The Self-Gaslighting of Partisan America

The Self-Gaslighting of Partisan America

By Stephen Weese

Last year marked a pivotal moment in U.S. political history—the confirmation hearings in the Senate for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. There were many takeaways from this event, yet there was one that may have escaped the notice of most: dozens of Senators were clearly lying.

This might strike you as obvious, but mathematically speaking, what occurred was almost certainly impossible: all of the Republican Senators stated that they believed Kavanaugh’s statement that he did not sexually assault Christine Ford, and all of the Democratic Senators stated that they believed her statement that he did.

Objectively and rationally, it is clear that there is no way to actually know, without real proof, what happened. Therefore, only probabilities can be assigned to this situation. It can be simplified into three categories:

Scenario 1: The evidence for believing Kavanaugh is stronger
Scenario 2: The evidence for believing Ford is stronger
Scenario 3: The evidence is about the same or inconclusive

These categories draw neat little boxes around all the possibilities. Since many of the senators not only voted but proclaimed belief in a side, we therefore have three follow up conclusions from my three categories.

Conclusion 1: Several Democrats were lying about what they believed
Conclusion 2: Several Republicans were lying about what they believed
Conclusion 3: BOTH parties contained several representatives who were lying

This can be shown by assigning probability numbers to each side. Looking at Scenario 1, for example, we will assign a probability of 60% believability to Kavanaugh, in terms of strength of evidence only. Meaning that for an average person trying to be objective, there’s a 40% chance this person would believe Kavanaugh is untruthful in this hypothetical scenario. For all 49 Democrats to believe Kavanaugh was lying, given these numbers, we arrive at:

0.4 (40%) to the 49th power (based on 49 Democrats.)
This is 0.00000000000000000316%

(For reference, the probability of winning the California Powerball is about 0.0000003%.)

Additionally, even though Kavanaugh has stronger evidence in this hypothetical scenario, the chances of all the Republicans believing him amounts to: 

0.6 (60%) to the 51st power (51 Republicans).
Which gives us 0.000000000484%

Let’s try Scenario 2, but with stronger numbers. In Scenario 2, objective evidence supports Ford’s testimony. Let’s say in this hypothetical situation her evidence is so overwhelming that 90% of objective observers (if we could find any left in the United States) would believe her. What do the probabilities look like now? It would mean there’s a 90% chance each Senator would believe her, individually. What would the chances be of all Republicans truly not believing her? 

0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%

This would probably make sense to you, since there’s a small chance for each one to begin with. But now the more surprising number. With 90% believability, what is the probability of all 49 Democrats siding with Ford?

0.5%

This means that there is still a 99.5% chance that not all Democrats would believe her, even with a 90% objective strength of evidence in her favor. 

Scenario 3 offers even greater probabilities that both groups contain untruthful senators, since neither party in that hypothetical scenario had an advantage in believability.

The conclusion: no matter what scenario we choose, there is over a 99% chance that senators from both sides of the aisle lied about their beliefs. The probability of all Democrats and all Republicans just happening, coincidentally, to believe what their party would want them to believe is much less than 1%. Even if we incorporate bias into both sides (each individual was 90% likely to believe their own side’s favored testimony), it’s still less than a 1% chance. While it’s true that we don’t know exact numbers for believability in the world of evidence, this is a fact: no matter what numbers we use, all the way up to 90%, we still get less than 1% probability for everyone being truthful on both sides of the political spectrum. 

No Big Deal, Everyone Knows Politicians Lie

You might say this isn’t a big deal—politicians lie all the time, it’s to be expected. The party leaders lean on their members for meaningful votes to support the agenda or face the consequences.

The reason I used the Kavanaugh confirmation as my example is not just because of the Senate’s astronomically unlikely chances of truthfulness—but also because of the everyday people who also divided themselves along party lines. Many people clearly convinced themselves to reach a conclusion, not based on the evidence, but based on their party affiliation. As shown by the numbers, partisan Americans are gaslighting themselves to agree with whatever their party thinks.

NPR and Marist Institute reported in a poll that, after the Senate testimony, about 77 percent of Democrats believed Ford, and 75 percent of Republicans believed Kavanaugh. This gap was larger than any other demographic, even gender. Lee Meringoff, director of the Marist Institute, remarked that “partisanship is the driving force” in dividing public opinion. 

The numbers don’t lie—clearly it’s impossible that both Kavanaugh and Ford were both 75% convincing. People were either lying on the poll, or lying to themselves. Not all of the poll takers were self-deceiving, of course. The most probable outcome is that while some people truly aligned with their party, some definitely deceived themselves. This is just one example of how in the United States a person’s political beliefs alter their perception of reality.

