by Jeremy Young | 11/08/2008 01:12:00 AM
I really can't understand people who look at Sarah Palin, who listen to her obvious incompetence, and see an inspiring leader and future President. Or people who felt the same way about George W. Bush in 2000. Or people who not only hate gay marriage, but honestly believe that it's the greatest threat that faces America today. It's not a matter of disagreeing with those people, as I do with, say, libertarians; their opinions and views simply feel alien to me. How can people in my country look at the same events I'm looking at and see them so differently? Are they wrong, or stupid, or something else?

A book I read last week, Alain Corbin's The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (translated by ProgressiveHistorians blogfriend Arthur Goldhammer), suggests an answer. Corbin's book concerns a similarly head-scratching event: in a remote village in industrializing France in 1870, a group of townspeople suddenly turned on a local noble, convinced themselves against all evidence that he was a Prussian and a Republican enemy of the French Emperor, and proceeded to torture him to death over a period of two hours and then burn his corpse in the public square. (They did not, as rumor had it, actually eat him.) Setting aside the stark brutality of the act, how could these upstanding townspeople ignore mountains of evidence and eyewitnesses who insisted they had seen the man many times and that he lived two towns away, and remain convinced that he was in fact a Prussian spy? And in what universe were the monarchical Prussians and French Republicans the same thing, or in any way related?

(Cross-posted at The Wild, Wild Left and Never In Our Names.)



Corbin's answer to these questions is very interesting. I'm simplifying his argument a bit, but in brief, he suggests that there are two types of people: those who have access to a steady stream of reliable information about the wider world (in this case, city-dwellers, bourgeois, and the rich) and those who don't. People with little direct knowledge of events, like the peasant murderers in The Village of Cannibals, continue to get indirect knowledge, but it comes in the form of rumor, of bits and pieces of truth intermingled with scraps of various lies. Contrary to what some of us blue-state folks imagine, these people aren't stupid or irrational. Instead, they do the same things the rest of us do with the information they have: take it in, try to make sense of competing data, construct a coherent mental narrative, and interpret observed events in light of that narrative. What's more, they don't do this in isolation, but in near-constant communication with one another -- forming what can perhaps best be described as a "community of rumor." Certainly some people in that community have a better understanding of the wider world than do others, but it's very hard to tell which is which when everybody believes something different. Eventually a consensus is reached, and that becomes "truth." It's a process very familiar to us in the "reality-based community," except that the raw material -- actual, comprehensive knowledge of situations and events -- is missing. There's nothing wrong with the way these people think -- the problem is with the information they have to start with.

In the case of Corbin's villagers, a lot of their reasoning was sound given the information they had to go on. A lot of their confusion centered on the issue of taxation. The Orleanist monarchy, which ruled from 1830-1848, had imposed a crushing tax on the already-poor peasants. When the Republicans came to power, they had promised to repeal the tax but hadn't followed through, leading the peasants to view them as double-crossers probably in league with the monarchy. The Emperor (Napoleon III), on the other hand, repealed the tax immediately when he first took office in 1849; obviously he was on the side of the peasants and cared about their welfare. In 1870, when the Empire collapsed, the peasants were terrified about what would happen to them without their beloved Emperor. Meanwhile, wild rumors spread about the Prussians, a known militaristic power with expansionist designs. They wanted to attack the Emperor, which meant they must be in league with the monarchists and the Republicans (and also the Catholic clergy, who had also opposed the Emperor for seizing their property). Perhaps the Prussians had spies even now among the French peasantry! Maybe they were members of the old aristocracy, the strongest supporters of the monarchy (and therefore Republicans and Prussian sympathizers). It turned out that the cousin of the murder victim had been in the village advocating for the Republic. When the victim was told about this, he was surprised that his cousin would do such a thing and responded that he didn't think it was likely. There was the evidence! He was sticking up for a known Republican; therefore, he must be a Prussian spy. And so the villagers murdered him, expecting that the Emperor would award them medals for their action. (Instead, four of them were guillotined.)

There's certainly an element of mob hysteria in all this, but what's surprising is how many of the connections make sense if certain important information is omitted or not known (for instance, that many monarchist politicians were actually friendly with Napoleon III, or that the Republicans were opposed to all forms of undemocratic power, or that nobody in France actually supported a foreign invasion by the hated Prussians). The same forces are clearly at work in the "American heartland" where "hockey moms" and "Joe the plumber" live. It's easy to dismiss as stupid people who believe that, say, Obama is a secret Muslim or that gays are out to take over the world -- but such a view is both untrue and unfair. How can we expect someone to listen to our truth that Obama is a Christian when their co-worker is sending them an e-mail forward saying he's a Muslim, and their father-in-law is convinced he's a terrorist? Why are we more right than those people are? How do they know who to trust? And if they're not sure, should they vote for someone who might secretly be a terrorist?

