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On Not Falling For The Big Reveal

Last night, the left got played -- hard. Rachel Maddow teased on Twitter that she had Trump's tax returns, and social media went into a frenzy. As it turns out, Maddow had two pages of Trump's 2005 filing, which showed nothing new or particularly scandalous. No funny business. No nefarious ties to Russia. Just a rich dude using the tax code as intended. (I suspect there is nothing terribly scandalous in any of Trump's tax returns. He's continuing to hide them because releasing them would mean his critics "won" and he "lost," which would be a big blow to his ego.)

The big lesson here is, as I've written before, that the more you -- justifiably! -- hate Trump, the more vulnerable you are going to be to clickbait. I could rehearse all of the usual lectures about fact-checking and paying attention to your sources here. But even that, I think, doesn't go far enough. Clickbait can come from any source. Folks on the left generally regard Maddow as a credible, quality source. But even she is, ultimately, in the business of selling your eyeballs to MSNBC's advertisers.

The real defense against anti-Trump clickbait is to give up on the myth of the Big Reveal. What made Maddow's promise so sensational was the hope that Trump's taxes would be the Big Reveal, the piece of information that finally confirmed what we all suspected, and made it incontrovertible to our opponents. Trump's perfidy would be laid out in black and white, and we could feel satisfied at being vindicated, while the floor fell out from under his supporters. It's the hope of the eucatastrophe -- just when things look darkest, to hear Maddow shout "the tax returns are coming!"

The Big Reveal makes a good dramatic climax to a movie. But real life doesn't work that way. Remember the Billy Bush tape? We all thought that was going to be the Big Reveal that took Trump down. In reality, it dinged him a few points in the polls for a couple weeks, then he bounced back. The Big Reveal only works if we're all living in the same world. But we're not. Liberals and conservatives are working from such different starting premises, such different sets of basic values and basic frameworks about how the world works, that no one piece of information can make everything change.

That doesn't mean that the situation is hopeless, or that getting more information (including the rest of Trump's tax returns) is useless. But it does mean we can't hope for one big piece of information to suddenly change everything. What will change things is the long, slow process of shifting people's basic value systems and worldviews. Once we set aside the false hope of the Big Reveal, we won't be as easily taken in by clickbaiters dangling it in front of us.


On Steaks and the Difference Between Trump and Bush

Donald Trump is in the news again for ordering an expensive steak well-done, a longstanding culinary preference of his. Some observers have been content to simply mock him, while others have written long pretentious not-sure-if-it's-satire-or-not personality analyses based on his eating habits. It's the kind of thing that would be shameful if applied to anyone we didn't already hate.

Some people have pointed out that it's not just urban liberal foodies who like their steaks raw -- bloody steak is also the official Real Red-Blooded American Man way of cooking. So how can it be that Trump, champion of the rural working class, can get away with well-done steaks?

I think the answer can be seen when we contrast Trump's style with George W. Bush's. Bush made a great effort to portray himself as one of the people, a regular Joe, the guy you want to have a beer with. He came from Texas (the most American of the states), spoke with a drawl, and spent his vacations clearing brush on his ranch. And he portrayed John Kerry as just the opposite cultural type -- a windsurfing, swiss-cheese-chessesteak eating coastal elite. And it seemed to work! Gallons of ink were spilled by left-leaning commentators analyzing Bush's affected populism.

Then along comes Trump. Trump set himself up as the champion of the white rural working class -- but he never made any pretense of being one of them. Where Bush presented himself as a brush-clearing, drawling, reg'lar guy Texan, Trump flaunted his wealth and spoke with a yuge Brooklyn accent while hanging out in his gold-encrusted New York penthouse. There's a certain weird authenticity to the way Trump doesn't seem to care if he looks like one of the people he represents.

I don't think Trump's taste for well-done steak is an act. I assume that really is how he likes it. (And I can sympathize -- before I became a vegetarian, I preferred my meat well-done too.) But it shouldn't be a surprise that good old bloody-steak-eating heartlanders wouldn't be turned off by Trump's culinary tastes, since he's never claimed that his personal lifestyle is normal.


On Those Trump Voters Who Believe in the Bowling Green Massacre

I've seen a bunch of people breathlessly sharing the results of a recent survey, which showed that 51% of Trump voters say that the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre justifies the president's travel ban. The implication is that these people are a bunch of idiots who base their political views on fake news, that they sincerely believe that a massacre happened recently in Bowling Green. But I don't think that this particular survey question means quite what everyone thinks it does.

