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Symbolic Belief

August 3rd, 2009 · 39 Comments

birthersIt’s hard not to be disturbed by a recent poll suggesting that Birther Madness, while still marginal among Americans on the whole, has moved from fringe to mainstream in certain select demographics. More than a quarter of Republicans purport to believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and even more proclaim themselves unsure. And while in most regions of the country, upwards of 90 percent know that he was, fewer than half of respondents in the South were willing to say so with confidence.  Now, certainly it would be unsettling if a significant chunk of the population had abandoned the realm of reasonable disagreement for racially-tinged conspiracist fantasy. But I’m not panicking quite yet.  As my colleague at Democracy in America notes, comparable numbers of Democrats during the Bush Administration told pollsters that they thought Bush had foreknowledge of 9/11—or at any rate were uncertain about whether he did. Now, probably some of those people interpreted this in a very broad sense and were thinking about the report that summer warning, in very general terms, that Al Qaeda was “determined to strike in U.S.,” but assume a hefty chunk literally meant that they thought a sitting U.S. president deliberately allowed (if not engineered) the murder of thousands of American civilians for his own nefarious purposes. Yet I can’t help but notice that, however much people may have expressed intense disdain for Bush, you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer.  I mean, what would you do if you were really-and-truly convinced that something like that were true? Take up arms? Throw yourself into a quest for conclusive evidence? Move to Canada?  Something, probably—or if you wouldn’t, at any rate, some non-trivial proportion of the people who shared the belief would—or so I’d imagine. It’s obviously too stringent to make it a condition of ascribing belief that people act on all the logical and practical implications of holding it, but when the disconnect is too profound, I think we’re justified in characterizing some of these as pseudobeliefs, one subset of which is what I want to call “symbolic beliefs.”

The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false,  but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.

If this is right—and I allow for the possibility that this is an elaborate tale I’m telling myself to forestall freakout at the impending collapse of democracy—then without denying that this is a movement with some seriously, scarily crazy people at its core, we probably shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet. We’re accustomed to hyperbolic claims in political rhetoric when they’re manifestly at least partly normative—”Bush is a fascist!” or “Obama is a Stalinist!”—but still tend to take comparable assertions that seem more strictly factual at face value. Things don’t look quite as worrying if,  at least when they’re coming from ordinary folks answering pollsters queries, we treat them as one more species of exaggeration in political rhetoric.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology


       

 

39 responses so far ↓

  • 1 On that “shocking” birther poll :: Scoop44 // Aug 3, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez writes a much more erudite version of this argument, calling the poll’s outcome “one […]

  • 2 Brodysattva // Aug 3, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Very smart, Julian, and I think you’ve absolutely got it right. But let’s call a spade a spade:

    For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American—because a black man can’t be a real American.

    Not that I think you meant anything by not spelling it out, but it’s worth being clear that what those “symbolic beliefs” are symbolic of, in particular, is racism.

  • 3 southpaw // Aug 3, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    There’s a difference worth noting here.

    “Barack Obama was born in the United States” (i.e. what normal people think) is a proposition that is susceptible to proof. And that proposition has been proven by pretty much any reasonable standard (the state issued document alone is good enough for a court of law, contemporary birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers corroborate the state document, the statements of Hawaii officials corroborate the state document, etc. etc.). Consequently, the Birthers’ theory requires of denying a proven proposition.

    By contrast, the proposition “George Bush did not have specific foreknowledge of 9/11″ (i.e. what normal people think) isn’t susceptible to proof. It’s overwhelmingly likely that he didn’t have any specific foreknowledge (the most parsimonious and plausible theory of the crime doesn’t require his knowledge, his evident suprise and dithering on the fateful day, everything we know about his and his advisors’ competence in other realms suggests they couldn’t have orchestrated the operation, other parties have made credible claims of responsibility etc etc). Still, you can’t prove the negative. The Truthers’ conspiracy consists of adhering to an unlikely proposition, not denying a proven one.

  • 4 RickRussellTX // Aug 4, 2009 at 12:41 am

    “fewer than half of respondents in the South were willing to say so with confidence”

    *Cough* I wonder if they wrote down the color of those respondents’ skin? I imagine some statistical significance would be *jumping* out of that.

    I chalk this up to sore loser syndrome — these are largely the same folks who voted for the loser. So, give them the opportunity to express a negative opinion of the winner, and they jump at it.

    At least McCain (and before him, Bush Sr.) were willing to accept defeat with a lot more grace and humility than their supporters.

