Two emails within the Wild family

Two emails within the Wild family

It happened again.

I received a chain email, forwarded from an unknown source and full of suspicious truthiness from my family back home. If you also grew up in the Bible Belt or on the Mason-Dixon Line, you probably won’t find this surprising.

Here’s the email they sent me:

After over a decade of refuting this sort of garbage just by doing a simple Google search, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. So here’s what I wrote in response:

From Judge Kithil himself: “I’ve had calls from all over the country, 300 to 400 calls over three or four years on this,” he said. He pleads with the callers, “Don’t pass it on. It’s not accurate anymore. Trash it.”

This chain letter has been passed around the internet for five years. Like nearly all of these letters, it plays on fallacy in the logic of the reader.

Outrage is supposed to work like this:

  1. Learn something.
  2. Feel outraged.

But with opponents of Obamacare, I often see outrage working like this:

  1. Feel outraged about Obamacare.
  2. Latch on to each excuse that, if true, would justify that outrage.

The problem with this reversal of how one comes to believe something is that, when things are done in this order, there’s no will to disprove or fact-check. Rather, there’s significant will to believe at face-value, shortly followed by hitting “forward”. And so it goes, and goes, and goes, and so do many other falsehoods, and in combination these falsehoods serve to whip up the fervor of the base. Letters like this weren’t written by regular Americans, but rather, by shrewd political strategists who know how to manipulate the fears of their base.

Because you deeply want that outrage to be just, and believe it to be just, these “facts” also flow directly into your belief system — without having been passed through the rigor you normally apply to things — and as soon as these new “facts” register in your belief system, the outrage ratchets itself up another couple of steps. And then you’re even more susceptible to propaganda the next time. This positive feedback loop is how propagandists create fervor.

And once you’ve felt the fear and the outrage, you can’t unfeel it without a lot of honest self-reflection. In our busy world, most people don’t get enough time for honest self-reflection, and so the fears and anger persist even after the “facts” are revealed to be false. And so these lies, even if you only believe them temporarily, have permanent emotional impact: Humans have far deeper emotional memory than rational memory, and particularly (like all mammals), we have a very strong sense of fear memory: it doesn’t matter whether I rationally believe something is going to “jump out” of the dark and grab me, I still find myself running through the dark to the light switch, just like I did as a kid. Even with no real stimulus, my fear memory is strong (the amygdala has an immense amount of control over the brain.)

Moreover, once you’ve hit “forward”, you’ve passed this damage onto other people, and you can’t undo that damage either. And so it grows way beyond you.

There are a group of political strategists who have whipped up a toxic blend of fear and rage so strong that from my perspective it appears that nearly anything they write will now be believed and repeated by millions of Americans, so long as it’s sufficiently anti-Obama or anti-Obamacare. People have strong feelings in search of a rationale, rather than letting the honest, slow accumulation of a rationale drive their feelings. This is how people control crowds. This is how people start wars. This is how devious leaders rally the worst parts of human beings (fear, anger, and intellectual laziness) into what eventually becomes devastating action. Throughout human history it has been the intentional, manipulative application of emotional language that has led to war, genocide, and other atrocities committed en masse. The people committing these atrocities weren’t “bad” people — rather, they were just regular human beings who were then suspectible to the same kinds of mass manipulation that we are still susceptible to today, and who were gradually coaxed into becoming the monsters they became, by the men who had premeditated it all along.

I’m not asking you to change your opinions about Obama or Obamacare, though. It’s too late for that.

Just make sure you’re not being played, and for the love of God, don’t hit “forward” on this garbage unless and until you’re certain you aren’t helping add fuel to the fires of irrational hatred in our country. There are plenty of rational reasons for us to disagree, but it will be impossible to work together constructively towards solutions if people on both sides are buying into all this bullshit, letting this bullshit drive artificial wedges between us.

Pardon my French.