I'm sure there is some set of individuals out there who hold an active belief that a massacre was conducted by Islamic extremists in Bowling Green. Presumably they heard it from Kellyanne Conway, and dismiss all of the media fact-checkers as promoting fake news due to their bias against Trump. But a more common thought process probably goes like this: "There have been a bunch of Islamic terrorist attacks over the last few years, which justify the president's policies. I don't happen to recall the specific details of the attack in Bowling Green, but I assume since they're asking me about it, it must be one of them. I don't want to sound stupid by saying I never heard of it. Nor do I want to have the poll come out showing weak support for the president just because I quibbled about the details of one specific attack. After all, there have been enough of these attacks to justify the policies overall, regardless of the details I've forgotten about Bowling Green. So I'll say yes."

Imagine a poll in which people were asked whether the recent police shooting of LaShawn Dyer justified efforts toward criminal justice reform. LaShawn Dyer was not in fact shot by the police -- I made him up just now. But most liberals who are sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement don't remember the full list of outrageous police shootings off the top of their head. So when put on the spot to answer a question about the nonexistent Mr. Dyer, they would go through a similar process to the Trump voter in the previous paragraph. They would answer yes about the specific case of LaShawn Dyer because they know there is a more general phenomenon of unjustified police shootings of black people, and they want to endorse the need for criminal justice reform.

Just because someone reports a false belief on a survey, doesn't mean that they hold that false belief. They may just be coming up with an answer to satisfy the inquiries of the pollster and keep from looking stupid, working on the assumption that the question contains meaningful and relevant information and is not a blatant attempt to trick them. This is a well-known phenomenon among psychologists, known as the issue of constructed preferences.

Consider this classic nonpartisan example. Some years ago, poll respondents were asked whether they supported Congress renewing the nonexistent 1975 Public Affairs Act. Here they don't even have the cues of being told there was a massacre or a police shooting to help them put it in context -- "Public Affairs Act" was deliberately chosen as the most banal bill name imaginable. And yet 43% of people claimed to support or oppose the PAA renewal. I think it's pretty tough to claim that those people hold clear, considered viewpoints on the PAA, that they go about their day actively believing in the existence of this made-up act. So likewise, I suspect most of the people who gave a positive response about the Bowling Green Massacre are not going around actively believing that there was such a massacre.


On the Uselessness of Hypocrisy Arguments

Hypocrisy arguments are pretty popular these days. Trump attacked Clinton for using a private email server, but now his people are using their own private server. Trump slammed Obama for issuing too many executive orders, but now he has issued even more executive orders. I get why these arguments are appealing. They may even be logically sound. But they are also completely ineffective at actually changing one's opponents' minds.

As I said, I get the appeal of hypocrisy arguments. Getting someone to change their mind about substantive issues is tough work. A dedicated pro-lifer is hardly going to be upset if you tell them that Trump is awful because he wants to overturn Roe v Wade. Hypocrisy arguments, on the other hand, seem to leverage the beliefs your opponents have already committed to, in order to hoist them by their own petard. Plus, it's satisfying to believe that your opponents are unprincipled dimwits, whose attacks on your side are just psychological projections of their own flaws.

Nevertheless, hypocrisy arguments don't work. They don't work, first, because it's always possible to find some reason that the two situations being compared are different. Consider the private email servers. If you are bringing to the table a background assumption that Hillary clinton is a fundamentally untrustworthy person, someone who is scheming and unprincipled who doesn't actually care about America and its safety, then hearing that she used a private email server is going to sound pretty bad. How can we trust her not to be doing nefarious, or at least negligent, things with it? Lock her up! Meanwhile, if you bring to the table a general attitude of trust toward Donald Trump, his use of a private server seems like no big deal. He's a businessman, not a bureaucrat, and his main virtue is that he's not flexible and not bound by the way things have always been done. At worst, you might feel like it's a bit careless (if only because it gives liberals a chance to wail about hypocrisy), but he'll probably get his internet security all settled soon enough.

Hypocrisy arguments also come across as insincere. Consider the email issue again. Left-leaning people just spent a whole campaign insisting that Clinton's private server was not a big deal. So when a liberal turns around and tries to use conservative outrage over Clinton's emails as the basis for a hypocrisy charge, a conservative hearer will (reasonably) think "hey, you never cared about emails before. You're only bringing up Trump's emails because you think it's some sort of gotcha." Yes, the crux of a hypocrisy argument is the inconsistency. But it's hard to get an argument off the ground when you're demonstrating that inconsistency by getting worked up about something you don't care about substantively.

