Resilient Rigidity

Posted on March 26, 2024 By

by Rachel MacNair

Debate and Switch on a Comedy Show

Jimmy Kimmel is a late-night comedian who frequently has innovative person-in-the-street interviews with questions or approaches others may not have thought of. Recently, he had a 4-minute segment where people known to be Trump supporters were asked what they thought of Joe Biden making a certain remark. Then the interviewer switched – it was actually Donald Trump who made the remark.

The Trump supporters were disgusted with the remark when they thought Biden made it. But when the interviewer apologized that her notes were mixed up, asked to re-ask, and made clear it was Trump who made the remark, the interviewees immediately switched to justifying the remark or expanding on the point in a more positive way.

We’re talking about the exact same people on the exact same occasion turning on a dime. They changed their perspective in a matter of seconds.

Jimmy Kimmel graphic

Jimmy Kimmel show graphic for this segment

Of course, the show only uses the best answers for their purpose. They undoubtedly did a large number of interviews, and then selected out the three that were most unambiguous.

Still, these three people were all intelligent and gave reasoning for their sudden switch. I think they surely had to be aware of what they were doing, though not all observers would agree. And they all three had to have signed permission to allow the video of them to be used, so they were willing to have this publicly portrayed.

Also, I watch enough of anti-Trump punditry that I knew it was actually Trump who made the remark as soon as the interviewer offered it. The interviewees mainly didn’t. So we’re dealing with intelligent people who support Trump without having previously heard some of the more awful things he said, yet not fazed about it when they hear that it was he who said it.

But I say this with complete confidence: if someone were to design a set of interviews that instead took some horrifying quotations from Biden and went to Biden supporters and attributed them to Trump at first and then corrected themselves, they’d be able to find some interviewees that would do the exact same thing. It’s not which candidate a person supports that causes this. It’s the fact of being dead set in favor of a certain candidate. See a Saturday Night Live satire on this, in which interviewees strain to support undesirable candidates simply because they’re Black.

I found this fascinating. The position is rigid, but the explanation for it is so very resilient precisely because the position is so very rigid. I think there are plenty of applications of this all over the consistent life ethic and its component issues.

Political Psychology: The Inherent Bad Faith Model

Psychologists have long known about the ability to switch whether something is good or bad, based entirely on your predispositions about who did or said it. In a classic case, in 1962 a study by Ole Holsti looked at the “information processing” of John Foster Dulles (President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State) which showed that any information that came to him about the Soviet Union was filtered through a negative lens.

I recall in my 1970s peace studies classes reading of studies where American and Soviet students would be shown such things as trees planted by a highway. They’d be told their own government planted them and asked why, and they would come up with reasons such as shade, beauty, and  soil stabilization. Then they’d be shown a similar picture and told that the other government had planted the trees in their country and asked why. And they’d give reasons such as to hide tanks.

How this underpins wars and conditions that lead to wars isn’t hard to figure out. Nor is it difficult to see how it applies to conflicts where two sides just won’t listen to each other.

Consistent Life Gets Hit

Back in the 1980s when our predecessor group, Prolifers for Survival, was going strong, we tried to join the anti-nuclear-weapons coalition Mobilization for Survival (Mobe). A local Mobe chapter put out a letter in response saying that all pro-lifers were “racist, classist, misogynist anti-choice reactionaries.” We put that on t-shirts and sang it with conga lines, the absurdity of it being so obvious to us. But we could see that these are people that can’t be reasoned with. From their understanding, we couldn’t exist. Therefore, we didn’t.

For a coalition where we had an all-hands-on-deck need for urgent policy, and where the fact that it’s a coalition already means you’re deliberately cooperating with people you disagree with on other policy, their unshakeable stand did harm to their own cause.

But the understanding of peace activists as Soviet stooges was also of long standing at that time – the Mobe chapter was surely aware of this. Trying to simply make a reasonable case of what was wrong with nuclear weapons, and how unwise nuclear strategy was, was constantly hitting the brick wall that saying so made you an unpatriotic person.

So we joked that as pro-life peaceniks, we were communists on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and we were fascists on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and we took Sundays off.

Facing this intransigence against us, either for an individual issue or for the consistent life ethic as a whole, has been a bane of our existence all along. So badly do we ache to explain ourselves, hoping that we can find just the right way to articulate it in the hope of being convincing. But more than persuasion on intellectual points is needed. Which leads to:

Questions

Did any of Kimmel’s interviewees watch themselves on national television, even if it’s a show they didn’t ordinarily watch? If so, what happened to the thinking of the three interviewees, once they saw themselves on Jimmy Kimmel, heard the audience reaction, and saw how Kimmel framed it? There hasn’t been follow-up, at least as shown by Kimmel, on how that went.

Would people who engage in this kind of bad-faith model of thinking be less inclined to do so if the model were explained to them? Would they be less inclined to do so if they saw how it worked on an issue where they see the problem before being applied to their own situation?

Would techniques such as de-Martian-izing and getting back to the comfort zone help in dialog with those who have otherwise unshakeable stereotypes? Would one-to-one personal dialog make a difference?

What more do we need to do when simple attempts at persuasion dash up against the rocks of such resilient yet rigid reasoning?

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 For more on the dynamics of dialog, see:

 Tips on Dialogue

Two Practical Dialogue Tips for Changing More Minds about Abortion

Dialog on Life Issues: Avoiding Some Obstacles to Communication

For more on psychological dynamics, see:

The Mind’s Drive for Consistency

Explaining Belligerency

Where Violence Begins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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