I really struggle with this question: why do so many people believe the unbelievable?
This sad reality is nothing new. Con men, scam artists and snake oil salesmen have been using and abusing people’s trust for centuries. These hucksters seem to have a special ability to target the naive, to tell them what they want to hear and then entrap them in the web of fantasy they have spun.
They swallow the lie “hook, line and sinker,” we say.
When President Obama spoke at Nelson Mandela’s 100th birth day celebration, he spoke to the increasing danger of this culture of deception.
Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up.
We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more …
The current problem is two-fold: leaders and manipulators who lie in order to deceive coupled with people who believe and even defend both the deceptions and the deceivers.
Historian Will Durant once said: “It may be true that you can’t fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.”
Mr. Obama went on to say:
We are seeing the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. And, as with the denial of rights, the denial of facts runs counter to democracy …
The problem we have with these snake oil leaders – both political and religious – is huge, but that is not really my question here. Again, I ponder: why do so many people believe the unbelievable?
I have a dear friend who thinks this current president is the most ‘down to earth, honest president since Ronald Reagan.’ He dismisses fact-check articles that contradict the president’s claims and he earnestly believes it is the media that is lying while the president is telling the truth. This is a good-hearted person but he has swallowed this hook, line and sinker.
I was raised in a fundamentalist church that indoctrinated me in a very narrow way of thinking that they called ‘truth.’ As I have changed and grown over the years, I realize much of their ‘truth’ is simply not true. Of course they are entitled to their opinions, but when religious people claim that a particular doctrinal or theological perspective is ultimate truth – this is heresy.
And to deny critical thinking and provable facts is deadly.
But there for awhile, I was the poster child for this denominational heresy. I bought it “hook, line and sinker.” My blog, Mental Gymnastics, considers this perverted reality and ponders our human ability to bend over backwards to keep believing what we believe.
So one theory is: once we commit to believing a particular thing, we will twist all incoming information in order to make it fit with our presuppositions. We desperately need to be “right.”
Another possibility concerns the community to which we are committed. Sometimes a person soaks up the beliefs of others without examination. When we put our trust in someone, we also tend to trust their belief system. And if nearly everyone in our particular bubble believes a certain way, then we might assume that way must be “right.” Or a different angle, sometimes people identify themselves in opposition to what someone else believes; if “they” believe “that” then it has to be “wrong.” Believing the opposite must be “true.”
I think maybe my friend became so upset with me because he saw me challenging not a belief, not a president but him personally. His self-esteem is so intertwined with his beliefs that he has no ability to hear criticisms objectively.
It is hard work to root out beliefs that entwine themselves within the deep places of our soul. It is risky work to challenge beliefs that we share with a community in which we are immersed.
My own journey has taken years and continues to this day.
My journey brought me to a place where I now see truth, not in blacks and whites, but in a rainbow. My journey has taught me that I can only see reality through my particular lens of experience, personality and perspective. My journey has taught me to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. To ask and then wait and not try to force the answers. My journey has taught me that I am often wrong. About a lot of things. And therefore I keep having to learn humility.
So what do I do in response to this culture of deception that has caught my friends in its web?
For one thing, I will keep calling out leaders who keep lying to us. I won’t back down on that commitment.
But for my friends whom I love, my approach will be more gentle.
I was finally able to identify my own flawed understandings and begin my journey into a rainbow world – not because someone berated me or ridiculed me or tried to force me. Rather I was able to change because I had people in my life who were safe and patient and kind.
That’s how I want to be with my friends who are being deceived into buying the snake oil. I believe they will be hurt more than they can imagine and so I want to be there for them when they need me.
It makes no sense to burn our bridges. It makes immense sense to build them everywhere we can.
Read President Obama’s 2018 speech here.
Watch it here. (1 hour 24 minutes)
Will Durant quote from BrainyQuotes