Saturday, August 5, 2017

Heading into Paranoia-Land

I'm seeing a confluence of thought in some of my reading that's pretty frightening, honestly. Maybe more frightening than the existence of Trump himself (aside from the possible nuclear war thing, but... you know, other than that).

A few weeks after the election, I read this post on a blog called Forsetti's Justice and its main point has been resurfacing in my thinking ever since. The anonymous writer, who grew up in rural Idaho, describes the epistemic closure of religion as the core of the problem:

In deep red, white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems. Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive for introspection, questioning, learning, change. When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power. The problem isn’t “coastal elites don’t understand rural Americans.” The problem is rural America doesn’t understand itself and will NEVER listen to anyone outside their bubble.

It doesn’t matter how “understanding” you are, how well you listen, what language you use…if you are viewed as an outsider, your views are automatically discounted. I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal. At some point during the discussion, “That’s your education talking,” will be said, derogatorily, as a general dismissal of everything I said. They truly believe this is a legitimate response because to them education is not to be trusted. Education is the enemy of fundamentalism because fundamentalism, by its very nature, is not built on facts.

The fundamentalists I grew up around aren’t anti-education. They want their kids to know how to read and write. They are anti-quality, in-depth, broad, specialized education. Learning is only valued up to the certain point. Once it reaches the level where what you learn contradicts doctrine and fundamentalist arguments, it becomes dangerous. I watched a lot of my fellow students who were smart, stop their education the day they graduated high school. For most of the young ladies, getting married and having kids was more important than continuing their learning. For many of the young men, getting a college education was seen as unnecessary and a waste of time. For the few who did go to college, what they learned was still filtered through their fundamentalist belief system. If something they were taught didn’t support a preconception, it would be ignored and forgotten the second it was no longer need to pass an exam....

For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God. You aren’t winning a battle of beliefs with these people if you are on one side of the argument and God is on the other....

Another major problem with closed-off, fundamentalist belief systems is they are very susceptible to propaganda. All belief systems are to some extent, but fundamentalist systems even more so because there are no checks and balances. If bad information gets in, it doesn’t get out and because there are no internal mechanisms to guard against it, it usually ends up very damaging to the whole. A closed-off belief system is like your spinal fluid — it is great as long as nothing infectious gets into it. If bacteria gets into your spinal fluid, it causes unbelievable damage because there are no white blood cells in it whose job is to fend off invaders and protect the system. This is why things like meningitis are so horrible. Without the protective services of white blood cells in the spinal column, meningitis spreads like wildfire once it’s in and does significant damage in a very short period of time. Once inside the closed-off spinal system, bacteria is free to destroy whatever it wants and does.

The very same is true with closed-off belief systems. Without built-in protective functions like critical analysis, self-reflection, openness to counter-evidence, willingness to re-evaluate any and all beliefs, etc., bad information in a closed-off system ends up doing massive damage in short period of time. What has happened to too many fundamentalist belief systems is damaging information has been allowed in from people who have been granted “expert status.” If someone is allowed into a closed-off system and their information is deemed acceptable, anything they say will readily be accepted and become gospel. Rural, Christian, white Americans have let in anti-intellectual, anti-science, bigoted, racists into their system as experts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, any of the blonde Stepford Wives on FOX, every evangelical preacher on television because they tell them what they want to hear and because they sell themselves as being “one of them.

The truth is none of these people give a rat’s ass about rural, Christian, white Americans except how can they exploit them for attention and money. None of them have anything in common with the people who have let them into their belief systems with the exception they are white and they “speak the same language” of white superiority, God’s Will must be obeyed, and how, even though they are the Chosen Ones, they are the ones being screwed by all the people and groups they believe they are superior to....

Are rural, Christian, white Americans scared? You’re damn right they are. Are their fears rational and justified? Fuck no! The problem isn’t understanding their fears. The problem is how to assuage fears based on lies in closed-off fundamentalist belief systems that don’t have the necessary tools for properly evaluating the fears....

When a three-thousand-year-old book that was written by uneducated, pre-scientific people, subject to translation innumerable times, edited with political and economic pressures from Popes and kings, is given higher intellectual authority than facts arrived at from a rigorous, self-critical, constantly re-evaluating system that can and does correct mistakes, no amount of understanding, no amount of respect, no amount of evidence is going to change their minds, assuage their fears.
(I recommend reading the whole post, despite his disinterest in paragraph breaks [I've added a few in the above quotation], and looking through his other thoughts since then.)

Since then, I've heard or read others saying similar things about the closed system of the religious right, though I didn't save the links. Then yesterday I read two unrelated pieces of writing that add up, at least in my head, with Forsetti. One, from the most recent issue of Discover magazine, provides some of the explanation of how religion works to undermine what little rationality we humans have at our disposal:
...the inexplicable lure of religious, spiritual and mystical experiences (RSMEs) [has] long fascinated researchers. [A classic] textbook...describes RSMEs as moments of revelation that strike like lightning; swept away by ecstasy, you may lose your sense of place, time and self, and have feelings of redemption and ineffable beauty.

Now, with the help of imaging technology such as single-proton emission computed tomography (SPECT), researchers can see how these experiences play out in the brain.... [researchers] used SPECT to measure changes in the cerebral blood flow of three Muslims during prayer.

It turns out that while they were praying, participants had less blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe, the areas of the brain where complex behaviors such as planning and expression of personality take place. "Hence, the feeling of surrender," [the researcher] explains.

He and his team also observed a slowdown of blood to the parietal lobe, the area that integrates sensory information to help us form a sense of self. When activity in that part of the brain is dialed back, instead of their usual self-identity, the volunteers instead reported a feeling of "oneness" at the peak of their RSMEs.

Finally, researchers saw a spike in the activity of the limbic system, the brain's emotional center, and changes to the thalamus, which helps us shape our sense of reality. All of these results...are tied to what he calls the five core elements of religious experiences: sense of intensity and unity, tranformation, clarity and a feeling of surrender.
The other was a Tweet storm by writer and professor Jared Yates Sexton, who, like Forsetti, grew up in a rural community and, more particularly, as part of a religious and ultra-conservative family. He wrote this as a response to inciting right-wing media like the NRA video and its more recent ravings:
When I was young my poor family talked constantly about fighting a war against the New World Order. They've been fantasizing for decades. At the heart of that was a fear that American sovereignty would be overthrown by globalist forces. That narrative is in play now.

They honestly believe that if Trump were removed from office it would be the doing of globalist connected to the New World Order. To be ready for this, a thing they've talked about for thirty years, they've stockpiled supplies and weapons. They've focused on this.

And this isn't just a passing thing. It's a constant conversation, a constant focus on what happens "when it all goes down." It's extremely hard to listen to Far Right media and not hear the ramping up of this narrative. It's a "coup," it's an "overthrow"

Trump's base IS the group that's been waiting for this event. They talk openly about violence if he's removed. With this [Mueller] investigation, we're heading into a tumultuous time. I think everyone needs to be aware of the connotation and possibilities. There's a really potent narrative being pushed on the right and these people are extremely tuned to hear it and believe it.
So, if critical thinking is the enemy because it doesn't come from the approved religion, and the approved religion is fomenting insurrection... And they're the ones with the guns... Where does that take us? As a few respondents to Yates said on Twitter, their gun stockpiles can't take on the U.S. military, and that's true on paper. But who makes up a significant share of our rank and file military? People from these same backgrounds and parts of the country, right? Will they turn their weapons on their own people, even if they don't straight-up revolt against their commanders?

I'm heading into paranoia-land, I know. It's the speculative-fiction-reader in me. But jeez.

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