I was wandering down the internet rabbit hole the other day when I came across one of those jokes that can be found in various versions in several places around the web. One version goes like this: A man is convinced he is dead. His wife and kids are exasperated. They keep telling him he’s not dead. But he continues to insist he’s dead. They try telling him, “Look, you’re not dead; you’re walking and talking and breathing; how can you be dead?” But he continues to insist he is dead. The family finally takes him to a doctor. The doctor pulls out some medical books to demonstrate to the man that dead men do not bleed. After some time, the man admits that dead men do not bleed. The doctor then takes the man’s hand and a needle and pokes the end of his finger. The man starts bleeding. He looks at his finger and says, “What do you know? DEAD MEN DO BLEED!”
It’s funny because it contains a grain of truth. Have you ever met someone who holds an idea or ideology so closely to their core that any new information that comes their way, when it is heard at all, is interpreted only in the light of what they already believe? Changing paradigms is hard. It’s the reason why people do not often respond well to internet “debates.” If they can’t think and learn their own way into a new paradigm, what are the chances that a more-or-less belligerent online stranger will help them do so? People get defensive and dig in.
It also happens when events on the national or international stage introduce (or worse yet, do not introduce) cognitive dissonance into the minds of strong ideologues. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, a small percentage of the population was so fearfully steeped in the belief that the government would do anything to grab the guns from law-abiding citizens that they formed the notion that the Newtown shootings were a complex hoax. In their world, little Noah Pozner, teacher Vicki Soto, and all the other victims were either fictional fabrications that never existed, or were given different identities after the staged event, presumably for the rest of their lives. Conspiracy sites and YouTube videos abounded, detailing all the perceived glitches in the media Matrix that, to them, added up to the incident being an obvious fake, a false flag designed as an excuse to take their guns away. In the face of real tragedy and apathetic to the suffering they inflict on the families of the slain, they still believed that dead men do bleed.
More recently, Hurricane Matthew also brought out the dead men do bleed crowd. Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and climate change deniers around the country fed off of each other, opining that Matthew was not nearly as strong and dangerous as the media were reporting it to be, or even that it was geoengineered by the government and guided by airplanes to hit Florida. This is a dangerous game, because people who believe the bombast and fail to take cover from a storm as serious as Matthew could die. Perhaps no individual’s death is as important to some people as it is to impeccably maintain their convoluted belief system.
Rush Limbaugh Hurricane Matthew Conspiracy, courtesy of Media Matters for America
Here, conspiracist and talking head Rush Limbaugh puts it all together for his listeners, including a wacky claim that in the 11 years between hurricanes Katrina and Matthew, we had “no hurricanes – no major hurricanes – striking land in the United States, which just bores a hole right through the whole climate change argument… ” I guess Hurricane Isaac, which threatened the Republican National Convention in Florida in 2012, wasn’t a major hurricane that hit land, and neither was Sandy, which hit all along the Atlantic coast, including the highly populated New York metropolitan area.
With so much bilge filling the internet, we needed a good fact checker out there to set records straight and debunk the straight-up bulldust. We got several, chief among them being Snopes, who tried to poke the metaphorical fingers of the internet to draw blood, with predictable results: claims that Snopes is itself a liberal conspiracy. If you get your truth from seventh-generation forwarded chain emails from 2008, it’s true that you probably won’t appreciate fact-checking. “Reality,” as humorist Stephen Colbert points out, “has a well-known liberal bias.”
It’s easy to become discouraged when you think of all the people out there who are immune to new data and who probably vote religiously in every election. There’s not much you can do about that, because trying to shine a light usually sends them scurrying back into their caves. The one person you can change is you. Remember, we’ve all been wrong before, and the easiest person to fool is yourself, so keep your identity small. Productive conversations seldom result when the topics under discussion are vital parts of the participants’ identities, such as politics and religion. If you don’t let these sorts of tribal affiliations form a large portion of your identity and self-worth, you are probably better equipped to recognize factual information when you find it, and less likely to resist changing when you find that you have been wrong. If everyone mastered this skill, there would be much less fighting and more progress on the problems that really matter.
It should be obvious that not everything we hear on the internet or in the news is true, but fact, rather than ideology, should be our guide. Don’t be the guy insisting that dead men do bleed.