Racism and Climate Denial Are Positive Feedback Loops

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?

Living in Fear of the Other: The Process of Destruction

No power elite in the world is immune from becoming a perpetrator of the process of destruction of a population of Others. Unwarranted extreme power of corrupt officials is often enhanced by manipulation of the mass media to demonize an “out group” of Others. Information control and propaganda allow elites to control “public opinion” and see “the Other” as the epitome of danger. With these tools, a political-military elite can lead the way to a classic “process of destruction” of a subjugated population.

Such was the situation in the classic case of institutionalized demonizing of Jews leading to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Similar processes have arisen in South African apartheid, the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, and even to the “New Jim Crow” and “illegal aliens” in the U.S. In the post-911 world of U.S. wars of choice collectively characterized as “the war on terror,” all peoples of the Muslim religion have become the collectively demonized Other.

Of course, violence works both ways, but the process of destruction is usually extremely asymmetrical. America is demonized by the victims of its military incursions into their societies. But they have little recourse. The processes of destruction – in the form of U.S. state terror – perpetrated upon populations of Others, breeds new hatreds and more non-state terrorists with little resources to commit violence, but whose outrage sustains fanatical commitment. Drone attacks on villages and night raids killing whole families in their homes breed more “insurgents” than they capture or kill “terrorists.” The application of the word “terrorist” to all victims of indiscriminate military assaults demonstrates the absurdity of efforts to justify the process of destruction.

In wars between actual armies, a certain symmetry emerges in the process of destruction, to the extent that technological power disparities allow. But in highly asymmetrical conflicts, the relative power of the two sides is so disparate that the destruction is almost entirely one-sided. Whatever atrocities are committed on either side, the extreme disparity of destructive power, its use, and effects is a moral trap the dominant power cannot escape without exercising considerable restraint. Such self restraint is uncommon at best.

Elites and the Process of Destruction

Throughout history, corrupt elites have inflamed the fear of the Other to secure their own political power. Propaganda demonizing a subjugated population of Others encourages broad participation or willingness to accept a process of destruction of Others. Elites motivate their followers to condone or participate in inhumane treatment of an oppressed population of Others. Gradually exploitation and criminal violence, sanctioned by the state, are escalated, institutionalized, and rationalized as “justice.” Destruction is conducted with impunity against those who are deemed outside the ‘chosen’ population. In a recent post on TruthDig.org, Chris Hedges quotes a crucial passage from Raul Hilberg’s monumental work, “The Destruction of the European Jews”:

“The process of destruction [of the European Jews] unfolded in a definite pattern,” Hilberg wrote. “It did not, however, proceed from a basic plan. No bureaucrat in 1933 could have predicted what kind of measures would be taken in 1938, nor was it possible in 1938 to foretell the configuration of the undertaking in 1942. The destructive process was a step-by-step operation, and the administrator could seldom see more than one step ahead.”

Destructive Fear of the Other

And so it has been with other historical and contemporary examples of “the process of destruction.” The Cheney-Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq was stupid and naïve (though more brutal than Saddam ever was, and far more destructive). Each foolish step seemed a blind effort to recover from the previous blunder. Ultimately, the entire enterprise emulated an “outdoor prison.” The entire Iraqi population was in effect tortured by destroying the country’s infrastructure and means of survival for many of its people.

The all but forgotten genocidal ‘carpet bombing” of the people of Viet Nam resulted from a gradual ‘escalation’ of the impositiion of destruction in a vain attempt to control an entirely misunderstood people.

The latest assault by the Israeli Defense Forces’ massive fire power against the civilian population of Gaza, Palestine, is the result of a similar “mission creep” grounded in an irrational fear of the dehumanized, subjugated, and dis-empowered Palestinian people. Its vastly disproportionate destruction of an impoverished subordinate population is excused by the flimsiest of applications of the ‘terrorist’ meme to a powerless people.

The mass incarceration of urban youth of color in the U.S. is another escalation of “the process of destruction” that Hilberg elucidates. Steadily over decades, the young black and brown populations of U.S. cities have become a caste of isolates. They are denied any meaningful way to engage in the economy and tainted as ‘felons’ for the rest of their lives. In U.S. cities, young men of color are stigmatized because of the profits law enforcement agencies accrue by incarcerating them. “Law enforcement” is rewarded with funding and equipment as part of the “war on drugs.” Yet young whites, who use drugs in equal proportion with the Others remain unscathed, for they are not “Others.”

In each case, ‘the authorities’ expand their level of violence in the process of destruction by building the fear of the Other and by demonizing and punishing a whole population for the alleged crimes of a few. In each case, the process of destruction is driven by the business of profiting from official violence. Orwell understood it all.