    RR

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Aug 4, 2009 at 1:50 am

    Right, I consider it obvious that the Birther conspiracy is basically rooted in racism — except to the birthers themselves, who are shocked and mystified that anyone would think so. I don’t bother pressing the point precisely because the world pretty much consists of people for whom this is so preposterously self-evident that it’s unnecessary to say it, and people in such profound denial about their own cognitive processes that it provokes only tedious indignation.

  • 6 Ari // Aug 4, 2009 at 2:58 am

    I actually noticed something very similar regarding this (http://volokh.com/posts/1248767960.shtml) very recent essay (the first comment is mine):

    “If you really believe that the government is guilty of the cold-blooded murder (not neglect, not manslaughter, but outright murder) of (at least) 80,000 individuals per year, shouldn’t you be out trying to kill those responsible right now? Shouldn’t you be living a life of complete and utter asceticism, trying to prevent yourself from in any way funding the government’s murderous activities? And even if you say that the best course of action in stopping this brutal holocaust is calm, academic persuasion, why aren’t you devoting every second of your life to stopping it? Every minute you spend on other activities is another minute during which the government is actively killing people. Every single blog post you make should be about the wanton massacre of civilians committed daily by the government of the United States.

    I conclude either that you do not take your argument very seriously, or that there is some serious cognitive dissonance at work here. But other than that, I largely agree with your post.”

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Aug 4, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Well, the other explanation is that for most of us, unless we’re personally inconvenienced, caring whether our governments murder is symbolic even when our belief is perfectly genuine. The world is full of horror. Some insane number of children will die in the next year from preventable diseases. Maybe I could do something about this. What I’ll probably do is keep writing blog posts, collecting LPs, and reading graphic novels. Most of us won’t do any more. This isn’t because we don’t believe the horror is happening; it’s because we’re not very good people.

  • 8 Ari // Aug 4, 2009 at 6:25 am

    So sad. Sometimes I think we’d all just kill ourselves if we took the time to think.

  • 9 Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e79v2 // Aug 4, 2009 at 9:28 am

    […] Birther stuff keeps coming up, examples here, here (heh), and here. […]

  • 10 wonkie // Aug 4, 2009 at 10:39 am

    “Yet I can’t help but notice that, however much people may have expressed intense disdain for Bush, you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer. I mean, what would you do if you were really-and-truly convinced that something like that were true? Take up arms? Throw yourself into a quest for conclusive evidence? Move to Canada? Something, ”

    Well. I’ll tell you what I did. I through myself heart, soul, and meager finances into getting Democrats elected. That seemed like the only possible only response consistant with my values.

    AS for not being scared of the birtheres because they are at heart civilized people–don’t be naive. Check out the organized astroturf thuggery at Democratic town meetings. That’s action birthers take that is consistant with their values. And note the extraordinary upsurge in gun and ammo sales and the equally distrubing upsurge in rightwing hate crimes.

  • 11 Brian Moore // Aug 4, 2009 at 10:39 am

    What it comes down to is this: whenever a person is confronted with a choice about believing X or Y, they will almost always choose the thing that enhances their self image.

    “I oppose Obama, and my opposition becomes more noble if I believe these bad things about him.”

    “I oppose Bush, and my opposition becomes more noble if I believe these bad things about him.”

    “I cannot possibly be racist, and I believe Obama might not be American, therefore people who say that birthers are racist are wrong.”

    “Maybe I could do something about this. What I’ll probably do is keep writing blog posts, collecting LPs, and reading graphic novels. Most of us won’t do any more. This isn’t because we don’t believe the horror is happening; it’s because we’re not very good people.”

    Okay, well, good job breaking the mold!

  • 12 wonkie // Aug 4, 2009 at 10:40 am

    I meant “threw”!

  • 13 Mike // Aug 4, 2009 at 11:50 am

    The upswing in ammo prices and gun sales has jack all to do with this. It has quite a bit to do with people being very legitimately concerned that this administration may make gun control a priority, so any guns purchased now may not be available later. This would have the double effect of increasing their personal value (I want this gun, and in a year I might not be able to have it if I don’t buy now) and increasing their market value (if you got in on the beginning of this rush, guns and ammo were a very good investment). Additionally, thinking about gun control has probably brought gun ownership to the front of some people’s minds, encouraging them to get a gun if it was on their long-term todo-list. I know personally that’s why I got one – I’d been thinking about it for a while, ended up reading a lot of guns rights blogs, and decided to get one. And I voted for Obama (I hate his stance on gun control, but couldn’t stand the idea of more neo-conservative rule).

    There are quite a few gun owners who are racist, but don’t conflate the movements.

