Today’s guest blog is by Steve Grooms
America was in the seventh year of its war with North Vietnam in the fall of 1971. That fall I was a graduate student in the University of Minnesota. I wasn’t sure what degree I was seeking or what I’d do with it, once I’d graduated. I mainly had to maintain official student status so I wouldn’t be drafted to join the war.
I had hated this war since its start. Every night I shook with fury as various national leaders went on television to lie about the “progress” of the war. Every year, more and more people died—young and old, Vietnamese and American, civilians and soldiers. Every year, the official logic for the war looked more insane.
I finally decided that my hatred of the war might provide a plan for my life. The American public was not getting the straight story about Vietnam. Maybe I could become the sort of pioneering journalist who would show all my docile countrymen how wrong the war was. Even better, perhaps I could become a columnist with a courageous voice who would write op/ed essays showing my readers how stupid they were to believe the lies the U.S. government was feeding them about the war.
And so I decided to switch my major from American studies to journalism. I had a lot to catch up on, for I had never yet taken a journalism course. Unfortunately, I had a late registration date, so all desirable courses in writing and editing were filled before I could sign up for classes. In fact, the only promising course still open was “Public Opinion and Propaganda.” At least that course would relate to my intention to use journalism to open the public’s eyes to the madness of the war.
Things didn’t go as planned. That class shocked and confused me in a way no other event in my long educational history had done.
The first shock was learning how silly I had been to think I could educate people by telling them the truth. The first section of the course showed how diligently people protect their pet beliefs from anything that challenges those beliefs. One study we read showed that people have at least eleven different strategies for denying information or views that they don’t want to hear. Eleven! Although to tell the truth, any single one of those mental tricks will usually work to keep unwelcome facts or views at a distance.
For example, if new facts threaten the values people already hold, people have no trouble ignoring the new facts. Or they might encounter information they don’t like and simply forget it. Or they might misremember things so badly that they think that the new facts actually support their preferred view of things. Or they might summarily dismiss unwelcome views because they came from a suspect source. And so it goes.
The lesson was hammered home over and over: People are going to believe whatever they choose to believe.
Before I had been in the course for a week I could see that the world needed another angry young man with a typewriter about as much as it needed more communicable diseases. I wasn’t going to win the hearts and minds of fellow Americans with all the predictable liberal cant I planned to publish. People would never thank me for telling them my version of the truth. ”Oh, so this war is actually a tragic and murderous mistake? Gee, I wish I’d heard earlier, but thanks, Steve, for finally straightening me out!”
My first response to my new sense of public opinion and propaganda was a practical one. I dropped the silly plan to become a crusading writer. My graduate school major went from “journalism” back to “damned if I know!”
And yet the most significant impact of the course on me had less to do with an occupation and more with character. My course taught me that people were amazingly wily and energetic when their pet beliefs were threatened. But I was a “people” too! I had a belief structure, too, that I was surely defending with all the techniques I’d been studying. Like everyone else on earth, I was a shyster and a con man who could lie and forget and spin and misremember things so I wouldn’t experience the discomfort of doubting my own preferred version of truth.
Since 1971 I have tried to live with the uneasy fact that much of what I believe in—including things I passionately believe in—is probably not true. Of course, one can know that without knowing which core values and facts are bogus. Now I live with a sort of Truth Policeman in my head who knows every sly trick I use to protect my preferred way of seeing things. He cuts me no slack, that dirty copper! He catches me when I resort to mental tricks to preserve my comfort zone of faith.
And yet I have come here to praise him, not bury him with a lot of whining. It is healthy to be asked—or forced to—defend one’s pet beliefs. When I sense myself wanting to believe in something, I automatically become skeptical. The more I want to believe something, the more likely I am to be lying to myself. Oy weh and ish da! This kind of self-doubt can mess up your mind.
Ultimately, I’m not sure this kind of self-awareness can make a person better at seeing the truth. It is surely more realistic to hope that wisdom and self-awareness about these issues can makes us a bit more humble about all those things we think we know about the world.
Have you ever encountered a gifted teacher, special course or singular event that shook up your personal values and caused you to re-think pet beliefs?