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The Dangers Of Dogmatism: A Response To Charlottesville

August 16, 2017

Charlottesville, Virginia was rocked by a white supremacist rally this past weekend that had gathered to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from being removed. The “Unite the Right” group was made up of fanatical neo-Nazis, racists, and militant white nationalists. They were protesting the removal of the statue, and chanted that they were going to “take back America”. Apparently at some point when I was distracted white men lost control of America…

 

The white supremacists were met with counter-protesters who gathered to stand up to the “Unite the Right” crowd. Within hours of the groups meeting in downtown Charlottesville, three people were dead and many more were injured. One woman died when an Ohio man rammed his car into the crowd of counter-protesters. Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed as they tried to provide aerial support to law enforcement in the area.

 

What happened in Charlottesville? Why did these white supremacists feel the driving need to get (Tiki) torches and violently demonstrate their belief that the United States was being “stolen” from them?

 

Given the focus of this blog, I usually discuss dogmatism in the context of religious beliefs. But dogmatism can be seen in more than just religion. Dogmatism is defined as “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” You can see dogmatism in nationalism, racism, conspiracy theorists, and more.

Dogmatism is one of the greater threats to our ability for rational thought. Thanks to the “indelible stamp of our lowly origin” as Darwin put it, we have a brain that is prone to many types of cognitive errors. One of the errors we make is that we come to conclusions for emotional reasons first, and then backtrack. We try to use logic to support the conclusion after the fact, even though the original conclusion is not based on rational reasoning. People tend to cherry-pick the facts they use when attempting to support their beliefs, only paying attention to the facts that support their belief and ignoring or disregarding the facts that contradict their belief. It gets worse still; when people are confronted with evidence that their previous beliefs are wrong, they tend to adhere even more strongly to the previous beliefs, despite them being proven to be wrong with evidence.

 

What it comes down to, really, is intellectual laziness. When you blindly adhere to a set of beliefs, then you no longer have to do any intellectual heavy-lifting. The beliefs do all the work for you. In the case of the Charlottesville white supremacists, despite repeated examples of why immigration makes the United States better economically and socially, they are convinced that other races are somehow below their own and are ruining the country. They believe that the answer to all their woes is to turn the United States into one big whites-only club (forget the fact that they are all technically the descendants of immigrants, clearly that kind of logic is lost on this bunch).

 

They are blind to facts or logic because the dogmatic views espoused by their leaders and other people that they revere appeal to deep-seated emotions they harbor. Once those emotional ties are made these neo-Nazis can stop thinking. The belief system takes over and does all the work for them. Immigrants are bad. Anyone who is not white is bad. End of story for them.

 

So what can we do? You know, besides punching Nazis when we get the chance. Each of us needs to do what we can to be intellectually honest and avoid dogmatism ourselves. What does that mean? It means that we need to do all of the following:

  • Check the sources of any claim we are presented with.

  • Demand evidence for all claims, remembering Carl Sagan when he said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

  • Be open-minded enough to revise any belief, but skeptical enough to require good evidence for belief revision.

  • Be welcoming of honest and open intellectual discourse.

In addition to avoiding dogmatism as much as possible, we also need to confront the harmful dogmatic beliefs of others. Speak up when you are witness to racism, misogyny, or other beliefs corrosive to modern society.

 

This kind of intellectual work is not easy. It takes time and effort. But it is getting more and more necessary with each passing day. As the Internet festers with all manner of hoaxes and garbage ideas that people are trying to spread with the click of a mouse, it requires as many of us as possible to push back against dogmatism in all its forms.

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