Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The myth of the puppet resistance

I put a lot of work into demonstrating respect for the people I disagree with. Most of that work is fighting human nature and biases that tend to brush aside challenging views without really listening.

I've written before that people can disagree without one side being stupid, or evil.

But what about one side being a front?

There's a very strong sense of paranoia in some groups. The basic idea is that they are absolutely right, and no one actually disagrees with them. When people do speak up with intelligent, rational arguments to the contrary, it is because they were paid to say them.

This overlaps a lot with the post about evil opponents, and I'm going to recycle Penn Jillette's quote from 2008 about Democrats who believe:

"If you boil it all down, that Bush and McCain and Palin agree with the Democrats 100 percent on everything, and are then doing the opposite. They do not believe there is a disagreement. They do not believe that Bush is a person trying to do the best he can do, who is wrong."
The difference here is that this time people are supposedly lying not because they have evil plans, but because they have been bribed.

I encounter this all the time with the "Buy Local" crowd. The supporters are enthusiastic, but some are downright fanatical and reveal a lot of paranoia when their views are challenged. Just look at the comment section whenever the Freakonomics Blog posts a legitimate intellectual disagreement from an academic that pokes holes in the localist philosophy. It got so bad the first time that Stephen Dubner wrote:

"A blog post from a few months ago — titled “Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?” — upset many eat-local fans. Among the many sins I committed were... being the kind of grump who hates all good things including nature, children, puppies, etc. (Believe that if you must; I hope it is not true.)"

But the comments in response to William A. Master's remarks about a realistic sustainable food system that uses industrial technology weren't just mad; they were accusations of fraud:

"I want to know who funds his research."

There there was:

"After reading his speech one of two things must be at play

"1) he is a robot and doesn’t required actual food that humans eat (or hasn’t ever actually tasted food, local or industrial)

"2) is paid by Monsanto / Cargill / etc…."

Three weeks after the post went up, this gem was added to the comments section:

"You know we are in trouble when sophistry is used to convince the public that what we all know is true from first hand experience is, actually, false. War is peace, hate is love, and if you just look deeper you are told that only highly concentrated industrial agriculture holds the key to health, happiness, economic prosperity, and the salvation of all mankind. Just eliminate common sense – and you will know the truth? I think Monsanto should spray our air with chemicals – since their air will be safer than the natural air we breathe. Then charge us for it."


Two out of the three named the scapegoat agricultural company Monsanto. If you swap "Monsanto" out for "The Devil" or "The CIA" whenever it appears in food Luddite literature, you end up with a text indistinguishable from doomsday prophecies or wild conspiracy theories.

It's very easy to reinforce a cherished belief by automatically rejecting all opposing views as a plant by a big corporation or the government. What these people need to ask themselves is, what if you are wrong and someone sincere tried to tell you so? How would you know the difference?


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