Isn’t it strange that in America, where individual freedom is so valued, we’ve given up the most important individual freedom we have; to think for ourselves.
To understand this issue a bit better think of childhood adolescence. When we are that age we want very much to be part of the right group. Although we claim to be individuals we sign on to the beliefs of one group or another. We dress like them. We talk like them. And we suppress our own opinions to be like them. And as if that’s not enough, we need to demonize “others”, people who are not a part of our “in-group.”
We become, in a sense, “true believers.” And with this decision we unquestionably buy our group’s world view and give up our individuality. In the process we lose our ability to look into our own hearts for direction. This is one of our most important problems today.
If you’re an old enough parent, you’ve seen your child go through the trials and tribulations of trying to fit in while ignoring your good advice and the values you’ve taught them.
Your child became a “true-believer” in a particular narrative and there was very little you could do to convince him or her otherwise. In Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, The True Believer, a core principle is his assertion that mass movements are interchangeable so as we get older all we need to do is find another narrative to hang on to.
And for the “true believer”, substance is less important than being part of a movement. This true believer syndrome is also an informal term used by M. Lamar Keene in his 1976 book The Psychic Mafia. Keene considered it to be a cognitive disorder.
In his book, Keene writes “I knew how easy it was to make people believe a lie, but I didn’t expect the same people, confronted with the lie, would choose it over the truth. No amount of logic can shatter a faith consciously based on a lie.” Sound familiar in today’s political environment?
So why are there so many political true believers today? I think it’s because at the societal level, so many of us are still adolescents. It’s hard to accept the view of ourselves as a society in collapse. So many of us hang on to our claim of exceptionalism even though there are so many facts to the contrary.
When reality rebuffs us, we need some personal validation. It’s during these times a small still voice tells us we just might be wrong. That frightens us and it drives us to seek and find those who will affirm us and repeat familiar mantras until our anxiety subsides.
But that’s not enough. For a movement to thrive it needs to keep the demons alive. The demonization shows up as character assassinations and baseless accusations. Other people become the enemy. Groups of countries become part of an “axis of evil.”
There are no demons roaming the earth and evil is not an autonomous force. Evil either is or isn’t based on the actions of people. And no one owns the market on it. But that doesn’t stop us from joining a movement and believing in its phantoms.
So I think we have a long road of pain and struggle ahead of us until we mature. It will be exacerbated by the political movements that seduce us into their fantasy world of threats and fears behind every bush. And we will join those movements and give up our ability to discern right from wrong. But we will receive a gift in return; we can blame our problems on someone else.
Our future? Not very good if we don’t mature and see the world for what it is: A planet of countries all competing for the same finite resources. The first step is to acknowledge that others have legitimate reasons for their actions. The second is to acknowledge that the relative importance of every event on the planet is not determined by how it affects the United States.