I've written in the past about what we should do when we learn that something we have long believed turns out not to be true. (In brief, strive to …
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I've written in the past about what we should do when we learn
that something we have long believed turns out not to be true. (In
brief, strive to change those beliefs to be more in line with
reality. Doesn't that sound easy?)
But where do these beliefs come from in the first place? Why do
we believe them?
On a personal level, according to the brain and linguistical
research work of George Lakoff and others (see "Don't Think of an
Elephant," and "The Political Brain") it all comes down to
Have you ever heard an argument where suddenly it's clear that
one side is about to lose? Their evidence in tatters, their
rhetoric shattered, you imagine that surely they will back down …
It was never about the evidence.
When you knock down the supposed reason for their belief,
another one immediately takes its place. The frame — which only
sees what it is convinced must be true — remains.
Framing is really nothing more than a metaphor, a story that
begins with the body, and winds up as a filter for all we
understand. For instance, the love of the mother for the child
creates a literal sense of warmth in the child, a warmth centered
in the heart. We believe it because we feel it.
From there, it's only a short hop to to saying that your heart
belongs to your mother — until, of course, someone else generates
even more heat.
On a political level, it gets a little more complicated. But
maybe not much more.
Lakoff argues that both conservatives and liberals base their
political philosophies on the idea of the family, that earliest and
most formative of social experiences.
Lakoff says that conservatives have the frame of the strict
Liberals believe in the nurturing mother. Each of those frames,
those stories, then plays out in a host of ways.
The strict father believes in right and wrong, reward and
The nurturing mother believes in kindness and meanness, in
learning and forgiveness. Those orientations can be directly tied
to individual willingness to support law enforcement, or social
In the political realm there is something else: repetition over
I was also doing some reading about the early development of
think tanks. (See William F. Buckley's "The John Birch Society and
me," and the Heritage Foundation's "The origins of the modern
American conservative movement," both articles freely available on
Following the failure of Barry Goldwater's run for the
presidency in 1964, conservatives of the time adopted a simple
approach: put together a list of core beliefs. Keep talking about
them. Set up institutions that could be contacted by media looking
for quotes on "the other side."
The ascendancy of the conservative mindset, the reflexive belief
that "lowering taxes" is good, no matter what they pay for, can be
directly attributed to that strategy. It took almost half a century
of more or less consistently applied effort. Changing beliefs takes
So why do we believe what we believe?
Because we try to make sense of the world. Because we are hooked
by good stories, and the stories we hear early enough, and often
enough, begin to sound right.
Some of those story tellers are "experts." And next week, I'll
tackle this question: can they be trusted?
Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue's
Views are his own.
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