as a “dream”. We all see our own version of this dream, influenced by the family we grew up in, the friends we have, the work we do, the education we receive, even the media we consume. To us as individuals, it is the only reality. Yet put a bunch of us together, and we have multiple realities.
There’s been a number of interesting studies on memory. The more scientists study it, the more evidence there is that we misremember a great deal that we think is set in stone. The Satanic Panic of years ago was prompted by false memories created via therapy. Eyewitnesses are very easy to mislead into remembering details that were not present at the time of an incident. Childhood events that we believe we see with perfect clarity are not quite what we thought. Ask a group of people who were together when something important happened, and everyone will describe it a little differently. I think a big part of this is the plasticity in how our brain processes and stores information, but I think another part of it is that we are describing how events happened in our own personal reality. It’s true to us, just not the truth.
I think this is a very important distinction. Because when people refuse to believe that there is such a thing as privilege or oppression, or think that prejudice ended when Obama was elected, what they are saying is that their reality is “the truth”.
It’s a very similar concept to religion. The majority of religions think they are the only ones who have it right. And maybe one does, I certainly can’t say for sure. But that’s the point – no one can. No one has the absolute truth. We can find ideas that comfort us or help us feel a sense of community, but anyone claiming to have a monopoly on the truth is trying to push their reality on to everyone else. And considering that the world contains billions of people who believe differently, that’s a rather vast undertaking (and also leads to war, oppression, and despair).
Being able to recognize that your own personal reality is not the same for everyone, and that other people’s truths can be completely valid takes a strong degree of self-awareness. A willingness to question yourself and what you believe. A willingness to do something that might be scary. Which takes me to the next element.
Driven by Fear
As a white woman, I’ve tried to do a lot of work to be aware of my biases. Because so many of them are unconscious, and ingrained in me just by having grown up in a white supremacist society, they can pop up at the most random of moments. It’s important to learn to catch them, and to question them.
But there is one consistency I have noticed about when they most often tend to arise. And it’s when I’m feeling fear. If I’m watching something on the news that triggers anxiety, I’m more likely to see some pretty stupid thoughts come into my head. Fortunately, I’ve done the work to recognize them, and dissect them back into nothingness. But for those who haven’t, these thoughts are likely to trigger behavior that supports them – i.e. seeing a Facebook rumor and grabbing your gun. It definitely doesn’t help if you’re surrounded by people who promote these same fear-based ideas.
The most recent John Oliver segment on the police was quite powerful, but what really stayed with me was his clip of author Kimberly Jones, who said bluntly and correctly, “white people are lucky we’re looking for equality and not revenge”.
That’s something that came to mind seeing the story of Klamath Falls. The white people who are expecting violence to come at them in the midst of this push for social change are reacting this way, because that’s what they would do. They would be looking for revenge. They’re terrified about not being the race on top, because deep inside they know how they’ve treated people on the bottom. Their reality, their personal truth, is all about the fear.
There’s also another piece to beliefs based on fear. This is the fear that rears its head when a family member says something racist, or promotes a bigoted idea. When a friend reveals that they really don’t like “that kind” of person. Fear of confrontation. The fear of making a fuss. The fear of things being awkward or uncomfortable. Of starting a disagreement.
I was listening to NPR this week, liberal snowflake that I am, and they were talking about how few white parents talk to their children about race. Many of them include parents who believe in equality, but don’t know how to talk to their kids about this topic. It feels uncomfortable, so it doesn’t happen. This is certainly not the only topic too many parents avoid due to awkward feelings. It’s far too common.
These are the types of fear that seem small, until something big happens. Like when a video is released showing someone being killed by an authority that claims to protect. Like when a woman comes forward to share her experience of being assaulted by a man in an important position of power. Like when an institution you’ve supported reveals a willingness to let children suffer over holding those in power accountable. Then suddenly that fear of speaking up spirals into a fear of standing up to authority, shaking up your core beliefs, and potentially losing something that you have always believed vital to your life.