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // Aug 4, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    “AS for not being scared of the birtheres because they are at heart civilized people”

    Where did I say anything even remotely like that? My point is that the millions upon millions of people represented by those polling percentages are, fortunately, probably not really “birthers” in the normal sense.

  • 15 happyjuggler0 // Aug 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    I think that people believe what they want to believe, and then look around for a rationalization. They usually don’t seem to be conscious of this.

    One example was the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, with Anita Hill and all. Women went ballistic at him for what they rightly or wrongly thought of as personal mistreatment of a woman. However the very same women almost universally seem to defend Ted Kennedy, and the Kennedy’s in general, despite his/their personal mistreatment of women over the decades.

    Same goes for the bizarre acceptance by Democrats of Hillary Clinton despite her $100,000 bribe that she ascribed to her commodities trading ability.

    In short, real or perceived defects are magnified and looked for in someone you are opposed to, and minimized or ignored in someone you perceive to be “on your side”.

    I personally think it is insulting and obtuse to claim it is racism. It simply looks to me like wishful thinking amongst people who despise him for his despising of those who “cling to church and guns”.

    And no, I am not a “birther”.

  • 16 happyjuggler0 // Aug 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    By the way, it is not merely my opinion that Hillary almost certainly took a bribe disguised as insanely brilliant trading gains. The Wall Street Journal did too, and they went to insanely thorough lengths to document it, along with her literally dozens of different excuses for it as each previous excuse was shown to be false.

  • 17 Julian Sanchez // Aug 4, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Oddly enough, the wishful thinking of people who hated other recent presidents with equal vehemence did not seem to take the form of a wild theories about the secret foreign birth of those presidents. Funny that.

  • 18 Lee // Aug 4, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Normal people—people you saw in line at the gas station this morning— have few epistemic scruples when it comes to political beliefs. And of those who got wrangled into a conversation with a clipboard-carrying pollster at a suburban mall while shopping for jeans, how many do you think had any preexisting belief about Obama’s birthplace? Combine this with the stigma against political ignorance, and the consequent disinclination to answer “I don’t know”. Now throw in the fact that in a state of near ignorance, the fact that an articulate college-age girl is asking you about the President’s birthplace is an indication that it’s a disputed matter about which no opinion is ridiculous.

    And now what do you get? Coin-flip answers biased only by how much they wish to affiliate themselves with Obama, whether they understand the Constitutional implications of being foreign-born, and how much they think a foreign birth is disreputable.

    Bingo bango, you’ve got “poll data.”

  • 19 southpaw // Aug 4, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    The coin-flip answer hypothesis doesn’t explain the results. Overwhelming majorities outside of the American South consistently got the answer right. Why are they only flipping coins in the South?

  • 20 EMY // Aug 4, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    “This isn’t because we don’t believe the horror is happening; it’s because we’re not very good people.”

    Oh I don’t know. Perhaps there are not enough very moral and/or ethical people en masse to make sure people don’t die from preventable diseases, but it depends on what “good” we are talking about. Certain people are of the belief that ever human being has an intrinsic worth no matter what i.e. quakers and the inner light of God, certain Buddhists and the belief of “buddhanature, so on. etc.

    Of course, there is the first noble truth of buddhism “life is difficult.” This does not mean that people do not respond compassionately and with wisdom, but that there is pain regardless of what we do. Suffering? that’s another question.

    I would think the problem is more having to do with wisdom than anything, as opposed to “bad” people. It’s like the serenity prayer in a way, most people don’t know what things they can actually change, and don’t have the wisdom to know the difference between what can be changed or not and what actually just needs to be accepted. So much suffering happens when that crucal difference cannot be detecrted and then acted upon (or accepted).

  • 21 Julian Sanchez // Aug 4, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    One can fall well short of an ideal of goodness without being bad.

  • 22 Winter’s Haven » Symbolic Belief // Aug 4, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    […] Sanchez has an excellent post on symbolic beliefs. However, the question which the post nominally addresses (Are people in the South completely […]

  • 23 James Kabala // Aug 4, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    The Canadian conservative blogger has been saying this for some time about 9/11 truthers for some time (although being a Bush fan, she was rather more vehement about it, and she conflated it with hypocrisy as you do not):

    http://deborahgyapong.blogspot.com/2007/05/kathy-shaidle-on-911-truthers.html

  • 24 ad // Aug 26, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    “I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception.”

    If the purpose of a symbolic belief is to signal the belief holders allegiance to a cause, then it occurs to me that extremist, absurd beliefs would send a stronger signal than moderate, sensible beliefs.

    Incidently, consider the following thought experiment: imagine that it turns out that Arnold Schwarzenegger was actually born in the US, and he attains the presidency. How many Democrats, especially in the most liberal parts of the US, would remain convinced that he was really a foreigner, and that his election was a fraud?

