Why on earth do some people believe the blatant lies of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump? That question has had me perplexed. Now I may have stumbled on the answer. To get to that I need to make a detour via Jeanne d’Arc and Greta Thunberg. As I often do, I am bringing together two (hopefully) unrelated images to create a new understanding.
An autistic condition
Let’s begin with Greta or rather autism. In discussing the positive aspects of autism related to Greta, author Naomi Klein on Democracy Now referred to a condition in which autistic people, unlike others, tend not to look to those around them as suitable models for reactions to current circumstances. As a result, social integration is more difficult but also they have the advantage of a less stereotyped response. The idea I’m interested in here is that there can be a condition defined, partly, by how people see and react to others that differentiates them from everybody else and makes their behaviour incomprehensible if not reprehensible to others.
Burning at the stake
Now let’s turn to Jeanne d’Arc. A recent post on Facebook figured a pretty young girl, a winning smile on her lips, dressed up to symbolise Jeanne, complete with a wooden stake and ropes to restrain her and fake flames around the bottom of her ankle-length dress. There was even straw as kindling for the flames. ‘This is so clever’ exclaimed the man posting the picture. I found that image horrifying for several reasons, but the pertinent one here is that adults aided and probably encouraged her to dress that way. What were they thinking? How could they set this girl up as a living effigy of the victim of scheming men in a position of power who burnt to death a young woman because she was a woman doing ‘men’s work’, because she was different, because she was a visionary, because she was courageous, because she took the lead and got things done, because she was able to win?
A question of discernment
I can only conclude that the adults that egged the young girl on to dress that way lacked discernment. They didn’t have the perspicacity or the depth of understanding or the necessary sensitivity to perceive the horror of what they were aiding and abetting. They saw it as pretty, or colourful, or smart, or striking, or amusingly provocative. Or, worse, they were aware but didn’t care. That superficiality or indifference reminds me of the people who willingly gulp down the lies and aberrations of people like Trump or Johnson. They seem to lack any depth of vision or understanding of the world. They remain uncritical if not supportive when confronted with what others see as blatant lies or reprehensible behaviour. This does not include those who are perfectly aware of what is happening, but are driven by an urge to break or destroy at whatever cost, sometimes for their own gain but just as often out of sheer destructive glee.
A flat world, lacking in colour
Now let’s link this lack of discernment to the notion of condition. Is it possible that part of the population is beset by a ‘condition’ characterised by a disinterest, if not an inability, to evaluate the truth of what they hear or see? Beyond this disinterest, they exhibit a lack of curiosity about the wider picture, about others, about elsewhere, about otherwise.. This refusal, if not denial, of all that is ‘other’, this lack of empathy, is strongly linked to a feeling of identity. Questioning it is often taken as an existential threat. Their attitude makes it difficult for them to appreciate the wider ramifications of a situation or perceive the deeper implications of an action. The notion of interconnectedness and interdependence is unacceptable to them, if not abhorrent. They seek to keep all things clear-cut, separate and unambiguous. No wonder they hate people of colour or gays or transexuals. They seek to eliminate otherness, to produce a world that is devoid of difference, that is flat and mono-coloured. They are unwilling, if not terrified, to entertain even the slightest contradiction that might challenge their view. As such, they appear extremely vulnerable in their fearful opposition to all that is different.
Understanding the incomprehensible
If my supposition is correct, these people have an identifiable limit to their perception of the world that appears hard-wired into their identity if not their brains. That might explain why their behaviour is incomprehensible to those who naturally weigh up the truth of what they’ve been told and perceive the wider ramifications of a situation. It might also suggest that such people cannot be won over by recourse to reason or truth as, for existential reasons, they are unwilling or incapable of seeing the world otherwise. Note that, to some extent, all of us find going beyond our own cherished world-view challenging. But a lot of people can be jolted into new perspectives by the unexpected or the inexplicable. In the condition suggested here, the shunning of alterity deprives them of the cognitive dissonance that might shake their short-sighted perceptions. If such a condition exists, it raises the question of the future of democracy, founded as it is on a belief in the collective wisdom and perspicacity of individual voters. This is acutely so at a time when social media are widely used by the rich and powerful to feed these people the very stories that reinforce their limited vision of the world and their hatred and fear of others.