Living In Truth

By W. David Montgomery

As I was writing this column, a neighbor stopped her car to talk to my wife, who was pruning bushes in our front yard.  The neighbor said “I am proud of you for putting up a Trump sign, it encourages me.  But you should know that a lot of people in our neighborhood will have nothing to do with you from now on.”

Every time I have driven through Oxford recently, a related thought has come to mind.  I see Biden/Harris signs in front of every other house and not a single Trump sign.  I know that there are Trump supporters in Oxford, but to avoid social ostracism, they conceal their preference.

Recently a professor at Duke University, Timur Kuran, tweeted that “Preference falsification makes the 2020 election especially difficult to predict. It’s widespread among Republicans about Trump and in many groups about dealing with the police. Biden seems ahead but only some political undercurrents are working in his favor. Food for thought.”

This notion of widespread preference falsification in the face of social pressure is the subject of Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies, which I plan to report on in this column.  I also bring in some observations from a subsequent article he wrote with Cass Sunstein in the Stanford Law Review.

In a subsequent column I will review Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies, in which he takes the next step by reflecting on how that pressure to conform in thought and deed is growing and how to resist it. 

It is common knowledge that some opinions are socially unacceptable, and many give in to this social pressure by hiding or falsifying their beliefs.  The number of socially unacceptable opinions and actions is growing rapidly, so that an innocuous comment last year becomes a prohibited thought this year.  This preference falsification can easily lead to widespread acceptance of beliefs with no factual basis, and muzzles sceptics who could contribute knowledgably to public debate.  The result is that our democratic system may not be as efficient and robust as we would like to believe. 

The Parable of the Greengrocer

A parable written by Vaclav Havel makes the meaning of preference falsification and its consequences clear.  It was published illegally while Havel lived under communist rule in Czechoslovakia.  He later became the first president of the free Czech Republic. 

The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan ‘Workers of the World, Unite!”  Why does he do it?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper “decoration” in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.

Kumar comments that “The greengrocer’s prudence has an unintended consequence: reinforcement of the perception that society is at least publicly behind the Party. In effect, his conformism becomes a factor in the willingness of other greengrocers to promote the unity of the world’s workers. Moreover, it pressures farmers, miners, artists, writers, and bureaucrats to continue doing and saying the things expected of them.”

Havel continues:

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself.  He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings.  And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support…. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him.

The system … will punish him for his rebellion [because] he has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together…. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth…. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal… everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.

I could not help reflecting on how this parable illuminates the encounter between my wife and a supportive neighbor.  Just as in communist Czechoslovakia a greengrocer who failed to put up the right sign would be criticized and ostracized, so are Trump supporters in Oxford and some parts of Easton.

Preference Falsification

Back to today: when a Trump supporter puts up a Biden/Harris sign or tells a pollster that she intends to vote for Biden, that is preference falsification.  When someone who has no objection to the Talbot Boys statue agrees with friends that it should be removed, preference falsification again.  But there is more.  As in the case of the greengrocer, her preference falsification affects the beliefs and actions of others.  And so does living within the truth.

Suppose a group of friends are having dinner (a few more, to make the example work, than we have been able to congregate with lately).  Several express their opinions that the Talbot Boys statue (a memorial to Confederate soldiers from Talbot County) must be removed because it celebrates slavery and offends the black community.  One guest is knowledgeable about the history of the Civil War in Talbot County and holds a very different opinion, but nods and agrees to attend a rally.  He does not want to make a fuss or offend his next-door neighbor, whom he knows to be passionate about the subject.  Another couple at the dinner, new to the controversy, might have learned something from the potential dissenter, but loses that opportunity.  They are convinced by the apparently unanimous agreement of their new acquaintances that the Talbot Boys must go, and they also join the rally.  As a result of this and similar encounters with activists, a fair number of other people show up and the Star Democrat reports even larger numbers demanding removal of the statue.  This story is read widely and others take the cue that it is not desirable in their neighborhood to argue in favor of the statue.  Thus information about the Civil War and alternative points of view are suppressed.  An apparent consensus develops, leading to more pressure on the County Council to act.  Yet none of this represents anything like a majority opinion based on facts.

This example reveals some of the social consequences of preference falsification.  Human beings have only finite time and resources and cannot do in-depth research on every topic of interest.  Thus, we develop some psychological shortcuts, the most important of which according to Kumar is “the availability heuristic, which involves estimating the probability of an event on the basis of how easily instances of it can be brought to mind.”  The more often we hear a particular claim, about the Talbot Boys, systemic racism, climate change, or COVID for example, the more we tend to believe that it is true.  It is this that makes preference falsification contagious.

