Humans are flawed. We are prone to err. We make observational errors. We unwittingly make assumptions that have no foundations. Sometimes we deliberately deceive ourselves as a protective (or coping) mechanism so that we don’t have to face facts: the lie is comforting and protective.
Perhaps the most interesting psychological and social phenomenon that demonstrates one of our psychological flaws is the Fundamental Attribution Error. We all have it to a greater or lesser degree.
What is it? Well, it would be easy to insert a few links to Wikipedia or a paper or text on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or even the person credited with the term Lee Ross. Instead, I will explain it in hypothetical examples of a cognitive error.
Let’s say someone has severe depression. One of the behavioural problems this person exhibits is severe social isolationism and an irrational blame system. The sufferer may attribute all “good luck” to simple good but undeserved fortune, and any “bad luck” to deserved punishment, be it by “God”, or any other source, even themselves.
The use of “good”, “bad” and “God” is deliberate: they are loaded words, with a value that is different for each individual.
The same phenomenon happens in perfectly functioning individuals too. For example, “bad” things that happen are entirely due to things beyond the person’s control, and “good” things happen because the person is a “good” person or because they pray to “God”.
It should now be obvious what is really happening: the individual is attributing in error what is happening to them. As individuals we all do it from time to time. As a society we gravitate towards those with similar belief systems and reinforce any errors. To claim otherwise is in itself a fundamental attribution error.
So why talk about a psychological theory, especially one that is still debated amongst psychiatrists and psychologists? There is a battle going on, and an ugly one at that. It’s religious fundamentalism verses human rights. Normally sanity prevails and on accommodates the other, but this “war” is becoming ugly as issues become polarised.
On the religious fundamentalism side, a claim has been staked for theological absolutism over morality. The principle being only religion can own morality, since what is “good” and what is “evil” is defined by “God”, be it Yahweh, God, Allah, or any defined deity, and any human morality is corrupted. The flaw in absolutism is exposed when absolutists can’t agree on moral “laws”, or even be consistent on interpretation.
This isn’t the crux of the problem, as conflict amongst religious absolutists has ever been thus. What the current vortex has done is draw in an ever growing number of seemingly normal people capable of making their own decisions based on evidence and experience and turning them into bigots. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US. There is a growing fear, often unfounded, of Islam because a few radical “Muslims” deviate from orthodoxy and have an irrational belief that Christians and Jews are deserving targets in a violent jihad. Similarly a growing number of centralist, nominal Christians in the US, as well as here in Australia, believe that homosexuality is equivalent to a moral cancer. To recruit the otherwise “I don’t give a hoot” to the cause, they actively, deliberately, use fundamental attribution error to scare those on the outside into believing that gay marriage is a danger to children.
There are two very important issues that those against gay marriage, or homosexuality in general, that those behind these bigoted attacks don’t want you to know;
a) many western governments already accept same-sex couples for the purpose of taxation, estates and family laws,
b) the organisers of bigoted attacks deliberately confuse being homosexual with having homosexual sex,
c) the organisers of bigoted attacks deliberately obfuscate any logical debate, and,
d) the organisers of bigoted attacks pander to fear by linking homosexuality, particularly male homosexuality, with paedophilia, when in fact evidence is to the contrary. When any such activity is demonstrably shown to be from within a church then the cracks are papered over. Nothing to see here, move on.
As a society we can arm ourselves the best we can with facts, and question every “fact” given to us. As individual we can not give in to the moral absolutists. Today is the rights of individuals to enter a civil arrangement and be equal before the spirit and the letter of the law and equals within society. Tomorrow it may be your right to judge for yourself what is acceptable, how to raise your children, who you are allowed to associate with or something more sinister.
As an example how deep this self-belief (or delusion) goes, I’ve engaged with tweeters with different views to my own. It’s important in my view not to devalue someone’s personal belief system for my own amusement. However one tweeter came to my attention because the nature of the argument cementing into a “because”. You know the type of argument. Master or Miss Four comes to you and asks a question, to which you answer. But they are never satisfied, and eventually you give up and reply with a “because it just is” or “because I said so.” That’s fine, since as the adult you set the rules and the boundaries. However when it’s a debate with someone who is supposedly an adult, and the debate still reduces down to “because”, then you can bet that person is an absolutist, or worse a fundamentalist absolutist. It may be tempting to dismiss such individuals as radical right-wing fundamentalists and not representative of others of their faith, but it’s a dangerous assumption.
I wish it could end with just religious belief, yet recent events both here in Australia (mainly in Melbourne and Sydney) and in India have brought up another societal ugliness: racism.
The murder of Nitin Garg, an Indian National, has brought out bloggers such as “Wendy” (I won’t give a link, as I don’t wish to promote her views. If you wish, Google “culturedviews.com racism laugh” and take it from there). The point is there is a growing resentment towards immigrants and asylum seekers in nearly all nations. Racist classics like “we’re full” and “they take our jobs” abound. Throw into the mix “no one’s forcing them to come here” and “they should count themselves lucky to be here”. Yes, it’s very easy to be a racist without thinking about it.
I don’t know if the recent attacks on Indians living in Australia is racially motivated, however I have noted a increasing resentment towards Sub-Continent Asians by various people. “They’ve fucked up the taxis single handedly” is one such comment I’ve heard. Before this it was the Serbs or the Croatians who were to blame. Before them it was the Vietnamese. You get the picture.
What I have noticed is India’s growing self assuredness as a nation. The Indian media has certainly taken a more aggressive stance on the matter. It doesn’t help when inadvertent comments made to the media further sour relations, forcing what should be a murder investigation into a diplomatic row.
Now let’s be utterly clear and frank. We are all capable of expressing racism. Racism isn’t solely the domain of “white” people. And no-one is best served when generalisations are made about a person’s country or culture. Finally, it does no harm to apologise for our failings of the past and current. Not just “white culture” but all cultures. Surely in this specific case, the interests of the victims it’s best to take a deep breath, both Australia and India, find, investigate and prosecute the offenders.
In the meantime, we should do our best to out the religious and racists bigots: shame is the only weapon that hurts them.