Or, think of it this way: when was the last time you were convinced by a hypocrisy argument coming from the other side of the political aisle? For most of us, it's probably been a while. And I can hear you saying: "I would totally accept a valid hypocrisy argument if one were presented to me! It's just that my opponents, in addition to being hypocrites themselves, also seem to only make terrible hypocrisy arguments that are based on spurious claims and unfair comparisons. What a bunch of nincompoops!" Fair enough. But that's exactly what they say about your hypocrisy arguments. And that's why hypocrisy arguments are not the silver bullet everyone seems to think they are.

Hypocrisy arguments rarely sway the other side. They mostly serve as a way for people on the same side to commiserate about what a bunch of nitwits the other side is. If that's your goal in making a hypocrisy argument, then carry on. But don't assume it's going to do more than that.


On Anti-Trump Motivated Reasoning

OK. We've all had a good laugh/cry over Conway and Spicer's recent performances. But here's the thing. You detest Trump, right? Me too -- it seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the volcano of awfulness that has been spewing from our new president and those he surrounds himself with. But you have to remember that this makes you -- and me -- very vulnerable to what psychologists call motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is when you believe what you want to be true, and what conforms to your preexisting worldview, instead of what the evidence shows. The more you dislike Trump, the more easily you will believe any bad thing about him that comes along. And you will be especially inclined to believe it if it nicely fits one of the specific storylines you have about why Trump is terrible (he's a racist, he's incompetent, he's a Russian puppet, etc).

Motivated reasoning isn't a conservative thing or a liberal thing, it's a human thing. It's just the way our brains work. And patting yourself on the back about how you're rational and concerned about the truth, unlike all those other people who use motivated reasoning, will only make you *more* vulnerable to motivated reasoning. Recognizing that you're vulnerable to motivated reasoning does not mean that Trump isn't actually terrible. But remember that there are lots of people out there who stand to make a buck off of your motivated reasoning. The get clicks, and line their pockets with ad dollars, if they can feed you things that you want to believe.

What you -- and I -- need to do is to remind ourselves to be careful and humble about our psychological biases. If something seems outrageous, carefully check that it's true. If something perfectly illustrates exactly what's wrong with Trump, carefully check that it's true. Do this even if you don't intend to spread the information around -- headlines you've skimmed have a way of worming their way into your memory. Then, if it all checks out, go ahead and share it. I promise you, Trump will do enough actual awful things that you won't need the fake garbage.

Four years is a long time, and you're going to mess up. I guarantee I'll end up sharing something outrageous and fake over the course of the Trump presidency. Hopefully someone else will quickly point out your (and my) mistake. And when that happens, here's what to do: thank the person for the correction. Then breathe a sigh of relief that the item was false. (After all, you don't want Trump to do terrible stuff, right? You're not so hungry for ammuntion to use against him and to justify your worldview that you are hoping he does awful stuff, are you?) Then do what you can to undo the spread of bad information.

What you shouldn't do is say something like "well, the fact that it was so believable really shows how bad Trump is!" It doesn't show that at all. The fact that it was believable shows how bad *you think* Trump is. And maybe he is that bad. (I mean, he is. He's awful.) I get the desire to save face, and to look at the big picture. But your propensity to fall for motivated reasoning doesn't prove his actual badness. Your gullibility is not evidence of anything. Apologize, correct, and put your focus on the actual bad stuff.


PETA, Detroit, and the problem with "Go Vegan"

PETA is in the news again for offering to pay the water bills of 10 households in Detroit who have been threatened with shutoff -- on the condition that they go vegan for a month. It's the latest awful campaign in a string of awful campaigns from a vile organization that makes me embarrassed to be vegan. They're exploiting a real human tragedy as a publicity stunt. If PETA really wants to do something connected to the Detroit water crisis, why not say "we're paying these 10 families' water bills, plus giving them some groceries, because vegans care about everyone, human and animal." Just drop the coercive condition, and you've got a campaign that makes vegans look big-hearted rather than seeing people's tragedy as just a means to further an agenda.

But without reducing the opprobrium rightly directed at PETA in particular, I'd like to suggest that this campaign reveals a problem with the approach of the vegan/animal rights movement more generally. At the core of this and so many other campaigns by a wide variety of organizations is the admonition for individuals to "go vegan." The central mechanism of social change sought by vegan activism is the individual choice to give up use of animal products.

