Saturday, July 24, 2021

Two Ways of Looking at Deniers

I spent this warm Saturday outside tabling and talking to the public at two consecutive community events in Saint Paul, so there aren't a lot of thoughts in my head to spare because I've used up all my energy pretending to be an extrovert. Thank goodness there were a couple of interesting things on the interweb today.

When I got home, a thread by Dartmouth sociology professor Brooke Harrington was all over my Twitter feed. She explained why (most) vaccine deniers should not be treated with kid gloves, cajoling them into compliance — as the National Review recently advocated. They've been conned and they increasingly know they've been conned, and now they're just trying to save face. They're complicit in the lie at this point, she says (using more academic language and citing Erving Goffman's classic study called "On Cooling the Mark Out"). Hence, they are partly to blame for continuing the problem:

Goffman's work, along with 100s of articles that have built on it, suggests that many victims of con artists make a conscious choice to protect themselves socially and emotionally at the expense of others. "Be kind" does not require that we accept this unkind, even deadly choice.... People who fail to warn others of life-threatening dangers ("don't swim out to that reef--I nearly drowned in the undertow!") ARE responsible for that choice. They SHOULD be condemned, just like people who drive drunk & knowingly infect unaware partners w/HIV.

There's a lot more in the thread, including her thoughts on how to reach the deniers (which is based on Goffman's concept of "cooling the mark").

Dave Roberts also had a thread about vaccine deniers and, by extension, climate deniers, which is much more cranky and less academic:

The fear-based authoritarian personality dominant on the right is heavily prone to system justification. They need to feel that the social order is basically legible and proper. It's not any ideology or principle, it's just "what I know and am comfortable with." It's *change*, unfamiliarity, novelty -- that's what makes them anxious.

So consider masks and vaccines. Is there some principled objection? No. There are already other mandatory vaccines. There are already plenty of mandated safety behaviors (seatbelts, no smoking in public buildings, etc.). There are already all sorts of ways that the government tells you what to do and what not to do in the name of public safety. The only difference? Those ways are *familiar*....

Point being: there's no principled or even coherent *reason* why reactionaries are fighting masks and Covid vaccines. They're just new and unfamiliar. In a few years they'll be normal and the authoritarians will meekly accept them as part of the status quo all the while bitching and moaning about whatever the *next* public safety measure is.

That's the most maddening thing about this, all the angst and fighting and sickness and death these people are causing. It's not *about* anything. They're just frightened, rigid people, so the rest of us have to suffer while they throw a tantrum. They'll get over it after a few years, when the novelty has faded, and then throw a tantrum about something else and we'll all suffer again....

Oh, one semi-related addendum: the above explains why I'm so skeptical of "conservative solutions to climate change." The choice on climate is radical, rapid policy change, or radical, rapid weather effects. Either version of rapid change is a nightmare for reactionaries. So they are much, much more likely to either a) deny global warning -- and the inevitability of change -- altogether, or b) pretend there's some sort of policy that could keep the status quo basically intact through incremental, marginal tweaks.

You're not going to get a fully sorted, self-selected group of reactionaries to embrace radical change. You just aren't. No amount of fact-checking or scientific reports will do that. You go over or around them or nothing gets done, on climate as on every other issue.

One question I have is why does the U.S. have so many people prone to the authoritarian personality? Has it increased in the last few decades? It reminds me of that spring 2016 Amanda Taub piece on what could be provoking the rise of American authoritarianism. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt — the playbook of the Right — combine to feed it, for sure.

I don't know how Harrington's analysis works with Roberts' thoughts on the permanent rigidity of authoritarian personalities. They come from two different schools of sociology (or social psychology and sociology), and I'm not sure they work together. But they both seem true to me.

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