On the Hubris Principle
I’ve recently found myself utterly baffled (and often appalled) at the apparent inability for some people to be rational, coherent, objective human beings. Perhaps this has always been the case, but now, due to the ease in which anyone can share their views openly with the world, it certainly seems much more dramatic and widespread than I ever imagined. There’s a terrifyingly large swath of the population that not only believes complete fallacies, but will defend them with complete abandon and pure, vile vehemence, even when faced with these nifty little things called “facts”. It’s hard enough to have an intelligent discourse with someone you have a difference of opinion with, without tacking on an absolute refusal to acknowledge even the slightest possibility that they might be wrong—not to mention the verbal abuse that sometimes comes with it. And this does not appear to be limited to one group of people, or even a particular political party—not by a long shot. It’s on both sides of the aisle, and can be on either side of an issue. I can’t even claim that I’m immune. For purposes of this blog post, I’ve decided to call this phenomenon the “Hubris Principle.”
I’ve long known that you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet—hell, you can’t always believe everything you see on the news anymore (evidenced here). Everyone is pushing a perspective that is motivated almost exclusively by one thing—the almighty dollar. This influx of cash into media and politics, in my opinion, has done more to divide this country than anything since the Civil War. And whether by virtue of sheer ignorance, opinions based on half-truths (and sometimes outright, unadulterated fiction), or pure propaganda designed to widen the gulf between us, it’s becoming more and more difficult to actually find anything that even resembles an unvarnished fact. The truth may be out there, but much of the time, I have no damn idea where to find it.
There are a number of platforms available today for people to say, share, post, inflame, conspire, attack, lie, rail, sensationalize, or trivialize virtually any issue. Facebook seems to be where the most intense debates are staged, if only because one’s vitriol isn’t maxed out at 140 characters. I’ve occasionally, (and stupidly) found myself jumping into the fray—most often to try to disabuse someone of a fallacy on which I (again, stupidly) thought I could provide some perspective on. Now, I don’t claim to know everything by any stretch, and my own opinions on many topics have evolved over time, but I also don’t consider myself to be an idiot. (Perhaps therein lies the problem.) I try to take other people’s feelings and beliefs and experiences into account when debating an issue, but sometimes it’s possible that what you think is your “opinion” is simply an erroneous belief. If the fact attached to your “opinion” is false, then your opinion itself becomes altogether invalid (as this article rather brilliantly points out). This is an important distinction, because too often, people believe that an “opinion” by its definition cannot be "wrong", and therefore invoking something as “their opinion” gives them absolute license to believe it. It’s the equivalent of stating 2+2=5, and when being challenged on it, saying, “well, that’s my opinion,” as if that should end the discussion. But that’s not how facts work. Facts are not subjective, and open to interpretation or debate.
I mention this, because I believe the Hubris Principle is largely based on a growing inability to accept the slightest possibility that one might be wrong. Even when confronted with facts contrary to their “opinion,” those facts are utterly and vehemently denied or simply ignored. Because people have come to believe that their perspective cannot possibly be incorrect, the evidence presented that is counter to that perspective must also be invalid, untrue, faked, manufactured, fraudulent, or deceptive. No matter how much substantiation you provide, it will still be rejected out of hand. It’s mindboggling to imagine, but what some people wish to believe has, for them, actually supplanted reality.
