Lest I be accused of dishonesty by way of omission…

There were a great many Red Army soldiers who put their lives on the line and fought very bravely, and were never anything but thoroughly honorable towards all civilians they encountered, even giving food to those who were hungry, expecting nothing in return.

And there had also been quite a number of Germans who risked their own lives, in efforts to save the lives of Jews.

The foundation of bigotry, is the habit of forming viewpoints about people first, and then disregarding anything which is contradictory to those pre-fabricated notions. A group of people become the target of prejudice when those doing the prejudicing only consider those members of the group that fit their negative stereotype, and refuse to recognize the existence of those that don’t.

Likewise, the flip-side of this, chauvinism, occurs when people only consider the positive examples in their own group, and fail to factor in those in their group who are not so positive.

Extending this principle to more general terms: you run the risk of reaching the wrong conclusions, if there are some critical facts that are not incorporated into your thinking.

Probably the clearest, starkest example of this that I’ve ever come upon, actually happens to be from the very same book that I mentioned in the previous chapter, The Fall of Berlin. When one of Hitler’s top generals informed Hitler that there were millions of Red Army soldiers amassed along the border, and they’re really, really, really pissed, and poised to invade and will likely not stop until they reach Berlin, and very likely will defile every female in their path, and therefore forces should be diverted from the western front to defend against this coming onslaught, Hitler’s response was (drumroll…):

NO- I don’t believe you. That can’t be possible. You’re lying to me.

(*fateful cymbal crash*)

There are some things that can’t be considered to be absolute truths, say for example, matters of taste. If you don’t happen to dig Megadeth, I may think it unfortunate that you’re incapable of appreciating the towering majesty that is this band’s music, but ultimately I would have to concede that it does all come down to one’s opinion.

But in the case of the presence of those enemy troops Hitler was warned of, there aren’t differing views that are equally valid, but rather there is an immutable, objective reality that is independent of perspective- either those troops were there, or they weren’t. (And actually the estimates he so readily dismissed turned out to be low by roughly a factor of two, and the rest, as they say, is history…)

The truth doesn’t change, just because you might not like it. The millions of Red Army soldiers didn’t magically evaporate because Hitler preferred that they not exist. The sun didn’t start revolving around the Earth because the Catholic authorities forced Galileo to say so under threat of torture. And remember, after the Sandy Hook massacre, how some people- dreadfully afraid that this might possibly result in a change to gun laws- adamantly denied that it had happened, claiming it to be a hoax? (And some of those darlings even went so far as to write angry letters to the parents grieving over their murdered babies… yeah, beyond astounding…)

I’d like to share one more example, from my own life. My mother (rest her soul) told me when I was a child that it was a complete lie that any Arabs had ever been forcibly displaced from their homes when the Jews came to Israel after World War II. Rather, she claimed that all of the Arabs, with nary an exception, left entirely of their own volition, while the Jews were all down on their hands and knees, crying and begging them not to go. At the time, I believed her, for 3 reasons: 1- I was just a kid, 2- it was my mother telling me this, who was the #1 authority figure in my life then, and 3- I already knew that people had forever been telling all sorts of lies about Jews, so I just figured this was yet another case of this, in this never-endingly hateful world of ours.

And today, after so many years, and having integrated the wider array of data that came with those years, what do I think? Well, I don’t doubt that Jews were crying and begging the Arabs to stay… excepting for those Jews who weren’t (and were rather doing quite otherwise…)

All of these examples (and Lord knows there are endless others) are just different manifestations of the same phenomenon. There was an amazing study done in 2004 by psychologist Drew Westen at Emory University, that I learned of from the book Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics by Rick Shenkman. In this study, functional MRI scans were done on brains of subjects while they were given certain information regarding the presidential candidates at the time. When the subjects were given information which was unfavorable toward the candidate they preferred, the fMRI scans showed that this induced some anxiety, which then triggered the brain to alleviate the distress by routing the troubling information to the brain’s “trash bin”. And as this “solution” relieved the stress, the scan also revealed that the brain’s pleasure/reward region became activated by this (and all the while, the region of the brain that does reasoning, remained dormant…) The same pattern was observed for both Democrats and Republicans, and it was found that the subjects’ brains reacted markedly differently when they were given positive information about their preferred candidate, or negative information about the other candidate.

So if this problem, of people discounting data that conflicts with their current beliefs, is a result of a fundamental flaw in the human brain, then how can we have any hope for this to ever be any different? Well, there is something that’s different now, or more specifically, there’s something that’s been different ever since 2004, when the aforementioned study was done, and that is, that we’re at last aware of this problem! And so, now that we realize that our brains have this innate, hardwired inclination towards this sort of fallacious reasoning, then all we need to do is just consciously train our minds to resist sliding in that direction, and, voilà – problem solved (well, in theory anyway…)

Published in 2016 by Sandra Goldstein.