Confirmation Bias on Steroids

This is far from the only example. Partisans in America are literally interpreting the weather based on affiliation. A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that Democrats see recent weather trends as worsening, while Republicans see things staying the same. In some cases, they differ as much as 30 percent on their respective outlooks. Certainly, these people aren’t experiencing different weather based on their party affiliation; the most likely explanation is partisan bias. 

What is important to understand about confirmation bias is that it is unconscious. Explained simply, it is the human tendency to doubt statements that go against established beliefs, while accepting unquestioningly statements that agree with said beliefs. Encyclopaedia Brittanica explains it as:

“the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information.”

Faced with information that contradicts what we hold true, our minds often find a way to instead interpret that information to reinforce our beliefs. If we hear something that agrees with us, we hardly ever check the source—but if we disagree, our first thought is often to doubt the provenance of such a preposterous idea. Everyone should be aware that this is our human tendency and attempt to correct it. 

What seems to be happening today is a stronger version of confirmation bias—one that willingly turns off of our brains in favor of our partisan perspective. Some recent examples demonstrate this point.

A quote was passed around the internet, supposedly from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying that truck drivers “are destroying America.” This quote is from a satire site that clearly claims that “everything on this website is fiction.” It did not stop the quote from making its way around the internet and generating more anger toward Ocasio-Cortez; it was believed by many, without question.

Mainstream news sites have continued to propagate a false story about Trump, which can only be seen as intentional, since it has been debunked many times in many places. This Business Insider article from only a few weeks ago continues the narrative that Trump called Neo-Nazis “very fine people” at the Charlottesville protests, concerning the removal of Confederate monuments. The entire quote is easily searchable on the internet, where immediately after that sentence, Trump makes a distinction as to who those people are.

“I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally—but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay?” – Donald Trump

Immediately after the “fine people” quote, he clearly explains who he means. However, people who already have made up their mind about who Trump is not only don’t check the source, but often will no longer care if they are incorrect. 

In fact, people on both sides of the partisan divide are extremely resistant to even admitting being incorrect, let alone changing their minds. Scott Adams calls this phenomenon the “Hoax Funnel,” where, instead of admitting that our facts may not be 100% correct, we shift the discussion and evade the true topic, unwilling to concede that maybe, on this one possible issue, we might be wrong. This is why I call it self-gaslighting. It’s more than confirmation bias. It is a wilful, intentional decision to convince ourselves of things that we know are not true, even at the objection of rational thought. Take your pick: Red or Blue, both are participating in this mass delusion.

Gaslighting Is Serious

True gaslighting is defined as such by the Cambridge English Dictionary:

noun [ U ]: the action of tricking or controlling someone by making them believe things that are not true, especially by suggesting that they may be mentally ill.

This action is a method often used by abusers to control and manipulate others. It is a terrible thing and I do not mean to make light of it by my comparison. Yet what is happening today in partisan America goes beyond mere confirmation bias, which is an unconscious choice. It seems to be a real conscious choice to force perception of the world to fit into one partisan mindset, even amidst the objections of one’s own rational faculties. Clearly, from the numbers, people are deliberately lying to themselves, or at the very least are shutting down the rational part of their brains in favor of the emotional and tribal.

The Loss of Rational Thinking

The rational way of thinking acknowledges uncertainty. Looking back at the Kavanaugh example, there is no factual way to prove what happened with Christine Ford. There is no remaining physical evidence, and very little eyewitness information. That doesn’t mean what she says is not true. It also doesn’t mean that it is.

A rational way of thinking, one that is taught in Critical Thinking courses (which should be mandatory in high school), is to assign a probability to real life events. If an event could have two outcomes, the logical starting probability is 50% for each. As evidence is accumulated, one outcome can move higher and the other lower—but without conclusive, deductive information, there is always a chance that the lower probability event happens anyway. This is how humans experience most of the events in life; we simply don’t know conclusively the outcomes of things.

Yet in today’s highly political environment, partisans “know” everything at 100% certainty, though they are basically lying to themselves about the probability of any other perspective being true. A rational person, when confronted with the testimony of Ford and Kavanaugh, would say, “I don’t know what happened.” That is the most clear and reasonable conclusion to reach, given a lack of deductive evidence. Yet it is the exact opposite of what a huge segment of the population chose to believe. They instead choose to believe in the irrational. 

