Have you ever debated someone who is, say, a swell person in almost all things–perhaps a good neighbor–but in politics inexplicably hews to the far right? Is perhaps sympathetic to the Tea Party?
And when you trump their argument with documented facts, they dig in or grow even more obnoxiously adamant?
Well, it’s because one’s beliefs trump facts. In other words, facts that don’t bolster one’s argument are dismissed because they don’t square with one’s preconceived beliefs.
Mother Jones recently ran an article on this behavioral dysfunction: “The Science Of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” Its focus is on rejection of empirical scientific evidence but the phenomenon applies to other spheres of human discourse and understanding, too. A key excerpt:
In America new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience have further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called ‘motivated reasoning’ helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, ‘death panels,’ the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”
So we’re doomed to ignorance and superstition? No, but the article holds that the antidote lies in how we “frame” our issues. In this skill, The Right, frankly, consistently clobbers Democrats. It’s a big reason why Democrats lost the House in 2008 and Obama looks to be in trouble in 2012. I write this in hopes the Ds, for the sake of the nation and its posterity, will wise up.
What is framing? I taught about it in my government classes at Southern Oregon University and wrote about it in a 2006 book, Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Management. I used as my example, Dubya’s phrase, “healthy forests” to characterize his administration’s effort to increase logging in the public’s national forests:
It was a masterpiece of political framing—the art of creating a central organizing idea or context for an issue through use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration. ‘Healthy forests’ evokes a sense of environmental stewardship and personal safety at a time of deep fear of wildland fire.
Okay, are you ready to go out and win the day for right against wrong? Here’s your manual: George Lakoff, Howard Dean and Don Hazen’s excellent book, Don’t Think of an Elephant/ How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.
If you want to make a difference in 2012, this may be the most important tract you’ll ever read.