  • 25 NationalistZ // Aug 27, 2009 at 1:48 am

    So, if Chris Matthews waves around a $1M bill would you all believe he was a millionaire? I might have missed it, but did you post a link to his CoLB? I saw it posted on moveon.org before it disappeared because it was a forgery. Please post the link to the CoLB.

  • 26 Guns Don’t Kill People, But Far-Right Extremists Do. « PostBourgie // Aug 27, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    […] the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen, this is for most people what Julian Sanchez calls a symbolic belief.  They don’t really believe that these people are thugs intent on murder–not in the sense that […]

  • 27 The Pasty Little Putz and Krugman « Marion in Savannah // Sep 6, 2010 at 6:54 am

    […] James Lees, teetering on the brink of paranoid violence? Not necessarily. As the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez has pointed out, it’s worth taking all these polling responses with a substantial grain of salt. […]

  • 28 A very good post « Cephalic Furrow // Sep 6, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    […] Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: Lefts and rights — cephalicfurrow @ 1:11 PM Julian Sanchez on how the birthers don’t really mean what they say: Now, certainly it would be unsettling if […]

  • 29 Gerald Fnord // Apr 24, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    There’s actually an hopeful note in this: I’ve long believed that it applies to support in the Muslim world for al-Qa’eda and similar groups, that it’s more a matter of showing what you think of America and the local government it backs than of being willing to do or give much.

    This is important because we are unlikely to change the minds of fanatics, but if the vast majority have some less weird way of hating the Empire, they might take it.

  • 30 Brendan Nyhan: Why Did Birther Support Drop So Much? | GoodPorkBadPork.com // May 13, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    […] using poll questions about Obama's religion and place of birth as a way to express disapproval (as some commentators and pollsters have […]

  • 31 Brendan Nyhan: Why Did Birther Support Drop So Much? | Zurfd // May 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    […] poll questions about Obama’s religion and place of birth as a way to express disapproval (as some commentators and pollsters have […]

  • 32 The Problem With Polls About Whether Obama Is a Muslim – The Atlantic | News about Dubai and Middle East // Mar 13, 2012 at 10:47 am

    […] uses automated telephone polling in which respondents answer by pushing buttons on their phones. Julian Sanchez posits that many of these responses are fed by ideology: the people who purport to hold them are really […]

  • 33 The Problem With Polls About Whether Obama Is a Muslim | Times of News // Mar 13, 2012 at 11:08 am

    […] PPP uses programmed write polling in that respondents answer by pulling buttons on their phones. Julian Sanchez posits that many of these responses are fed by ideology: a people who effect to reason them are […]

  • 34 The Problem With Polls About Whether Obama Is a Muslim | Directory Finders // Mar 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

    […] PPP uses programmed write polling in that respondents answer by pulling buttons on their phones. Julian Sanchez posits that many of these responses are fed by ideology: a people who effect to reason them are […]

  • 35 Democratic pollster misses the mark with survey on stupid Mississippi voters | Full Comment | National Post // Mar 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    […] uses automated telephone polling in which respondents answer by pushing buttons on their phones. Julian Sanchez posits that many of these responses are fed by ideology: the people who purport to hold them are really […]

  • 36 Why Obama is a ‘Muslim’: Republicans and symbolic belief | Save Kashmir Movement // Mar 21, 2012 at 1:53 am

    […] about said person, they are likely to say anything that might be seen as a negative. It’s as Julian Sanchez (via Graham) put it, “symbolic belief”: “Propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely […]

  • 37 The Wise Man Doubts Often, And Changes His Mind | Times & Seasons // Dec 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    […] Now the point here is not to debate the fine points of modern portfolio theory or risk-hedging as they relate to  Armageddon. As it turns out, you can take your money out of a 401k without penalty for things like buying your first  home, but that wasn’t his strategy. It hadn’t even occurred to him to consider his retirement planning side-by-side with his end-of-the-world anticipation. The two worlds—religious belief and practical consideration—were compartmentalized. I would argue that, since he was actually acting on the practical considerations, his belief in the imminence of the Savior’s return was, therefore, largely fictional. Although he didn’t realize this, of course, it had become a merely symbolic belief. […]

  • 38 Sifting the Sacred from the Mundane | Times & Seasons // Apr 8, 2013 at 8:30 am

    […] that is, if anything, even more troubling: symbolic beliefs. Julian Sanchez described this concept in a political blog post from back in 2009 when “Birther madness” was still raging. While both lamenting that fewer than half of the […]

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