Kuran calls this an “availability cascade.”  He writes that “In the course of a … cascade, the perceived validity of a claim grows progressively stronger with the number of apparent believers, and people’s doubts weaken, possibly even disappear.  In accepting a belief, each individual strengthens the case for acceptance, which results in additional acceptances that strengthen the case even further.”  And it is not just the scarcity of information different from that being passed down in the cascade.  There is also a reputational component, so that even those who have independent information and valid doubts about the claim will be silent or go along in order to avoid damage to their professional or social relations.

Insofar as people lack independent means of judging a claim’s validity, there is a danger that the beliefs generated by a cascade will be factually incorrect. Millions of individuals may develop erroneous beliefs simply by giving each other reasons to adopt and preserve them. 

He also points out that “Availability cascades do not appear randomly. For one thing, activists choose which dangers to stress publicly. For another, if an availability cascade is to unfold, enough people must initially be receptive to it. Skillful availability entrepreneurs have insights into the sorts of events to which relevant segments of society are receptive.”

In my example, the Talbot Boys issue appeals to virtues of charity and justice, making listeners receptive to the claim that the statue is harmful to people of color — or at minimum, willing to go along as a signal of virtue. Even those who were initially skeptical, but falsified their beliefs, may become convinced when they see how more and more people believe what they initially doubted.

It is striking how rapidly protests and riots have spread across the country since early this year, and how the cause of “antiracism” expanded from college campuses to the center of national (and local) attention.  The activists of Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ propagandists, and rioting youngsters – in other words Social Justice Warriors (SJW) are relentless. 

We can see this in the Talbot Boys controversy, which did not just boil up as a local matter.  Rather it was promoted by activists who were explicit about their connection to the Black Lives Matter agenda.  In Talbot County, the “availability entrepreneurs” have been Richard Potter of the NAACP, Corey Pack in the County Council and his daughter.  They rapidly picked up believers in their account of the purpose of the statue from repetition in local media and among liberal white residents, making it socially inept in many circles to defend the statue.  

Kumar observes that “the potential instability of availability cascades makes it impossible to predict radical social changes in advance, and that those changes may be rapid, based on falsehoods, and unrepresentative of the real preferences of the majority…. The same phenomenon of abrupt and unforeseen change is also observed in collectivities narrower than entire nations. Academic departments, corporate managements, and social organizations sometimes change direction at astonishing speed…. The explanation for the sudden shift will often be found in a bandwagon process that alters the character of preference falsification.”

Once this bandwagon reaches a stage in which preference falsification is widespread, the result Kumar foresees is intellectual paralysis. He writes that “Insofar as people refrain from expressing their doubts, uncertainties, and misgivings, public discourse will become impoverished, eventually making people whose perceptions depend on public discourse stop questioning what appears as the conventional wisdom. In other words, the unthinkable ideas of one period can turn into the unthought ideas of a later one. In one period, people with doubts do not speak out; in the next, doubts have ceased to exist.”

This cascading and falsification of preferences means that some basic beliefs about democracy may be unrealistic.  We hope that democratic institutions aggregate knowledge and preferences in a satisfactory way.  But if that “knowledge” can be false because of availability cascades and “preferences” are hidden due to social pressure, the system cannot work. 

“Experts” may ignore popular sentiments and claim superior knowledge and the right to rule, but they are subject to information and reputational cascades as well.  Even scientists who are dedicated to testing speculations with facts and encouraging challenges in their laboratories are not immune to the pressure of an availability cascade when it comes to recommendations of public policy.  That, I suspect, has a lot to do with claims about scientific consensus on COVID lockdowns and climate change policy.

There is a bright side.  Just as the bandwagon effect can cause an apparent consensus to develop seemingly overnight, that consensus is unstable. It can be reversed just as rapidly if a few refuse to “live the lie.” By stating their true preferences, that few can start a cascade in the opposite direction that reveals how widely their preferences are shared.  That is what happened in Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe.  Even dissidents like Havel were surprised when changes they did not expect to see for generations happened in matter of months. 

Maybe more Trump signs will appear in our neighborhood.

That is a hope, but as a society we seem to be moving in the direction of greater repression requiring even more preference falsification.

I will turn to this in my next column, based on Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies.