Bigotry is a feature, not a bug

Recent advances in cognitive science reveal clear evidence there is a biological basis for bigotry. For a democracy, in which everyone gets to vote, this is really a serious issue we must address. Our world is undergoing rapid changes that demand flexible strategies, not hide bound rigidity. Consequently, conservative religious bigots are a problem because they refuse to compromise and negotiate; they shrink in terror at the thought of bold new ideas.  Were they open to honest and honorable free inquiry there would not be a problem and our issues would be more amenable to democratic debate and resolution. We can clearly see this is not the case. Neuroscience may be opening the door to ways of dealing with bigotry.

Recent discoveries using advanced imaging devices reveal that the brain physically rewires the actual neuronal connections that dictate our beliefs and our behavior based on our life experience and information we deliberately feed ourselves. This brain plasticity feature is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because revolutionary treatments based on the emerging science of neuroplasticity are showing success in treating OCD, phobias, and even schizophrenia (The Brain Can Change Itself by Dr Normon Doitch is a seminal opus). The treatment techniques work by essentially reconfiguring the brain’s neuronal networks. These astounding new findings pose profound questions for all of us and go to the very roots of our science, law, philosophy, and culture. In this respect the new knowledge is as “disruptive” as the theory of evolution and some writers say just as profound.

While these advances are most welcome, we must note that the science poses profound questions for our moral understanding, as it applies to law, and relationships. The age old idea of free will is about to be tested as never before. As Robert A. Burton points out in his book, On Being Certain, Believing you are Right Even When You are Not, what we experience as conscious decision making actually happens in deep layers of the brain we cannot directly control or access.

We now know that once neuronal connections become “hard wired” in the brain they are extremely impervious to things like logic or simple will power to dislodge. One theory that underlies this claim is based on the notion that humans cannot live with cognitive dissonance so we must make choices between alternatives and live with them. Once a choice is made you cannot vacillate between opposite positions, because that would put you in a state of constant uncertainty. We humans crave certainty and are vexed by anything that brings on cognitive dissonance (a point Burton makes). In other words the bias towards adopting rigid positions (whether good or bad) exists to prevent us from spinning our wheels, so to speak.

This trait may go back eons in human history, all the way to Africa. When our African ancestors went hunting in the tall bush and one of them thought they saw a lion in wait and yelled out “lion”, all the hunters would run for the nearest tree without wasting time. There may have been a lion or maybe it was just shadows. Whatever, it is better to be decisive and wrong than be indecisive and get eaten for lunch. Evolution favored our ancestors who were decisive because, think about this. We are really adept at discerning possible threats, but not so good at knowing how to deal with them all. Nature comes to the rescue. She hardwires our mindset so that running for cover is usually the best survival strategy. Otherwise, when confronted with diametrically opposed options (fight or flee) we would vacillate back and forth, essentially spinning our mental wheels attempting to resolve cognitive dissonance. Instead, the brain relies on stereotypic thinking. Once you work out a position on hitting children as a way to control them, raping your spouse as a way to control her, or voting a straight party line as a way to control the country, your mental energy gets conserved for more immediate matters like what to watch on TV or eat tonight for dinner. We roll through life virtually on autopilot and most people may not even be aware of this fact.

Accordingly, discoveries about brain neuroplasticity makes it crucial for everyone to understand that their choices must be based on evidence and facts and not dogma, propaganda, folk wisdom, tradition, intuition or the like. President George Bush was famous for saying that he went with his gut instincts. (If he used his gut to think with, did he digest food with his brain?). Gut instincts, otherwise known as intuition, can suggest promising avenues to investigate, or provide startling insights, but they complement reason and are no substitute for employing evidence and rational thinking when deciding public policy. Who can say how many brilliant intuitions arrive in the morning and after sober reflection are discarded by sundown? Rather than relying on intuition as a guide, a better plan is to adopt the stance of a critical thinker and become a skeptic. This habit of thought is the best way to guard our mind against unsound ideas.  What we consistently pay attention to is likely going to wind up hardwired in our brain.

In recent years there has been a lot of attention paid to the rise of far right religious conservatives, the leading population segment composed of bigots. They now are allied with wealthy plutocrats and threaten democracies. Some cultural cognition researchers (Professor Dan Kagen at Yale leads a team) are working on methods of conversing with bigots that doesn’t send them scurrying for a tree to climb. Rather than deal with bigotry as a social problem why not go directly to the source of where people are taught rigid dogmatic habits of mind?

Institutional religion is where the habit of dogmatic, bigoted thinking gets firmly implanted during the most vulnerable years of a child’s life. Furthermore, indoctrination dulls a child’s intellectual development, inhibits their curiosity, and shackles their mind possibly for life, and that is certainly the goal. The “war on reason” is a direct outgrowth of the religious grooming by bigots who hate intellectuals and anyone that disagrees with them.

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About Richard Collins

Researcher/writer/activist
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