06 September 2010

'Symbolic Belief': Talking the Talk Without Walking the Walk

New York Times columist Ross Douthat has some interesting comments today about what seems to be a rising tide of paranoia in the United States. Provoked by comments describing the Discovery Channel hostage taker of last week as both a left-wing terrorist (because he was an environmentalist) and a right-wing terrorist (because he opposed immigration), Douthat has reached a point where he finds it hard to take conspiracy-mongering seriously. He believes he'd be justified in not taking most of it seriously by the analysis of one Julian Sanchez, who describes conspiracy theories as a form of "symbolic belief." Sanchez describes symbolic belief as an assertion that "either work[s] as a public expression of some associated attitude or play[s] some role in defining the holder's self-conception." In other words, asserting a symbolic belief is like a confession of faith that identifies you with a group of fellow believers. The crucial aspect of symbolic belief, however, is that people don't really act on it as we'd expect, given the alarming nature of some such beliefs. "A subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert," Sanchez writes. As a political example, he offers the failure of "truthers" to take the sort of actions that would seem to be required by their belief that George W. Bush somehow orchestrated the September 2001 terror attacks, while Douthat notes the failure of "birthers" to act appropriately on their belief that Barack Obama is an illegally elected alien President. In each case, their beliefs should make the believers act as if they faced a national emergency, but in most cases the only action proposed is voting for a particular political party.

Sanchez and Douthat are on to something, but neither explores the concept as fully as they might have. I'd agree that the sort of symbolic beliefs they describe are a form of belonging, of declaring yourself for a particular cause as well as denouncing a menace. I'd add that symbolic beliefs have a more obvious negative aspect. They are insults to the other side. They enable truthers to imply that all supporters of Bush were traitors. They enable birthers to treat Obama's supporters the same way. But that leaves the other question begging: why don't symbolic believers act according to the implications of their claims? They like to call people traitors, but why don't they treat people like traitors?

Sanchez suggests that symbolic beliefs are held shallowly, if not falsely, that "there's some part of you that knows better" and keeps you from getting into "practical trouble." Since the symbolic belief is essentially a form of insult, it doesn't compel the believer to take the drastic actions that would seem to follow from the belief. It might clarify things to remind ourselves that most symbolic beliefs are conspiracy theories. A common effect of conspiracy theory, I suspect, is demoralization. Someone convinced of conspiracies so immense, subtle and fanatical as those asserted in recent times might understandably also believe that he and any group of likeminded people he might find are utterly powerless to cope with the conspiracy. Since conspiracy theorists fear complex systems, assassinations or other decapitation strikes might seem useless to them, while prosecuting conspirators through legal channels would seem laughably hopeless. Conspiracy theories may arise to explain feelings of helplessness as well as inculcate them. Symbolic beliefs probably serve a similar function. Birther-ism blossomed only after Obama was elected, for instance, while trutherism most likely really got going once America's path to war seemed inevitable and irresistible.

Douthat notes that conspiracy theories can be found everywhere, not just on the right or on the anti-statist fringe. Democrats and Democratic constituents seem to have more or less strongly held conspiracy theories of their own. Douthat thinks of the Discover Channel attacker as a conspiracy theorist, but wrote his column to assure us that most conspiracy theorists are unlikely to act as that man did. Since he's something of a conservative by Times standards, Douthat warns that "elites" may blow conspiracy theories out of proportion in order to discredit legitimate dissent against the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. He notes, however, that Republicans played the same game in Bush's time. His conclusion, that "Americans still have more to fear from the folly of establishments than from the paranoia such follies summon up," is nonpartisan in application. What happens, however, when we have a paranoid establishment that has no reason to feel powerless when dealing with conspiracies or treason whose existence may only be symbolic? We may have less to fear from paranoids than from the establishment, but that doesn't mean we should vote for paranoids.

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