We are being trained to believe in strawmen. Instead of rational discussions, our political discourse consists of memes posted on social media. Memes which almost invariably simplify the other side’s argument to the point of absurdity. They imply or directly state that if you agree with this you are evil, you are an idiot, you are a monster, and you deserve to be hated and punished. There is no in-between. There’s no moderation or room for debate. The argument is then reduced to the cheerleaders agreeing with you (“They suck!”) and the angry opposition, (“No, you suck!”) The fact that the original argument was a gross oversimplification of the political position is never discussed amidst all the shouting.

A rational way of thinking would admit that sometimes conservative ideas are useful, and sometimes liberal ones. Probability would almost certainly dictate that, with the multitude of ideas on both sides, one group could not possibly have the monopoly on perfection. The numerical distribution would show that each side has some reasonable solutions in different situations.

Making Men into Monsters

We not only brainwash ourselves to prioritize our own facts, but we make ourselves believe that other human beings, who have different political ideas than us, are monsters to be hated. We are gaslighting ourselves out of the humanity of opponents.

Just recently, I viewed the vitriol and hatred for David Koch upon his death. On the day he died, my feed was littered with abject hatred for a man who donated over a billion dollars to charity, to sponsor educational programs and to fight poverty. A few selections from social media:

“Hey!  A Koch brother is dead!  Yayyyy! 🙂 1 down 1 to go!”

“Hallelujah!  Fantastic to learn #DavidKoch DIED!”

“The WORLD is rejoicing at #DavidKoch demise from the earth ALL praying that his useless, evil, soul will wander the perimeters of HELL forever!”

There can be no doubt that this hatred is fueled by his alignment with conservative principles. (Just the same as conservative hatred is directed toward billionaire George Soros).

In a piece from Time magazine in 2018 about Koch, they report that,

“Koch checks are being used right now to fund a year-long study and series of conferences about combating extremism, using last year’s deadly protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Va., as a starting point for discussion. Also funding the work? The liberal Center for American Progress.” [Emphasis added.]

Unfortunately this fact about Koch’s recent bipartisan activities or the fact that he gave over a billion dollars to non-political charities likely would have no effect on hatred of the previous individuals posting on social media.

The Lie of False Equivalence

When attempting to broach this subject with partisans, this response will often be encountered: “That’s false equivalence, both parties are not the same!” However, that is, in itself, a false reply. It is eminently clear that both parties stand for different causes and have different methods of doing things. That is not the point in question. No one is saying the parties are the same regarding their platforms. The problem is that both parties are extreme and encouraging more polarization. Inevitably, the discussion will then come to a list of party positions and how one party is the “good” party and the other “evil.” Which actually makes the point in question— creating sweeping generalizations about a large section of the population is part of the problem. This contributes to a false belief about one’s “goodness” as well as a false belief that others are “evil.” People who don’t want to listen to this argument about polarization may indeed be gaslighting themselves.

Warriors Looking for a Cause

What we have seen so far is a look at facts and polarization in the United States, and the extremes to which people are willing to deceive themselves. Yet the question might be asked: why?

I believe the answer may lie within American culture. In the short life of our nation, we have produced stories and movies with good guys fighting the bad guys. We all banded together during World War II, and even for a short while after 9/11. We had a cause, and there were clear lines of right and wrong.

For the last few decades, there hasn’t been a source of evil threatening our country or the world as in the past. We at least had the Russians to fear during the Cold War. Part of our culture reveres fighting evil, but what happens when there’s no evil to fight?

Truth be told, Republicans and Democrats in America likely agree on more things than they disagree on. It’s also true that there are a million other ways of thinking besides living inside the box of Red or Blue. If we make our side the “good” side, and the other “evil” now we get to fight in an epic struggle: we get to be the heroes, and that’s essentially American.

Unfortunately, there are real human beings on both sides, not evil monsters. They probably don’t believe anywhere near the things partisans ascribe to them, and many have very good reasons for what they believe. (Certainly, extreme examples can be brought up from both sides, but anecdotal events don’t characterize an entire demographic.)

However, both sides have now stirred up so much hatred that it will be a nearly insurmountable task to overcome all the offenses, harsh words, and lies that have been spoken. The only hope we have is for the rational people to come forward and speak the truth.

Today in 2019 that truth is this: many of us are lying to ourselves, and America is worse because of it. 

 

Stephen Weese has Computer Science and IT degrees and teaches Mathematics, Critical Thinking, and History of Video games at a film college. He is also a speaker, a film and voice actor, and nutrition coach. www.steveracer.com

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