Appropriating oppression: Science becomes “the Man”

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the need for health insurance reform

It’s a fair and prevalent question. Why is it that the most vocal anti-vaxers and climate change deniers appear to be equally gobby Trumpeters? Even non-Americans, like the consistently abhorrent Katie Hopkins (see below), can be considered alt-righters (an unnecessary, modern amelioration and realization of far-right extremists). Why is it that the anti-science, anti-health brigade throw their weight behind a tasteless, conspiracy nut with little regard for the truth who hates establishment and any power but his own?


Oppression Olympics

We live in an age of increasing public salience concerning the forms of oppression—both overt and discreet, intentional and involuntary—that people of colour, women, LGBTQ and the disenfranchised in our society endure. Technology has helped give voice to publics who, within recent memory, were all but silent in their true actualization to those fortunate enough to live in the bubble of hegemony. Social media has demonstrated to those circling downwards in the spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1984) that their voices are valid, supported, and not deviant at all.

The response has been twofold. The resurgence in the West of the far-right and their uncouth rhetoric signalled a commitment to re-establish white-masculine supremacy and smother those that would demand empathy, and admittance of our inherent and ill-gotten dominance. But what I’d like to address is the other element I see burgeoning: The falsification and appropriation of oppression. The delusion that the action of “others” addressing the forms of oppression that have canalized them, and challenging cultural imperialism, is in itself a form of oppression—an attempt to marginalize—directed at us, the poor, downtrodden whites.

The anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-intellectual, anti-climate, anti-spheroid globe movements can be seen as an extension of the white, masculine appropriation of oppression. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. As I’ve previously asserted on this blog, we can see the anti-movements not as a challenge to the veracity of the scientific method and post-positivism, but as a challenge to power. Science and scientific institutions—so instrumental in steering society, so closely tied to educational elitism and, more importantly, government—have, to some, become paragons of unelected authority. Along with institutional politics, perhaps science represents the only reasonable candidate for an oppressor to those living just under the penthouses of Social Strata Towers. So the anti-movements find an overt oppressor in necessarily intellectually elitist scientific institutions who, without a by-your-leave, reshape society. They find a covert oppressor too, with the power to set the agenda of the day and determine not what we think, but certainly what we think about and how we transmit ourselves outwardly.


The conservative mind

The dynamics of cognition prohibit me from laying all the blame on the white-masculine-privilege to dabble in feelings of victimization and oppression (in between discharging legal firearms and making handshake deals with police officers to behave in the future). Studies have pointed towards the need for closure in the conservative mind, the penchant for absolutes, and differences in empathy and categorization (see: Lakoff, 1996; Ditto & Koleva, 2011; Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf & Leiserowitz, 2012). But this week also saw a widely shared article in Scientific American doing the rounds again—in large part thanks to Richard Dawkins re-circulating it on social media—that provoked much blogging and attempts to formulate a taxonomy of ignorance.

Allow me to offer my own brief overview of why facts are so difficult to us. All of us. Gender, sexuality, race, and origins of all flavours aside:

Cognitive Dissonance:
We abruptly jettison ideas that cause our brains to recalculate and consider juxtaposed positions. Because… brain… hurt bad. Bad brain!
Reactive recalcitrance: The more we perceive that publics or authorities are forcing us to do something, think something, feel something, the more we feel aggrieved to do it. Regardless of what “it” is.
Confirmation bias: We value the store of data we already have in our brains. If we perceive that we “know” a single “fact”, the less inclined we are to receive a megabyte of information that might counter it.
Resistance: Related to my assertion about oppression-appropriation, the more consensus builds and demands conformity, the more stubborn opposition grows. The more people feel their individualism is threatened.

Perhaps it is time to stop touting “consensus” and “scientific authority”, as they are doubtless interpreted as the rhetoric of power, and they invite resistance and recalcitrance. Instead, embrace doubt, engagement, and conversation over the perceived effrontery of demanding public understanding of science. Scientific literacy is more than a score on a quantum physics exam, and less than essential for the daily lives of most publics.

Present information in an engaging way.

Note: information, not conclusions. Engagement means drawing publics into the fold, illuminating what is observed and opening it up for interpretation, not appearing to draw conclusions on the individual’s behalf and attempting to stuff the resolution into their already overcrowded mind. Promote and cultivate self-determined rationality and reason. Don’t fustigate people with your own.

Show your working out,

Alex


References:

  • Ditto, P. & Koleva, S. (2011). Moral empathy gaps and the American culture war. Emotional Review, 3 (3), 331-332. DOI: 10.1177/1754073911402393
  • Feldman, L., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. The International Journal of Press & Politics, 17, 3-31. DOI: 10.1177/1940161211425410
  • Lakoff, G. (1996). Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion and Our Social Skin. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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