Learning is usually an exalted concept – in the abstract. But the practice of learning does not often measure up to the ideal. That is clear in the way we treat our schools. Social learning reflects the failures and deficits in personal learning. Power fears truth. Institutions perpetuate the prejudices and magical thinking of their members, who take their direction from the elites upon whom they depend. People too often believe what is convenient for protecting and maintaining their wealth, position, or other form of power. This is called ideology: language constructed to justify power.
Political and economic elites are able to promote their ideologies, which in turn are deployed to promote their political or economic power. The process is a closed positive feedback loop. That is why the public interest is so rarely represented in the actions of government institutions and corporations. It is also why we so often hear subjugated or exploited populations repeat the very propaganda that elites use to oppress them. What is the matter with Kansas? The Big Lie repeated over and over again, in the absence of contrary facts, is believed. Critical thinking is in short supply.
Police Racism Denied
Positive feedback loops between power and language reinforce power while excluding any language or meanings that might diminish power. “The rich get richer.” Any conflict that may threaten power is framed as a question of “us” versus “them.” The powerful are, ideologically, right by definition. Anyone who challenges the ideology of power is by definition wrong and a threat to “law and order,” or “public safety,” or “economic growth,” or “family values.” The public interest is not represented by elites, who do not represent the public as they seek greater power and wealth.
The head of New York City’s biggest police union publicly berated the mayor because the mayor publicly acknowledged the problem of racism among police. The mayor had “crossed the line,” having violated the traditional ideological unity of mayor and police. The outrage at a revelation of the “us vs. them” police ideology had nothing to do with the truth. The mayor had offered negative feedback disrupting the closed loop of authoritarian police ideology. The truth was what every Black parent knows. The mayor publicly stated that his Black son had been given the same warnings that other Black children are given by their parents about the dangers of experiencing police racism on the streets of New York City.
Social media – mostly communicating smart-phone video – has now publicly exposed racist police brutality all across America. Most Americans already knew at some level but may not have directly witnessed it. Formerly silent, many citizens now demand that police crime be prosecuted without bias, because what they knew all along is now publicly exposed and intolerable to anyone with a shred of compassion. Negative feedback has broken into the positive feedback loop.
Climate disruption Denied
Climate denial has the same ideological structure as racism; it is just applied to another population: scientists. Here again, widely distributed ideological propaganda funded by power elites wielding great wealth, such as Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers, dominates the mass (corporate) media. Racism dehumanizes and demonizes its victims, facilitating brutal violence against them. Climate scientists are characterized as greedy research-grant seekers who produce results that some government conspiracy with unclear motives dictates. The fears of large segments of uneducated and poorly educated citizens are exploited by the power of propaganda.
The solid facts of biology demonstrate that race is a social construction having little to do with genetics and everything to do with social definitions. Statistical differences are explained by social-economic conditions. Similarly, the solid facts of climate science demonstrate that the earth is warming to dangerous levels and that the only explanation supported by facts is anthropogenic carbon emissions during the industrial age. Massive and diverse data sets are collected and analyzed by thousands of independent scientists around the world. That work leads to clear findings that have catastrophic implications for human survival. This means little to the climate deniers.
Why do climate deniers seem so irrational? They are irrational because they live in a cognitive positive feedback loop that excludes negative feedback. Their magical thinking helps them stay there, since a key element of magical thinking is a high degree of comfort with ignoring facts that conflict with one’s rigidly held belief. Climate deniers participate in a “universe of discourse” that only allows consideration of statements that provide positive feedback to support their beliefs. Their sources of information are limited to the corporate media that sustain the ideology of the fossil fuel industry. Those same sources purvey magical thinking to replace any critical thinking that might attempt to enter the loop.
Living in the Real World
The kinds of magical thinking and intellectual positive feedback loops that exclude negative evidence that characterize racism and climate denial have been around for a long time. But conditions have changed. The costs of catastrophic social and earth-systems failure loom ever larger as our complex systems break down and become increasingly unsustainable. The Internet is littered with magical thinking and all sorts of ill logic and fakery, along with just plain goofy stuff. But social media also offer a channel of communication that provides vividly real facts.
The pervasiveness of the culture of police racism is increasingly harder to deny. The growing availability of information on increasingly unprecedented weather events, and related disruptions of earth systems, makes climate denial more difficult to sustain. But the converging crises of our times grow rapidly more urgent. The race to a great transition is on. Will we make it or will it unmake us?