I certainly understand the impulse. I come from a very conflict avoidant background. We often want to “keep the peace”. And yet, when we allow ourselves to be driven by this fear, it means that there is a vast number of people who get to be comfortably racist or sexist or homophobic, without ever being challenged. It means there are children growing up who take on the oppressive messages of our society, because their parents didn’t give them anything else to believe. It means that there are people in positions of authority who get to continue hurting others, because they know no one will want to make a scene or risk losing a community.
From the small to the big, this kind of avoidant behavior has an impact. It has a cost. Of course there’s a huge cost to the marginalized and oppressed. Every time a white family lets drunk Uncle Joe go on a racist rant, or let’s grandma talk about “those people” around the kids, it casts a stone that ripples out to rock those on the outer edges. Every time we decide that we don’t need to hold institutions accountable, because it’s easier to just pretend it never happened, people will continue to get hurt.
But there’s also an internal cost. To one’s sense of integrity, and self-respect. The difference between looking back at a life where one chose to do the right thing, and where one chose to go the route of a fictional “peace”.
I’m hoping to write an entire piece on critical thinking soon, because holy cow, do we need to talk about it. And true, some of the piece will likely be about people who somehow hear the president’s incoherent ramblings and interpret them as genius, but to be honest, I see this lack of critical thinking in so many arenas. There’s such a tendency to see something shocking on Facebook and to press the share button, without taking the time to research the idea. I’ve seen people tell others to “do the research” while only showing a YouTube video as their source.
Even those things we can hear from supposed “authority” can be incredibly manipulative. Governments, churches, and other institutions have frequently used various forms of propaganda to fit their own agenda. Right now we’re seeing a number of state governments downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, because we live in a capitalist society, and the vast number of politicians have been trained to value money over human lives. Many churches are claiming to be critical services, when drawing their community together is only going to cost lives, and there are online alternatives to keep people safe.
It’s tempting to believe those in positions of power, regardless of what they’re saying. We want to believe someone knows what they’re doing. We want to believe that all companies have our interests at heart. We want to believe a priest who tells us we’ll be protected through faith. We want to believe that a pill could solve all our problems, that buying a product will make us happy, that believing in something strongly enough can make it so.
But wanting isn’t enough.
Refusing to think critically about what you read or watch or hear from others, or even to think critically about what’s in your own belief system, leaves you vulnerable to a great deal of bad and manipulative information. It hurts you, and it hurts those around you.
The wild thing about a great deal of the manipulative tactics being used today is that we have already seen this done before with great effect. We know these tactics, we know how they are structured, and what their goals are. And yet we have people living today who happily believe it all, hook, line, and sinker.
We can do better. Just by thinking more.
So Now What?
I don’t have any grand conclusion or polished thesis here. The frustrating thing about people who don’t look internally or think critically is that there’s not much you can do to change them. They have to want to change. They have to have that lightbulb moment, where they realize things are a little different than they were led to believe.
The wonderful thing is that some people are having that moment right now. The protests and continuous videos of police violence have actually been breaking through to some, making them reevaluate some assumptions. I heard a woman on the radio yesterday, admitting she taught her children the concept of colorblindness, because it seemed the right thing. And now she knows it was a mistake, and is working with her kids to change things for the better.
The sad thing is that some people will never have that moment. I watched that video of Trump sadly trudging back home after a poorly attended rally, and although I laughed at the music videos that people made to mock him, I also felt a moment of pity. This is a man who has been mired in his own reality his entire life. He is so mired in his superior, dismal, dark little world that he is incapable of learning, of seeing things differently, of opening his world to those who are different to him.
Because what all of this really means, the self-awareness, the willingness to value other people’s perspectives, to care about the safety and well-being of others, is the choice to live a life of connection. Pushing people away because of fear of the other is pushing away some of the best people you would ever have the chance to know. Refusing to question your beliefs makes your world smaller, and colder, and darker.
But when you’re open? How very beautiful it can be on the other side.