Recently, my husband and I were having coffee and reading the morning paper at a local cafe in West St. Louis County where we live. Near us, two couples, both in late middle age (60s to 70s), were holding forth in very loud voices from a centrally located table. Given their location and volume it was impossible not to hear their conversations – which didn’t seem to bother them one iota, either from the point of view of personal privacy or of disturbing others in the immediate area.
I had almost succeeded in ignoring them when I heard a shrill female voice proclaim something to the effect that what she wanted was to see unborn children treated like endangered species. I couldn’t help it. I looked up at her – whereupon she stared at me and repeated herself in an even louder voice in case I had missed this important observation.
The woman then proceeded to give a loud account of how she thinks an abortion is carried out. She was explicitly using the “dismemberment” language that the anti-abortion movement is now widely adopting to demonize abortion. I tried not to listen (to no avail) since I can only grind my teeth so hard and still keep them intact.
When the physiological horrors of abortion were exhausted as a conversational topic, the other woman then took up the President’s newly issued gun regulation proposals, declaring that he was instituting a gun “registry” just like the Nazis did. She also transformed this provision of his proposals:
… a $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care by increasing service capacity and the behavioral health workforce. The Department of Health and Human Services will finalize a rule removing legal barriers preventing states from reporting relevant information about people prohibited from possessing a gun for specific mental health reasons.
She insisted that the goal was intended to generate of a sinister list of all mentally-ill folks so the President could spy on them and, she implied, persecute them.
I am not suggesting that these individuals should not discuss whatever they desire. They were rude and showed no consideration for those around them, but their opinions are their business and they should have every freedom to express them. Their only real fault was their inability to understand that admonitions to use a “public” voice is not just a phrase to be used to quiet obstreperous toddlers.
I only mention this incident because it perfectly illustrates a trope that Tom Sullivan develops in a Hullabaloo posting (that deserves to be read in in its entirety) on the distortions that animate the right-wing world view. Sullivan cites Robert Proctor, who analyzed the “obscurantism” of the Tobacco industry back in the day. He coined the term “agnatology,” which he defined as the “study of deliberate propagation of ignorance” to describe the strategy. Proctor asserted that:
“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.
“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”
It strikes me that these older Missourians who regaled us with their beliefs perfectly embody the success of deliberately cultivated ignorance. Their bellicosity, accompanied by their absolute, unquestioned and unquestionable confidence in what are arguably risible opinions, also suggest something about why calm discussion between progressives and conservatives has become almost impossible in the everyday environment.
When it comes to the President’s executive actions on guns, think about what the GOP Republican presidential candidates have said about these proposals. I’m not sure that calling their comments hysteria-inducing lies does justice to the level of false hyperbole they attained. They lied and misled – and why not? Nobody in the media really calls them on it, and the intended audience, people like the folks we encountered, accepts these lies like they’re manna from heaven.
Similarly, the descriptive language about abortion to which we were treated is currently being spoon-fed to receptive Americans. It represents what Think Progress identifies as “a new attack on reproductive rights … that’s reminiscent of the pro-life community’s successful push to enact the country’s first national abortion ban.” Think Progress quotes a ob-gyn who states that “the strategy is to take language that provokes emotional responses and then to argue that, because there’s an emotional reaction to something, it should be illegal.” Clearly my West St. Louis County matron had been served a heaping pile of rhetorical “baby parts” and it wasn’t agreeing with her system.
What struck me most about these West County wingers was their sense of absolute certainty and lack of humility. No one said “I think that … ” or “I have heard that …”; they were all implicitly saying “it is … ” – which does not invite discussion, just nods of agreement. None of the people at this table seemed capable of entertaining doubt or willing to critically evaluate the opinions they were getting so worked up about. I suspect that the result, had anyone been foolish enough to challenge the speakers, would have been name-calling along with the glee that manifests itself when folks obtain a more immediate target for their sense of outrage – the same glee with which the woman who wanted endangered species protection for fetuses seemed to want to rub my startled face in her anti-abortion pieties.
Sullivan also correctly notes that we have our own strains of the the ignorance disease on the left (anti-vaccers, for instance). And you only have to look at the venom that is expressed in many of the online Hillary v. Bernie debates to realize that there are a lot of rude, rigid, and intolerant individuals on the left. But just ask yourself this. Are there so many mindlessly authoritarian jerks among progressives that we could support a Fox News Network that is almost entirely devoted to blatant lies in the service of propaganda? Right-wing accusations of “political correctness” (a.k.a. everyday courtesy) aside, even at our doctrinaire worst, progressives rarely march to a universally predetermined tune, which might be why we’re often so fractious among ourselves.
And I’m dammed sure that even the most misguided, intolerant lefties aren’t mindlessly and fervently taking their cues from politicians who have been purchased to do the work of a corporate oligarchy. It all depends on just who is “deliberately propagating” the ignorance and to what ends.