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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Magical thinking in liberalism

Why do liberals play John Lennon's Imagine after every disaster? Psychology tells us the reason.

A few years ago at work we got a new CEO. Before this, no one ever expressed political views in the lab. But this one was a dedicated Democrat: her desktop background was a giant picture of a grinning Barack Obama.

Her first act was to give all the scientists a free book and to ask everyone to let her know what they thought of it. A fiendishly clever gambit, I thought—bribe us with a free gift—until I saw the book.

It was Rhonda Byrne's The Secret.

The Secret is a bit of New Age fluff. The secret of life, disclosed therein, is that you can ask the universe for whatever you want and it will magically appear. I'd never heard of it—my spare-time reading was more along the lines of Nuclear and Particle Physics, 2nd ed. Let's just say I wasn't entirely convinced by Byrne's hypothesis.

But many people must have been: The Secret sold over 19,000,000 copies and got its author 300 million bucks and an appearance on Oprah, who, I'm told, is a famous TV personality. And although some liberals might agree with me about Byrne's theory, it seems that, though they'll never admit it, deep down many of them really do believe in magic.

Take the expression “Islam is a religion of peace.” Conservatives have spilled gallons of ink trying to debunk it, as if it were a state­ment of fact. It is not. It's pointless to debunk it, because it's not a claim of fact but a magic spell: the speakers believe that if we keep telling each other Islam is a religion of peace, it will become one. The idea is that Islamic terrorists will hear the phrase, recognize its truth, smack themselves on the forehead, and say to themselves, “What on Earth were we thinking? Of course! We're a religion of peace!”

Magical thinking and OCD

Magical thinking is closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder[1]. OCD sufferers experience what is called goal demotion, where fruitless rituals such as obsessive cleaning become more important than the desired, more effective actions, which the individual is unable to take. It's been proposed that goal demotion can promote social cooperation[2].

Political correctness is a form of magical thinking. The theory is that if we only think good, happy thoughts, then only good, happy things will happen. We must never let ourselves believe, for example, that there are inherent differences among various groups. This has always puzzled me, because they also repeat the mantra that diversity is strength. But if everyone is the same, then there can be no diversity. The two dogmas are contradictory.

But they don't really believe that everyone is equal. It's just another magic spell, whose purpose is to make everyone equal.

PC'ers also tell us that race doesn't exist—as we speak they're whippin' up a new theory that will allow them to say the same thing about sex—yet racism, apparently, does exist and is a huge problem. The intellectual contortions that would go into keeping those two ideas from canceling each other out, like matter and antimatter, would be impressive if liberals actually believed them, but again they don't: they're only magic spells.

Likewise the belief that the mullahs in Iran and dictators like Kim Jong-un are only belligerent because they're mad at us for some unknown reason. If we figure out what that reason is and tell them they're really just misunderstood, rational guys, they'll become rational guys and world peace will magically be at hand.

What about all those pianos?

After the Le Bataclan terrorist bombings in France, a piano player showed up with an expensive-looking digital grand piano to play John Lennon's Imagine. The same tune was played after Hurricane Katrina, Oklahoma City, Waco, and Virginia Tech, almost as if it were a hymn of atonement. What's the deal?

The magazine Psychology Today speculated that it's not the lyrics, which Lennon himself compared to The Communist Manifesto—surely as far from a design for utopia as you can get—but the undeniably religious aspect of the tune. Imagine, like many popular tunes from the hippie and post-hippie eras, fills the need for a feeling of sanctity. In times of crisis, psychologists say, people turn to religion.

But there's another aspect to it. Those ad hoc hymnals can't be understood without recognizing that we're social animals, and therefore all behavior is communication, whether we recognize it as such or not. They're a perfect example of goal demotion.

Some of these mourners probably think playing Imagine will literally cause peace, that by signaling their own virtue and sanctity, it will cause the enemy to stop hating them and start being a little nicer and less explosiony. But most can't accept the usual strategies for dealing with terrorists, so, like OCD patients, they substitute a feel-good action instead. It's the equivalent of straightening the pictures on your wall or lining up all your books in alphabetical order.

That's why lib hatred burns brightest toward conservatives. Conservatives threaten their view that the piano-playing and other magic rituals are having an effect. By expressing skepticism toward the theory that peace can be obtained by holding hands and swaying while singing We Are the World, conservatives also threaten the world, so liberals think, with war, destruction, and increased levels of atmospheric CO2.

Nuclear war causes global warming

I'm not making that one up. An environmental engineering professor named Marc Z. Jacobson once claimed [3] that a regional nuclear war, which he defined as 50 15-kT devices, would release 92–690 teragrams (1 Tg=1000000 metric tons), or up to 690 million metric tons of CO2. So it's a serious threat indeed, needing massive quantities of positive thinking to prevent it. It was a classic case of academic tunnel vision.*

Under Obama, lefty ideology drifted a bit more toward secular goals like social justice, which is a phrase lifted from John Rawles. Rawles asked the question: if you had no control over what kind of society you'd be born in, would you pick one with capitalism, prosperity and freedom, or one with massive taxation and government-mandated redistribution of resources, slow economic growth, soul-crushing state surveillance, pervasive influence peddling, and persistent erosion of our civil liberties?

Rawles didn't express it exactly that way, of course, but for Rawles and his followers, who just happened to favor the second choice anyway, that question was a mighty convincing argument. There was no question for them that the prize was behind door number 2.

That tells us a lot about lefty magical thinking, and perhaps about all political thinking. Too much of it is fake: our political beliefs depend on our values, and despite all our rational­izations our ideology is largely constructed to create a justification for those beliefs.

Thinking is the best tool for refuting bad ideas. But when you start from the presumption that logic, rigor, and evidence are all racist construc­tions of the colonialist patriarchy, that tool is no longer available to you, and you're stuck with magic.

Magical thinking suits the collectivist spirit, where everyone must think the same to achieve the goal. As someone on Star Trek said (come on, you had to know Star Trek would come into this sooner or later): “The Borg ship only has to think where it wants to go and it goes there!” With a few little tweaks (no gays and no bongs on the Borg cube and people sleep standing up, but there's also no unemployment, no global warming, everything is green), it would be paradise for liberals.

Just imagine. No hell below us, above us only sky. I hope some day you'll join us, because Resistance Is Futile.

[1] Behav Res Ther. 2004 May;42(5):539–549. The presence of magical thinking in obsessive compulsive disorder. Einstein DA1, Menzies RG. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15033500

[2] Mitkidis P, Lienard P, Nielbo KL, Sørensen J (2014). Does Goal-Demotion Enhance Cooperation? Journal of Cognition and Culture 14(3–4), 263–272.

[3] Jacobson MZ (2009). Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security. Energy Environ. Sci., 2009, doi:10.1039/b809990C Link

* It would also, as he noted, kill people.

created jul 16, 2017; last edited jul 30 2017, 5:22 am

See also

Epistemic nihilism
Why are we so divided in what we believe? Blame postmodernism.

Adventures in diversity training
The smiley face of political indoctrination

Left-wing logic
Left-wing logic is similar to the logic used by people here on Earth. Studying it will be invaluable for when NASA makes contact with extraterrestrials.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
Name and address
book reviews