“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” — William Blake
There is something supremely satisfying about the feeling of being ‘in on something’. Whether it be a group, a culture, a joke, a theory or a pattern for interpreting and predicting events, it seems as if we are wired to desire and be uniquely elated by this feeling. One of the appealing aspects of the graffiti culture, for example, is the entry it grants into a secret web of underground celebrities. Being able to ride a train line and identify various artists and their pseudonyms — decrypting coded messages in full public view. This feeling of being exclusively included, though, coupled with the tendency to believe ideas with little substantiating evidence for prejudiced and biased reasons, can prove dangerous. Many great political revolutions and intellectual developments can trace their genesis to such a mode of skeptical thinking, though we must be cautious not to abuse ideas by adopting them as a way of mere intellectual signalling. It is not only the sense of authority drawn from the conflict of being a contrarian which makes these positions so attractive to hold but also being armed with arguments which work by exposing the lack of rigour and self-reflection of many values or beliefs held within pop culture. As a result, the momentum behind various alternative movements, news sources and politicians has been growing rapidly in recent times. In large part, this is also a response to the increasing dissatisfaction with the values of the status quo’ and their conservative perpetuators.
As news sources are increasingly concentrating into online formats, alternative news outlets have flourished. With this development has come stronger anti-mainstream positions. For instance, Breitbart features articles bolstering President-elect Trump’s position dismissing recent CIA Russian hacking allegations, predicting the valiant uphill battle Trump faces as an anti-establishment leader as well as a piece on Kellyanne Conway prioritising family commitments over career promotion. These three articles are connected by their underlying theme of ‘knowing better’ than the layman, the influence of the malevolent popular media and the trend of public opinion combined. The first article casts a darker shadow of doubt over the integrity of key US intelligence institutions such as the CIA and the NSA, suggesting their collusion with the partisan political objectives of the Democratic Party. The second article sets the stage for a modern epic, framing the supposed incoming political battles brewing between Trump and the ‘establishment’ as a David v. Goliath contest, with Breitbart gunning heavily for the underdog. The final article challenges the profile of Conway which is believed to be held by those in opposing political camps as a cold, calculating career-driven ‘American Psycho’. All three abuse the critical faculties of their audience and in particular take advantage of the growing sentiment of skepticism and distrust towards major news networks as well as those in government. Not to be outdone by the right, left-wing publication Salon features a piece defending Obama’s entire record over the past two terms by pointing to double-standards motivated by racist prejudices. Another article argues that the rise of fascism was made possible partly due to the ‘normalizing’ of its leaders — not so subtly alluding to the media’s coverage of Trump.
Much like Breitbart, but with an obvious leftward political slant, Salon offers its readership the opportunity to see connections which most don’t — providing a faux academic viewpoint to rest layers of left-wing liberal dispositions upon. The content is comforting, further confirms biases and paints a picture of the world which is simple to consume by grouping people into one of two categories — ‘with you or against you’. In the Obama article, any public backlash against his policies or criticism of executive overreach come from those ‘against you’ and their motives are clear and simple — racism. Likewise, the second article reassures the reader that their strong emotive reactions towards Trump’s victory are not a reflection of any sourness or lack of respect for democratic outcomes, but rather emphasises the mainstream media’s culpability for building a legitimate platform for him as they did last century for Mussolini and Hitler.
But perhaps this analysis is unjust. To some extent, it is arguable that this just is the intrinsic nature of political journalism and simply reflects the way in which we express ourselves personally. No matter how altruistic and selfless you aim to be, all events, people, concepts and issues exist only in relation to one character in your mind — you. This is how we fundamentally operate and navigate ourselves through the world. For all its obvious negative consequences, our default psychological state is “us vs. them” and in many cases, the process of reasoning goes only so far as to identifying “them”. But there are perhaps more immediate and directly important ramifications to the tempting ‘in on something’ tendency for the populace outside of the political sphere. Some industries have developed in a concerning and profoundly irrational manner, propelled by perhaps life’s most powerful motivator; death. Alternative medicine treatments such as homoeopathy have surged in popularity in recent decades, despite systematic rejection from the scientific medical community as to its effectiveness. Likewise, psychic readings and afterlife communication businesses prey on the most vulnerable, those who have recently lost a loved one. Despite mountains of data and reasoning opposing these practices, the homoeopathic industry raked in $6.4 billion of annual sales in the U.S. alone (2013), with psychic services rising to almost $2.0 billion (2014). And these areas are only growing. Rather than disregarding its adherence, it is more helpful to think of the resurgence of non-evidence-backed-treatments as pointing to a critical defect of our information processing. So often our positions are polished and refined through facts, figures and arguments, to ultimately serve as mere utensils for the bending of reality in order to align with pre-existing emotions. Emotions are at the heart of opinions — debate someone long enough and this becomes painfully clear, that underlying the shiny veneer of our intricate structures of words we have little reason and still operate upon primitive feelings. This explains the success of ideology, conspiracy theories, religious dogmatism, political partisanship and a myriad of other a priori belief systems. Teaching young people critical thinking skills does not automatically open their minds, but it does provide them with tools to more accurately and persuasively adapt their arguments to support how they feel. The first step to uncovering and identifying the biases generated from our intuitions is by stripping away the ‘in on it’ mentality which has been plaguing political discussions recently.