By making "go vegan" the center of the movement's strategy, modern veganism has turned animal rights into a matter of personal sin and purity. Eating meat is framed as an individual failing, and giving it up as an individual virtue. This fits neatly into a neoliberal world in which everything is a matter of personal choice and effort. Everyone should just pull themselves up by their faux-leather bootstraps. Despite vegans' typical lefty, feminist, pro-LGBT, etc. leanings, much vegan activism does not qualify as progressive (even the non-PETA stuff that isn't directly exploiting other forms of marginalization to advance veganism).

(I use the terms "sin" and "purity" deliberately. "Go vegan" activism follows in great detail the cultural template created by evangelical protestantism. Even though vegans are disproportionately likely to be non-Christians, their tactics imitate those of the Chick-tract-wavers. And typical "go vegan" appeals suffer from the same flaws as standard Christian evangelism. Read everything that Slacktivist (a devout liberal Christian) has to say about the flaws in modern Evangelical Christian evangelism. Then replace "Christian" with "vegan.")

But food is not simply a matter of choice. Food habits are shaped by deeply entrenched social structures, from cultural norms to land use planning to farm subsidies to trade policy to technology regulations. Change these, and individual eating habits will follow. And it's these larger structures of the food system, not the personal sins of individual meat-eaters, that drive the scale of animal (and human) suffering that vegans want to end. And it's changing these social structures that should be at the heart of vegan activism.

When mainstream vegan activists recognize the structural issues, they typically do so in a way that assimilates them into the "go vegan" individualistic paradigm. So certain people are granted a sort of indulgence or special dispensation, forgiving them for not going vegan (or granting them extra merit points if they do it) because structural forces make it especially hard for them. But the central focus remains on admonishing those who can make the personal choice to go vegan to do so.

The personal eating habits of poor Detroit households are not what is primarily responsible for animal exploitation in the USA. Indeed, their eating habits are as much an effect of the system as the environmental degradation that PETA claims to be worried about. The choice by a few such households to go vegan (made at much greater cost than a similar choice made by the typical middle-class PETA member) is not going to have much sway over the larger system.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with an individual deciding to "go vegan." I'm not intending to start consuming animal products, and all else equal it's a positive step when someone "goes vegan." The problem occurs when "go vegan" is the central, or only, message being pushed by vegan activists.


The benefits of cultural cognition

I'm very sympathetic to the "cultural cognition" explanation for controversy over risk issues such as climate change. Cultural cognition holds that our positions in such controversies -- including our interpretation of "factual" evidence -- is largely driven by our identification with certain cultural groups. By and large we believe in or deny anthropogenic climate change because that belief is socially rewarded in our cultural group, not because we've rationally assessed the evidence.

Where I tend to diverge from Dan Kahan (the leading modern proponent of the cultural cognition theory) is over whether cultural cognition is a bad thing. Kahan regards cultural cognition as unreservedly bad -- a sort of disease or pollution in our debate about an issue, something to be prevented or neutralized whenever possible so that we can make rational assessments of the evidence. I, on the other hand (and I like to think this is more in line with the views of Mary Douglas, whose work is the basis for the idea of cultural cognition), tend to believe there are ways that cultural cognition can be functional and beneficial. One such way is suggested in this recent post by David Ropeik.

Ropeik suggests that we shouldn't wait for the public to come around on climate change. Even the most skillful risk communication strategies will never convince the public to make a grand outcry that pushes our leaders to finally take the kind of drastic action necessary to avert the damaging consequences of climate change. Instead, the powerful in politics and business need to be willing to act without a public mandate, exercising foresight to deal with the problem even in the absence of a broad-based push from below. He cites as an example the effort by several major companies, including Apple, to use all renewable power.

It's common for both critics and boosters to think of major corporations as driven wholly by the search for efficiency. The profit motive and the inexorable clench of the invisible hand will, we're told, strip away all extraneous considerations and lead companies into coldly rational decision-making. But in fact corporations are heavily culturally embedded institutions. Even when they're acting purely rationally, they're doing so in a culturally loaded context.

Apple is a prime example of a company heavily intwined with culture. Their brand strategy is all about cultivating a particular image of who an Apple consumer is, and making their products a lifestyle. For convenience, let's call the kind of person who buys Apple products a "hipster." Hipsters are not deeply invested in climate change, and aren't likely (as a group) to generate the kind of mass outcry for change referenced by Ropeik. But they do incorporate a belief in anthropogenic climate change into their cultural identity. And so for Apple to make its operations greener is a good way to align their products better with a hipster cultural identity.

The example of Apple illustrates, then, how the kind of farsighted leadership that might be necessary to solve a problem like climate change can actually be aided by cultural cognition.