Fixing income, racial, and gender inequity will protect democracy
Joe Biden has just taken office and already I’m dreaming big. Given the Capitol uprising Jan. 6, he has a clear mandate to deal with the lies and disinformation that proliferates on social and regular media, convincing almost half the population that crazy conspiracy theories like QAnon might be true.
It’s hard to understand how human beings of normal intelligence can believe a cabal of Satan-worshiping, pedophiliac cannibals led by Hillary Clinton is secretly running the country, while the selfish bully who occupied the White House for the past four years is the hero who will bring them to justice; or that the election was fraudulent without any evidence to prove it — just one dishonest and delusional man repeating a #BigLie over and over and over again. But that’s what’s happening here.
Forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee explains to Scientific American how it all came about in this piece recommended to me by Alan Tabor.
The ‘Shared Psychosis’ of Donald Trump and His Loyalists
The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building last week, incited by President Donald Trump, serves as the…
Here’s one of the lines that stood out:
When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence — even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure.
That the “the treatment is removal of exposure” was borne out when Twitter banned Donald Trump and misinformation online went down by an astonishing 73 percent the following week.
That tells us two things: that social media platforms can monitor and exclude disinformation, despite their prior claims that the task was too hard; and that they must.
First Amendment rights don’t apply to disinformation
People saying that banning Trump from Twitter was a violation of his First Amendment rights are misunderstanding the First Amendment. Getting kicked off Twitter is like getting kicked out of a bar. If you’re in there starting fights, of course the owner has the right to throw you out.
Here’s how I saw it explained on Twitter. The cartoonist is Randall Munroe, who draws the comic xkcd.
Inequity drives disconnect and delusion
Dr. Lee goes on to say that developmental injury or “societal stress” make people vulnerable to the kinds of disinformation that are poisoning the well of American democracy.
And it’s important to note that societal stress is caused by relative inequity. If you have no shoes but neither does anyone else, it’s not psychologically stressful. The stress comes when your neighbors have shoes but you don’t.
So while it’s amusing and mostly accurate to describe the Capitol rioters as middle-class white men who are “cosplaying” a revolution — dressing up in costumes while acting out a fantasy — it’s not accurate to say they aren’t “really” suffering just because they aren’t starving or desperately poor. Because psychologically, they are suffering, and their relative insecurity is what makes them vulnerable to conspiracy theories and lies.
If it were just a small number who were falling for QAnon or the #BigLie that the election was “stolen,” it might make sense to dismiss them as “a basket of deplorables” and push them out to the fringe. But when nearly half the country is caught up in a dangerous delusion that resulted in armed thugs storming the capital, putting lawmakers’ lives in danger and killing five people (plus two more who committed suicide after the riot), it cries out for immediate and decisive remedy.
Here’s what the Dr. Lee recommends:
(1) Removal of the offending agent (the influential person with severe symptoms). (2) Dismantling systems of thought control — common in advertising but now also heavily adopted by politics. And (3) fixing the socioeconomic conditions that give rise to poor collective mental health in the first place.
Biden and Harris have a mandate
That brings me back to my original hopefulness. The election (and Twitter and Facebook bans) took care of #1. Tackling disinformation would remedy #2. And solving the systemic diseases of income, racial and gender inequity that have plagued our country since birth would check off #3.
This isn’t pie in the sky. The failed attempt to overthrow the presidential election and subvert American democracy creates a clear mandate for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to fix a system that is horribly, dangerously, and very publicly broken, and Biden apparently knows that.
He included racial inequity and economic instability in the list of multiple catastrophes he called out in his inauguration speech, and his selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate proves that gender equity is also top of mind. Biden also appointed women to many important posts, including Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who was a joy to behold in the first press briefings of the new administration, where no journalists were bullied, insulted or told that their question was “nasty.”
To his already daunting list of crises, on which the global pandemic is #1, I hope President Biden will add control of the disinformation that is destroying our country and other countries around the world. At least one White House journalist feels the same.
Q: The battle for truth may be as tough a fight right now as is the battle against coronavirus. How do you and President Biden plan to combat disinformation that, in many ways, led to that assault we witnessed two weeks ago today on the Capitol?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Peter, there are a number of ways to combat misinformation. One of them is accurate information and truth and data, and sharing information even when it is hard to hear, and even when it is not meeting the expectations of people at home who are desperate for this crisis to be over.
We’ll have more to share with you in the next few days — hopefully before the weekend. But what we plan to do is not just return these daily briefings, Monday through Friday — not Saturdays and Sundays; I’m not a monster — but on — but also to return briefings with our health officials and public health officials. We want to do those regularly, in a dependable way, with data, shared with all of you and with the public so that they can also track progress we’re making on getting the pandemic under control.
Maybe stopping the spread of disinformation is a task that Biden could give to Kamala Harris, whose intelligence, energy, and capability call out for more difficult and important work than merely backing Biden up.
Figuring out what caused the insurrection and how to address it must be done to protect against it happening again. Other stories that illuminate the issues are The Far Right Embraces Violence Because it has No Real Political Program in the Washington Post, also recommended to me by Alan Tabor; the American Abyss from the New York Times magazine recommended by Evelyn Jean Pine; and Jude Ellison Sady Doyle’s humorous and horrifying analysis, The Most Terrifying Threat to America Is Middle-Class White Guys Cosplaying a Fascist Uprising.
There’s no doubt that Biden and Harris have their work cut out for them. But I hope and believe they’re up to the task. And when all’s said and done, it could be that the Jan. 6 insurrection becomes a turning point, justifying taking action on some of the country’s most intransigent problems: income, racial, and gender inequity, and the wanton spread of disinformation and lies.
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