These people are suffering from what Dan Cohen diagnosed at his recent IU lecture as the biggest problem of the information age: abundance. There's simply too much information out there, and so much of it is contradictory, that people who don't have a lot of time on their hands can't really make sense of it. But they still try, and what they do is turn to others in their communities of rumor who seem to have more information or a clearer sense of what's going on. For many people, ministers and church leaders seem like the obvious choices. For others, it's friends or co-workers who seem up on the news and send out e-mail forwards with their findings. It's often the loudest people, or the most prominent people, that ordinary Americans trust. And the Republicans have become experts in exacerbating this problem by feeding wild rumors about Democrats and liberals through this network of authority, often targeting the most trusted locations, like churches and e-mail. Get people started forwarding around e-mails about Obama being a secret Muslim, and it becomes true and real. Once these ideas have taken root in communities of rumor all over America, reasonable people in those communities will refuse to consider even abundant evidence to the contrary. What Corbin shows us is that it's not because they're somehow alien, but because they are in fact just like the rest of us: resistant to ideas that contradict what they know to be true.

How to fix this problem? There's no easy answer, but Corbin's work suggests that the remedy involves getting more information more reliably to more people. How can this be done? Al Gore argued in his book that the internet was the answer, because it put all the knowledge in the world at the fingertips of every American. But the internet is chiefly responsible for the problem of abundance. It doesn't fix the problem so much as it exacerbates it, adding a huge flood of new information to the already overstrained mind of the average busy American. People are always going to turn, for the most part, to "information filters" they feel they can trust. (Tina Brown's new website, The Daily Beast, is a perfect example of a product designed expressly as such a filter.) Perhaps the challenge for liberals is to make sure those filters themselves are well-informed and present that information to those who trust them.

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4 Comments:


Blogger Diane on 11/08/2008 6:33 AM:

look at societal disinformation, NP.

I think old computer code writers and mathematicians call it "Garbage in, garbage out" explaining if one even minute bit of the string is incorrect, everything else based on the results built thereafter are unreliable. It is one aspect of the solution.

That does not deal with the "mountains" of conflicting "evidence" part of the equation.

Take for example those who say Obama is Muslim in one breath, and the very next breath complain about his going for years to Jeremiah Wright's Church. You can point out the incongruity to these people, the evidentiary conflict in their OWN statement:

a)he is a muslim
B)he attends a christian church

In most cases I have dealt with personally, they will refuse to admit these two statements negate each other, or at least the second negates the first.

I think there is more to the "mob" mentality stemming from the fight or flight reflex that triggers "othering" reactions and filters all information to that which makes your enemy still your enemy must be the correct one. It is classic forcing the narrative to match a foregone conclusion.

We have collectively spent much too much time in a siege mentality, fed both through our cultural entertainment (cop shows, spy movies, Armageddon, murder mayhem) and more even yet through our slanted MSM reporting without any accountability rumor as "news".

Like any stressed animal, we are tensed and tend to see any change in our environs as dangerous, out to get us.

Think back to Vietnam, and soldiers who shot women or children approaching a checkpoint in bulky coats, having seen what human bombs could do. For many "shoot first, ask later" became an actual survival tactic out of what they deemed necessity.

Remove many of the "stress" components from the system, financial stress at a survival level is the largest influence right now, but health, environment, and the propaganda of FEAR and people may react differently.

It is a rare thing, I assume that a well-fed, secure society produces the flight or fight instinct to the point it overshadows reasoned and contrary evidence. One of your neighbors children with a bulky coat may be snuggling a puppy or kitten as well as a bomb, but without those stresses one would ask first, and shoot never.

Now to the informational flood and filters.

It all comes back to accountability, does it not? Yet, it again invokes giving up freedoms for security when any accountability comes to internet communication.

The only measure I would like to see taken is that for any person employed in the act of "News" channels via the MSM must fact check, cannot spread unsubstantiated rumor and be held accountable for disinformation. The very act of proclaiming it as "News" proves intent, and thus culpability of proving fact before reporting it as such.

When Fox News reports Obama linked to terrorists, they must prove beyond a doubt the plurality they used and the relationship being that of terrorist support.

These are the notes that bring a type of substance to what otherwise may be held as rumor by emailings and pastors.

The internet has indeed become like the Bible, the joke which has long been you can take just about ANY position and find SOMETHING to substantiate it.

So, how to multi-source reliably and create an evidentiary chain when cross-citings are unreliable?

Back to garbage in, garbage out.

You really cannot.

