The Unreachables

There are people who are so easily gas-lit and suggestible that they’ve spent the last week trashing the recently departed John McCain and his grieving family for holding a funeral. Seriously. An American POW and war hero, a man who served the country for fifty years. They went after him. They went after people who were sorry to see him pass. They went after the wife and the daughter.

It boggles the mind.

But why would people do that?

It’s because tribal affiliation has completely taken over their lives and their identities are totally wrapped up in it. They tune into their cable news channel each evening to receive their marching orders and direct instruction on what to believe and what to forget they’ve heard about. In other aspects of their lives, they demonstrate the same blind loyalty and unquestioning faith, so why not in the culture wars too?

There are people who choose to have others do the thinking for them. There are people who decide what team they’re on first, before considering any individual issue or question. There are people who are so swept up by the emotional reward from feeling like they’re a part of one side, that even the mere suggestion of the other side having a point becomes a sort of sacrilege unto itself.

These are the Unreachables.

If you’re mocking these people for being dumb, however, and spending any of your time trying to change their minds, then you – yes, you – are even dumber than they are. Spending even a moment debating, arguing, reasoning or cajoling an Unreachable is an inadvisable use of your time. Expending hours every week – not just in time but in mental energy and physical exertion – is downright stupid.

You can no sooner smash a rock against the ground in order to transform it into an apple than can you get someone to believe a thing that invalidates their identity. You can no sooner yell into the wind and demand that it change direction than can you free an Unreachable from the stories they’ve subconsciously told themselves about the righteousness of their beliefs.

You’re asking someone to deviate from every public pronouncement they’ve made and all of the comfort and support they currently have in their community of likeminded fellow Unreachables. You’re asking them to betray what they’ve already told the world they are!

And what are you offering in return? Facts? Logic?

Nobody cares about what your facts are. People have facts of their own that they like better. And when has logic ever been the crucial factor in human decision making, like, ever, throughout world history?

You will come across an Unreachable who inadvertently identifies his or herself as one within a handful of minutes, within a single conversation, within the time it takes for them to tweet out a misspelled response to a post that wasn’t addressed to them. You will know.

The only course of action once you know is to smile politely and end the discussion as gently as you can. Or to walk away. Or to get off the phone. Or to mute the account on social media. There is no further discussion worth having. No one will come out ahead. They will lose, you will lose, anyone watching will lose. The exchange is not merely a breakeven, it actually has a negative outcome for all participants.

But if only I could make them see…

You cannot!

Getting nasty won’t work. Explaining your point of view won’t work. Introducing facts and logic won’t work (or, more likely, will backfire and produce a rage-filled counter-reaction). Persuasion won’t work. Sarcastic humor or ridicule won’t work. Appeals to reason won’t work.

And do you want to know why?

Because the people you’re dealing with, yourself included, have evolved this way.

Being emotionally in sync with the missions and beliefs of a group was actually an advantageous trait for our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. Those who were not able to throw in with a clan did not survive long enough to pass on their genes. Those who were able to wholly surrender their ability to reason logically – especially in times of stress when a group affiliation was necessary – did survive to pass on their genes, and you are the inheritor.

Cooperation involves joining. Joining involves convincing ourselves of something that may not be true but is essential in order to belong. We don’t even know we’re doing it when we do it. The researchers and scientists who have documented this phenomenon call it Confirmation Bias.

Here’s Elizabeth Kolbert, writing at the New Yorker, with a well known example of it in action.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

Our beliefs can calcify and harden in the presence of contradictory information. And the more intensely those facts are thrown in our faces, the more galvanized we can become, the more furiously we build up our defenses to repel them. How dare you threaten my allegiance to the tribe by coercing me to change my mind?!?

People can change their minds but it doesn’t happen as a result of one conversation or contentious exchange with a stranger. It’s a process and it isn’t going to involve you. It takes time and experience and changes of scenery and sometimes it never happens at all.

Of course, there are degrees of everything, and there are certainly degrees of obstinate within the Unreachables. But that’s not your problem. That’s not for you to wade through and sort out.

Here’s one thing you can do, however…

Ask yourself whether or not you might be an Unreachable in some regard. Are there some beliefs you’ve taken on because they’re of use to you in some social setting or circumstance – beliefs that may not be completely grounded in fact? Are you, in your own way, an Unreachable in the eyes of someone else? Have you affiliated with a tribe of your own, whether out of convenience or for professional purposes, without even having realized it?

There is a higher likelihood that you have than that you have not. After all, if you consider yourself to be highly evolved, then remember that we’ve evolved to join.


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