Friday, February 4, 2011

Glenn Beck and the Self-Validating Emotion

Yesterday I read an article (linked in an earlier entry, and here as well) by a disaffected son discussing the effect of pundits like Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck and news outlets like Fox News on his friends and family.  Glenn Beck does seem to have an interesting effect on his viewers, making them both insufferably afraid and angry.  I've known several people entranced by his show.  In the same breath as they scream and hiss about the vast Marxist/leftist/homosexual/Islamic conspiracies that lurk around every corner and in every seemingly innocent component of their day and how Barack Obama and Democrats are personally out to get them, they revere ol' Glenn like a deity or a savior.  Really, it's a kind of reverence usually reserved only for their messiah or the actual God they worship.  I know.  I've tried criticizing him in front of these people.  You get yelled at, screamed at, spat on, and they get mean.  I've watched their lives lose any other meaning.  They become no different than Islamic militants in the Middle East or Pakistan: ignorant, belligerent, and absolute in their demand that others conform to their views.  What can you really do with someone like that?  Whatever they may do for work, you can certainly make the argument that they've ceased to become a productive member of society.  This is the side to the Tea Party that a lot of us may not realize or want to think about.

I'm less interested in morally indicting Beck's followers and the Tea Party than I am in understanding how what to me seems like such a destructive ideology and creed comes into being and perpetuates itself.  What makes Glenn Beck so popular, and why do people seem to believe him so literally?  The article theorized a phenomenon called self-validating emotion.  The idea intrigued me, and so I thought about it.

I suppose you can break the argument down into a question of self-awareness.  The quest for truth is essentially a quest for awareness.  We learn and experience things through the lens of our ideas, preconceptions, and previous experiences.  You can approach this in any number of ways.  The scientific method, for one, is one example.  You can also enter with the assumption that your beliefs are infallible and correct.  You can even do both at the same time.  I think it's only human to want to have your beliefs validated.  It works the same way with emotions.  If we feel wronged or angry or confused, we want feel like we're justified.  If we're frightened, we instinctually desire to learn about the object of our fear, so that it seems less scary to us.  What we know, we can protect ourselves against.

This comes again back to awareness.  It's easy to fall into a trap when you get to thinking like this, and the solution is not necessarily an intuitive one.  One thing that's really struck me about talking with someone who isn't very self-aware or aware of their surroundings is the emphasis on personal experience that their arguments inevitably seem to rely upon.  In this reasoning, the evidence of an anecdote you or a friend or someone you consider to be an authority on a subject takes on special precedence.  This is especially true if it sounds or feels like it should be true.  Common Sense triumphs over all, even when the truth is neither obvious nor simple.  There must be a simple answer to a complex problem.  Gosh darn it, I've faced this before and I knew how to get out of it.  Or this happened to my neighbor Bob.  This is what he did.  Therefore this must be how it's like for everyone.

If you're thinking what I'm thinking, a picture is beginning to emerge here.  The unknown becomes quantified when it's evil.  People who don't look and act and talk like you become wrong, and you're right.  And since you know that the only way things can possibly be is how you see them, these strange young people who so openly flaunt all the things that you know and feel are so wrong and sad and make you so frightened instead make you angry.  Because, damn it, your way is the way it should be!

Enter Glenn Beck, a man who knows just how you feel.  Why, he feels fifty times what you feel.  And he knows you're right.  If you feel what he feels, you must be right, too!  Boy, ol' Glenn can say or do anything he wants now and you'll take him at his word, because he validates you.  He knows you.  He is you, or at least it seems that way.  And therefore he must be right.  At this point, you've made up your mind.  You've decided the way things are, and everything you see and do and experience from now on is going to fit that model.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the self-validating emotion.

Glenn Beck of course isn't the only person capable of manipulating people like this.  Just look at Keith Olbermann or half the people on Fox News or MSNBC.  Or even outside of cable news.  And the thing is, I really don't believe that most of these people even have ill intentions.  I don't.  I think most of them genuinely believe that they're doing the right thing and sticking up for the truth.  After all, they have their own beliefs and emotions to validate, too.

So what to do?  I don't know.  But the first thing to do to find out is to recognize it when we see it.  So hopefully I've done my own meager small part.  Maybe you can do it too.  And that's as close to the real truth as I think I can get.

1 comment:

  1. Yet another way our evolutionary history makes us struggle in a modern civilization. "Common sense" is just a name for the various instincts we have-- instincts as natural as a cat killing a bird despite being raised in captivity, but instincts that aren't particularly useful when you want to get along with a group larger than about 50 people.