I will get a curiosity about something and google for an hour or two, amused by all the stuff a query kicks up, related and unrelated... but usually perseverance will bring up a likely truth. I am always in favor of more information than less. My "which is likely to be true" filter is, of course, as biased as I allow it to be; but it is in the search one learns.

So ultimately, the good and bad informational flow has always been a societal problem.

It is sad in this day and age, what should be reliable honorable sources have become propaganda, lie and innuendo based with no accountability. But unless one can force the Murdochs of the world to come to the table of fact and proof by law, that will not be likely to change either.

The people in your village were stressed and frightened.

The people in America are too.

The only thing we can really strive to do is break the siege mentality, remove the fear triggers and hope that a calm society uses better filters.

Sorry for the lengthy comment, Np (before coffee even) but Goddamn, I love being in the room with such smart people as you, and waking to an intelligent healthy discussion.

 

Blogger idiosynchronic on 11/08/2008 8:38 AM:

Nice job. I've noticed a lot of what you've pointed out in what IT pros call the 'human spam' or 'virtual spam' effect - the chain emails carrying various stupid jokes, virus scares, good luck wishes, and of course the political slanders. And as you might have noticed, the major sources for these mails are our friends, family, and acquaintances that are less than Internet savvy. My major vector, especially in the last year as my wife has been assigned a local church instead of a university posting, has been the church mailing groups. And according to what I've seen from my cousin's and grandmother's inboxes, it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the sheer volume of their rumour communities.

Some of this is also the active de-legitimization of the media by forces unfriendly to it in our culture. Both left and right beat up on journalists - and for very good reasons sometimes, see the Obama's puppy for one example - for disseminating information that they don't want to hear or believe is misleading. Modern journalists on a whole have had a public approval rating below 30% as long as I remember, which begins in the Reagan administration. With a lack of popularity or credibility, local rumour networks take the place or battle for legitimacy with the public media.

At the same time, I would fear a public media that has an unchallenged image as the sole arbiter of truth.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/08/2008 2:25 PM:

Diane, thanks for this insightful comment.

I get what you're saying: we all like to believe that fear is the root cause of this nonsensical behavior we witness. Certainly the Republicans deal almost exclusively in fear, consciously so.

But I think the picture's more complicated than that. We have to admit that a lot of the things you mention in your comment are things we ourselves also do. We "other" people like Mormons and Republicans, we live in fear of Bush's wiretapping and invasions of privacy and of global warming. Fear is not exclusive to communities of rumor, not at all. The difference is that we have a bit better idea of what and whom to fear.

Take the peasants in The Village of Cannibals, for example. They in fact had a great deal to fear in early 1870. The government of France was collapsing, and in fact Paris would soon be occupied by some very doctrinaire Communists. There were also formerly exiled monarchists now floating around trying to bring back the Orleanist monarchy, which would certainly have been a bad thing for the peasants. And the Prussians did in fact invade France later that year, so that was a real threat as well. Saying that the villagers shouldn't have been motivated by fear would be a pretty strange argument, given the constellation of very real threats that faced them.

The problem wasn't that they were afraid, but that they didn't have enough information to understand whom they should be afraid of. They didn't understand that nobles and Republicans hated each other, or that the Republicans were actually on their side even though they hadn't been able to repeal the tax, or that when and if the Prussians did invade they wouldn't pose as French nobles or pretend to be Republicans. Similarly, Americans in communities of rumor today know that something is desperately wrong with their society, but they lack sufficient information to know that that something isn't gay people (who really have no power in America) or Barack Obama (who comes from the party less subject to corporate control).

I'm not convinced that fear itself, as FDR put it, is something we need to fear. Fear can be a good motivation to solve real problems, like global warming or the economic meltdown. But fear is only useful when it comes with enough information to be properly directed at real enemies and real issues.

Finally, I agree with you that communities of rumor have always been a problem in society, but the information age certainly gives us more tools to combat them. Also, from a practical perspective, we really only need modest improvements in getting information to people to create some pretty striking changes. A bit more information about the powerlessness of gays in American society sent to 2-3% of Californians in communities of rumor, and we could have upheld gay marriage there. A similar percentage would have elected Gore and Kerry, and given us a Democratic Congress several years earlier than we got it. We're not going to be able to abolish communities of rumor (and in fact, even communities of truth are subject to rumor on occasion), but a small shift would make a lot of difference.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/08/2008 2:29 PM:

Idio, you're right about the media component of this, but I have to say that I don't think beefing up media credibility is the way to go. We've seen the damage that a slanted network such as Fox News can do even when their bias isn't always blatantly obvious. As you say in your last sentence, using the media to impart "truth" is a very dangerous tool. I think working at the local level through already-established channels is probably the way to go.