Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Do they really BELIEVE that?

I'm glad that Salon's Arthur Goldwag left the JFK researchers out of this piece.

Goldwag addresses a by-now familiar topic: Do the people who espouse crazy ideas -- birtherism, Benghazi-mania -- really, really believe in what they are saying? A good question. Alas, the author completely drops the ball.

Since he's not a particularly original thinker, Goldwag resorts to the most familiar reference point imaginable. Yep, he drags out Leon Festinger and his theory of cognitive dissonance...
Cognitive dissonance is the term of art for the psychic discomfort we feel when facts come into conflict with our beliefs. To make it more tolerable, we either change our beliefs or deny the facts.

The psychologist Leon Festinger explored the workings of cognitive dissonance in a number of experiments in the 1950s, mostly carried out in laboratories with student volunteers, but most famously in the course of a field study of a flying saucer cult whose leaders had prophesied that the world would end on December 21, 1954. Festinger’s book “When Prophecy Fails,” which reads like a novel or the scenario for a bleakly comic movie, describes the various ways that the cultists responded when the prophecy was disconfirmed, shedding a powerful light on why it can be so futile, as he put it, to try “to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief.”
If you're new to all this, let me give you some background.

Festinger's reserachers had infiltrated a '50s-era UFO cult headed by a woman he calls Marion Keech. The cult had prophesied the end of the world. Festinger records how everyone regrouped after the world refused to end on the given date.

And now we get to the issue that people like Goldwag -- and Festinger -- never want to discuss. Goldwag says in his headline that he wants to address this question: "Are these people sincere?" But he avoids that very issue by stipulating that the leaders of these movements are in fact operating in good faith.

Festinger operated under the same presumption. It's a common approach -- a common mistake -- in the field of sociology. (See: J. Gordon Melton. See: Massimo Introvigne.)

Unfortunately, you won't get the full story from Festinger's famous book.

"Marion Keech" was actually Dorothy Martin, a.k.a. Sister Thedra. Her group was called The Seekers. After the apocalypse refused to occur, Martin hooked up with a conster named George Hunt Williamson, infamous for writing books which mixed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and wild tales about flying saucers. Lots of people offered similar concoctions in later years, but Williamson was the first.

Williamson and Martin constructed a yarn about a mystical monastery in the Andes called the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays. It never existed. There are a couple of books about it -- Williamson wrote one -- but trust me: The whole thing was a myth.

However, Williamson and Martin convinced a lot of people that the thing was real, and that those who studied with the Masters of that brotherhood would become deeply spiritual personages, capable of cosmic deeds and great wisdom.

How do I know all this? Many years ago, I talked to a respected anthropologist (he made me promise never to give the name) who, as a young man, had fallen under the spell of Williamson and Martin. He really believed that the Brotherhood was real. And when Williamson advertised a group expedition to visit the Brotherhood, my source somehow found the funds to make the journey.

He and a couple of dozen other True Believers traveled to a small town in Peru, where Williamson and Martin put them up in a wretched hotel. The young people were told that soon -- very soon -- they would be taken on a journey to the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays.

Of course, the group had pooled their funds and gave all the money to Williamson and Martin.

You can guess the rest. Williamson and Martin skipped town, leaving their naive young marks high and dry in Nowheresville, Peru -- bereft of all monies. Their return trip was, as you might imagine, difficult.

My source told me that he pretty much instantly gave up all belief in the cosmic mumbo-jumbo that Williamson and Martin had spewed. So much for cognitive dissonance. (The incident did, however, spur his interest in anthropology, so some good came out of the episode.)

Dorothy Martin, now known as Sister Thedra, later became a prophetess within a group called the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara. J.Z. Knight, a.k.a. Ramtha, was associated with this society, although there may have been a falling out.

When we look at the real facts, we see the poverty of thought in Goldwag's piece. We see why it is misleading to apply Festinger's theory of "cognitive dissonance" to creatures like Alex Jones.

Martin was a con artist. She knew what she was doing.

What does her example tell us about Alex Jones? About the birthers? About the Fox Newsers who keep pushing false stories?

As one of Goldwag's readers astutely puts it: "There are the true believers and then there are the opportunists. Jenny McCarthy is a believer and so is Rand Paul, but The Koch Bros. are opportunists."

That's the incredibly important point that simple-minded people like Goldwag never want to discuss: We are all subject to manipulation by those who employ the techniques of psychological warfare. Some people who espouse weird beliefs are simply mistaken -- but others are playing an angle.

