It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things. - Terry Pratchett
When people are confronted with information which challenges their views or contradicts their preconceptions, their first (and all too often, only) response is usually to deny it; as Maier’s Law states, “If the facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.” Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the less people know about important, complex issues, and the more helpless they feel about them, the less they want to know about them:
…In one study, participants who felt most affected by the economic recession avoided information challenging the government’s ability to manage the economy…[but] did not avoid positive information…co-author Aaron C. Kay [said]…“people tend to respond by psychologically ‘outsourcing’ the issue to the government, which in turn causes them to trust and feel more dependent on the government. Ultimately, they avoid learning about the issue because that could shatter their faith in the government”…
Of course, it isn’t only governments that people delegate their moral and intellectual responsibilities to in this fashion; any “authority” will do, and countless individuals rely on religion (including secular religions like feminism and Marxism) to do the hard thinking for them. When such a person is confronted by a difficult issue, he falls into a defensive psychological posture and holds up whatever fragment of dogma he needs to shield his psyche from the disturbing truth. And he will continue to repeat it, and to deny the facts directly before his eyes, until the disturbing thought can be entirely banished or buried.
When the offending concept or phenomenon is something remote, something which only affects other (preferably faraway or very different) people, the parroting of catechism is very effective. As long as those who are hurt by one’s beliefs and policies can be rationalized as “not like us”, it’s easy to justify almost any degree of barbarism, and if they can be demonized as a threat to Our Treasured Way of Life, any number of atrocities is acceptable to neutralize the existential threat. But when the messenger is of the in-group a more potent remedy becomes necessary if the comfortable state of ignorance is to be maintained: he must be ostracized from the group, excised like a tumor, lest in-group defensiveness shield him from criticism and thereby allow his ideas to be heard. There was an example of this recently in a new comment on an older column; a reader took exception to this statement:
Feminists are fond of equating all rape with aggravated rape, but as one who has experienced both I can tell you that simply isn’t true; aggravated rape is terrifying because of the possibility of death or disfigurement, but “date rape” – in other words, unwanted sex which occurs in the context of a voluntarily-entered sexual situation – isn’t nearly as bad. It’s highly unpleasant and may even be painful, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen to a woman.
Nobody who read that in a year found it controversial enough to respond to, but when one finally did she found herself in a cognitive dilemma: as a woman and a rape “survivor” I am member of a member of two of her “us” groups, yet here I was uttering blasphemy; she therefore had to either deeply consider my statement, or else expel me from her notion of “us”:
Sometimes I wonder if the author of this blog is a real woman – maybe this “Maggie” person is a guy masquerading as a woman, because we woman [sic] know that date rape really is as bad as rape by a stranger. And that guy you’ve known *could* turn violent – you just never know. Whether it’s being raped by a stranger or a guy you’ve known and trusted, it’s all hideous. I should know: I’ve experienced both.
Obviously, she chose the latter, and the possibility that there might be all sorts of evidence of the absurdity of her accusation never entered her mind. More accurately, it couldn’t enter her mind; this kind of rejection is an emotional process rather than an intellectual one, and thus is not subject to interruption by the possibility that it might make one look like an ignoramus. It’s an extremely common phenomenon; every day we hear or read people rejecting the idea that so-and-so is a “real” member of whatever group, because no “real” whatever would say such a thing. This isn’t to say that such conclusions are never true; the first clues to “Alexa di Carlo” being a fake were the numerous things “she” said that real escorts simply couldn’t believe were coming from a real escort. But the exposure of “Alexa” was an intellectual process involving considerable time and detective work, not a ridiculous assertion reflexively made to protect a cherished belief. The most common (and most foolish) example is probably the term “pseudo-intellectual”, which is generally used to imply that one so labeled can’t really be an intellectual because he disagrees with the one doing the labeling.
Usually, the person questioning another’s group identification is himself a member of the group, but that isn’t always the case; when it is otherwise, the attempt at excision is less an automatic defense mechanism and more a calculated strategy (often by a group acting in concert). Sometimes the “defended” group is one for which they feel sympathy, and the person they wish to exclude somehow jeopardizes that sympathy; for example, witness the clique of journalists and the cabal of politicians who want to refuse Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden the honorable title of “whistleblower” on the spurious grounds that they blew the whistle on abuse and corruption the politicians didn’t want exposed. At other times, the group is one the denouncers wish to cast into a particular role in order to advance their agenda, and the individual member is perceived as an obstacle to selling that stereotype to the general public; I’ve written about prohibitionists who wish to deny that sex worker advocates are “representative” sex workers (or even vilify us as “pimps”) because we vocally and actively refute their myth that all sex workers are broken dolls who don’t know what we’re doing and need the prohibitionists to speak for us. But the practice isn’t restricted to oppressors; as Chi Mgbako pointed out, even well-meaning people do it:
When many people think of…victims of human rights abuse, they often conjure up stereotypical images of passive and powerless people…waiting to be saved. The biases underlying these notions can lead some human rights advocates to favor “perfect victims” in advocacy and publicity campaigns, and…to disregard injustices faced by other marginalized individuals who may inspire more ambivalent and complicated responses from the public. The privileging of “perfect victimhood” is misguided because all people have human rights regardless of subjective determinations of “worthiness”…the danger of the…construct is illustrated by…society’s failure to view economically disenfranchised black men as victims of the devastating “war on drugs”…
No matter what the motive, and whether the process is conscious or unconscious, the attempt to forcibly reassign an individual from one “box” to another in the minds of others is not only offensive to the truth and potentially injurious to the reputations of others; it also tends to make the denouncer look like a fool at best and a manipulative liar at worst, and may in the long run damage whatever cause he’s attempting to promote.