Case in point: climate change. Without getting into the debate here (that’s a topic for another day), it does illustrate the Hubris Principle nicely. There is a large swath of the population that does not want to believe (or outright refuses to acknowledge) that global warming is occurring. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid to face the consequences of what that means. Maybe it’s because they live someplace that’s been unusually chilly the last few years. Maybe it’s because someone they think they can trust told them it’s a myth. Maybe it’s because it's harder to accept that it is happening and make changes, than to ignore the possibility altogether. Regardless of the reasons, for these people, climate change simply does not exist. No amount of virtually unassailable evidence will convince them otherwise—even if there is a preponderance of it. In fact, some have suggested that the very terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ should be outlawed or banned altogether (freedom of speech, be damned). It doesn’t matter how many global temperature graphs you show them, how many images of depleted Arctic ice they see, how many actual scientists form a consensus, or how many island nations are currently slipping underwater as the sea levels rise. It just doesn’t exist. And even if you can get someone to acknowledge that evidence, their argument shifts to the perspective that we, as humans, aren’t a contributing factor, and can’t do anything about it anyway—“the earth just goes through these cycles, and a mere 7 billion people can’t possibly impact the entire planet.” Again, you can show them charts of carbon in the atmosphere, and how that correlates to carbon emissions on the ground. You can point to great gouts of smog in the sky, or the layer of soot that industry has left atop the ice shelves which are now absorbing light and heat instead of reflecting it away from the earth’s surface. If you’re lucky, this too will be dismissed as manufactured, false, pseudo-science, or fear mongering. If you’re not so lucky, out will come the personal attacks, and you’ll be labeled a “liberal whackjob” or a “tree-hugging libtard,” or told you’re “drinking the kool-aid,” as if it is somehow shameful to suggest that we take better care of the planet, the environment, and humanity as a whole.
The Hubris Principle goes a step further still, however. When shown any potential evidence that corroborates one’s beliefs—no matter how unreliable the source—that too, immediately becomes “fact”. And that information is almost never vetted. To expand on the above example, recent images from NASA that show the Antarctic ice shelf expanding are often used to refute the very idea that global warming is occurring. Yet, if one simply reads the content of the article attached to the photo, they would see that the melt from the Arctic continues at a much more significant pace, and the increase of ice in the Antarctic may actually be a symptom of climate change. Most will never discover that fact, however, because they staunchly refuse to see anything beyond that which supports their own theories. Perhaps my favorite illustration of this transcendence of fiction to fact is a post that was made by some random guy on Facebook in response to the confederate flag debate. He posted an image of a sculpture of a giant black fist that hangs in Detroit, stating he was offended that a symbol celebrating the Black Panthers was permitted on public property, when Old Dixie was not. The Facebook hive mind erupted in outrage at the blatant hypocrisy and injustice of it all. In point of fact, the statue is a monument to Joe Louis. The boxer. But what I found most interesting about the thread was that even after the memorial was identified, the debate continued unabated. People either ignored the facts altogether, or insisted that the sculpture must have some veiled subtext. It couldn’t just be a tribute to one of the greatest boxers to ever grow up in Detroit, because that would mean that it no longer provided fodder for their side of the argument.
If one’s religion enters into the equation, I would highly recommend that you remain calm, raise your hands in surrender, and back away slowly. For all intents and purposes, the conversation is over. In my experience, the best thing you can do is bow out as gracefully as possible and accept that there was nothing more you could do to convince them of your viewpoint. As much as pride precludes some from accepting the possibility that they might be wrong, if buoyed by the conviction of their faith, then their stance immediately becomes incontrovertible. Nowhere is the Hubris Principle more extreme. There are five major religions, dozens of translations, hundreds of creeds, and thousands of different interpretations of virtually every verse in every holy book that exists. But almost without exception, and with the utmost conviction, your opponents will stand unyieldingly by their own interpretation as if it were the very bedrock of their religion. And perhaps it is. Perhaps the mere acknowledgement that another viewpoint may be correct is suggestive enough to send deep and unsettling fractures of doubt throughout the entire foundation of their faith. But it still begs the question--how egocentric must one person be to presume that of all of the nearly endless possibilities, they (and perhaps they alone) have got God all figured out?
With everyman now capable of shouting all manner of nonsense from the Internet and social media rooftops, we must proceed with more than a fair amount of skepticism. And with so much money being pumped into media and politics, it’s more critical than ever before that we try to remain objective—because they are not. Almost everything you see and hear and read is peppered with bias. Everyone is trying to sell you his or her particular brand of snake oil. And none of them are a cure for anything at all. They’re really the catalyst for a frightening virus that is now reaching epidemic proportions—a disease fueled by ignorance and pride.