In a previous post, we discussed how Paul Linebarger -- the CIA's early master of psychological warfare -- studied and adapted the tactics of the master con artists. I suspect that he knew all about Dorothy Martin.
I've always thought that cognitive dissonance was a major reason why so many in the right wing refuse to accept the reality of human caused climate change. If anyone admits to himself that the climate scientists have been correct all along, then he also has to admit that Faux News and Rush Limbaugh have been lying to him all along, working to condemn his grandchildren to a living hell. That opens the possibility that they've been lying about everything all this time. To accept that you've been conned by reprehensibles is too heavy a burden to carry, so most people choose denial. Refusal to accept anthropogenic climate change correlates most strongly, not with education, but with whether or not the individual is a member of the Republican Party.
Well, in that sense, isn't "cognitive dissonance" simply a fancy way of saying "He was lied to, and he's too stubborn to say he got it wrong."

But even then, we have to acknowledge the presence of the liar -- of the person who operates in bad faith. Festinger does not do this. Most other sociologists hesitate to do that.

That's the point I was trying to make.
Does Ian Paisley believe his own shtick? Does a typical RC cardinal? I don't know.

They probably don't. But being in that position is hardly beneficial for someone's sanity, so maybe they lie to themselves quite a lot, even as they take pride in their learnt-long-ago ability to use rhetoric to manipulate numbed minds.

David Icke? I doubt he believes most of what he says any more than Shirley MacLaine does.

In Britain, all main parts of the opinion spectacle are akin to the pop music sector. Politicians, corporate PR dudes and rock stars may have been aligned to be at jeering loggerheads with their 'opponents', but they never accuse their opposite numbers of not believing a word they're saying, of only putting on a show. There's honour and collectivity among bullshitters.

Meanwhile, purveyors of 'truth' such as news editors, public 'experts' and authority figures of all kinds, notably medics and school-teachers, never get criticised in any profound way.

There are accepted channels, of course, which lead nowhere: problems with the debt bubble in the late noughties caused a 'credit crunch' (what??? 'obvious' propaganda but who noticed?), bankers have too big 'bonuses' (as if that's the main form of financial take from banking operations!), 'Leveson' this that and the other, etc. (welcome to the functioning of the 'lordship' notion).

Very few people have even the slightest handle on propaganda.

Festinger didn't have a clue about the basics of modern capitalist society, or even the basics of exploitative society more generally. Ditto Freud and Jung, although Freud's nephew Bernays certainly did. So did Linebarger, who is well worth reading.
I should amend that. What I meant was that Freud didn't offer in his writings any understanding about the basics of capitalist society.
b, I agree with your basic stance, but I think that Icke, MacClaine and your average cardinal are sincere.

It's hard to come to any other conclusion about Icke if you've seen Jon Ronson's film about him.
I haven't seen Ronson's film, but if Icke is sincere about lizards then he is insane. Does insanity come out in his behaviour?

On Paisley and the IRA, have you read Richard 'holy grail' Leigh's article on "mythic logic"?

Also there's that resonant bit in Linebarger about how useful it is to get people to spread propaganda who don't realise that's what they're doing. Which may shed light on why I sometimes get into furious rages with 'customer service' types! :-)
The Ronson doc...


Very much worth your time. I should mention that I myself had believed that Icke must be some sort of disguised neo-Nazi. But it turns out that he really is just...kookoo.

I was tangentially involved with the people who were up in arms against Icke when he was trying to tour the country back in the 1990s. I really thought he was another Cooper, using mystical mumbo-jumbo as a way of spreading crude racism. Guess I was wrong about Icke. (of course, even a "harmless nutball" can sometimes turn out to be not so harmless.) At any rate, it's interesting to see how that drama played out from the other side.
It seems to me that a con artist can convince himself that his nonsense is actually true. Take a con artist like Kevin Trudeau. He must know that he is a con artist, but his desire to view himself in a positive light (cognitive dissonance) leads him to believe that he is actually giving good information. Similarly, Ted Cruz must know that some of what he says is bullshit, but as he sees himself as some sort of savior, he begins to believe his bullshit. There is another psychological factor that plays a part here, the halo effect and its corollaries. When someone has some credibility is some area, we tend to give his credit in other areas. Thus a good athlete is judged to know what deodorant to use. This may explain political ties. A pro-lifer sees that Republicans favor his position and therefore will buy into everything else a Republican says even though it is at odds with his core beliefs. For example, while Republicans are pro life for fetuses they seem to be pro death for the born. This cognitive dissonance leads some to ignore the beliefs that conflict with the already made judgment to affiliate with a certain party.
The con artist who traveled the world with his tales as the Hero Janitor of 9/11, William Rodriguez, may have rationalized his fibbery as justifiable on grounds such as 1) OK, maybe he didn't save hundreds of people as he claims, but he would have if they'd been there to save and 2) by telling an attention-grabbing story he was bringing needed attention to the real crimes of the Bush administration and 3) his life may have been in danger saying the truths he was saying, and a few lies to get attention served the greater good of keeping him safe so he could continue to share the truth.

His most recent mainstream coverage was an article in Der Spiegel which concluded that his talk was basically a case of a magician trying to pass a $1 bill as a $20 bill, but then Willie just might be crazy enough to believe his own nonsense.
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