Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Phil Robertson, Conformity and You

Phil Robertson (don't stop reading yet, I swear this will be interesting) said something stupid recently. It is something that I don't think anybody I know actually agrees with or takes seriously. There might be a few contrarians among my friends who are interested in taking Phil Robertson's views to their logical conclusion as a purely academic exercise (I'm a bit of a contrarian myself sometimes), but that's not the same thing as sincerely believing it.

And yet, clearly there are people who take Phil Robertson seriously. I guarantee you that swarms of people will jump to his defense, for everything stupid he's said in the past or will say in the future. I'm not talking about defending freedom of speech for views you hate (I don't think he should be arrested, I just think it's sad that he's probably going to live the rest of his life and die as a hate-filled idiot -- an entire human life wasted). I'm talking about people who actively defend his views and believe that people should agree with him.

So, my first question is, why have I never met one? With Duck Dynasty being as big an empire as it is, I would have to think that, even in a place like BC, there must be a non-trivial percentage of people who totally agree with Phil Robertson's worldview. Statistically, I must have walked past a few of them in the street at some point. These people clearly exist. I've just never had the pleasure of having a conversation with one.

I have about 300 Facebook friends. As far as I know, none of these people share Phil Robertson's worldview.

I don't know what percentage of the population of BC shares something similar to Phil Robertson's worldview -- archetypical, old-fashioned, bigoted, religious extremism. Let's say BC is 1% "Robertsonians" to make up a word (I'm just making up a number here, but as they say, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing with fake statistics. I doubt it's as high as 10% or as low as 0.1%).

Then if my friends were selected for me randomly, the odds that a randomly chosen friend is a Robertsonian is 0.01, which means that the odds they are not a Robertsonian is 0.99. Then the odds that all 300 of my friends are not Robertsonians is 0.99^300, which is close to 0.05. Not impossible, but still pretty unlikely, IF we assume that it occurred randomly.

Obviously, it didn't occur randomly. One huge factor is that I've spent the last 6 years in post-secondary education, so I've been spending my time around educated people. But it would be dishonest to ignore the possibility that, like it or not, I'm most likely to find myself gravitating towards people who, for the most part, share my values. If nothing else, I typically don't actively seek out people whose values clash with mine (look up The Parable of the Polygons to see the problem with that).

So: Consciously or unconsciously, I have excluded people from my life because they don't share my values.

On the one hand, I don't expect any of you will think less of me for not wanting to be buddies with Phil Robertson. On the other hand, when you phrase it like that ("excluding people from my life because they don't share my values") I sound like a bit of a jerk. Isn't it supposed to be a good thing to spend time with people who have different values than you have so you can be open-minded and learn from them?

In spite of people like Phil Robertson, I think the answer *might* be yes. It's just not easy to do. You know that anger you feel when someone like Phil Robertson comes along and says something you think is bigoted and ignorant? That's how it feels when you come across a person whose values ACTUALLY clash with yours.

Remember my last long post, where I made fun of people who say "I'm open-minded, but only to good ideas"? Its close cousin is "I'm tolerant of other people's values, unless I think they're going too far" -- if that's all it takes to be tolerant, then Phil Robertson is tolerant too. In fact, so is pretty much every person in the world.

You might wonder why I'm so obsessed with being open-minded to stupid ideas. I'm obsessed with it because it would be so easy to imagine a world where the roles are switched: 99% of the people in BC are the clean, decent, God-fearing Phil Roberts followers, and the other 1% are the frightening, militant, liberal secular humanists who everyone hates. In such a society, would you stick with what you know is right, or would you find yourself convinced by the Robertsonians?

Bear in mind, they have all the cool and powerful people, not to mention all their good columnists are writing thinkpieces about how secular humanists are Problematic. Plus, there are people on the internet who, upon finding a tweet you made expressing your heathen views, will do their best to report it to your employer so you lose your job. What if the people who agree with you are only 0.1% of the population, or 0.001%? What if it was just you?

And -- here's the Twilight Zone twist -- whatever mode of thinking you would apply in this alternate universe, are you applying the same mode of thinking in this universe?

(Take a moment to look up the Asch experiments on conformity if you haven't already heard of them.)

When I see someone like Phil Robertson, I don't think "Hah, what an idiot" -- not because I don't think he's an idiot, but because it's not very productive. My questions are more along the lines of "How does a human brain come to have those beliefs? Heck, how did I come to believe the things I believe? And, in some hypothetical universe where I was wrong and the Phil Robertson and Fred Phelps' of the world are right, what evidence would it take to convince me of it?"

If I have a point here, it's that Phil Robertson's brain is not fundamentally different from yours or mine, and that should terrify you, or at least motivate you to consider how much of your own thinking is in error.

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It Seemed Funny at the Time by Ben Buckley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.