I wonder whether something similar is involved in understanding the strange beliefs many people seem to have about evolution, global climate change, Obama's "real" country of birth, and so on. There's a good post about these shibboleths of the Republican Party by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber. He writes:
My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following
- A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
- Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
- Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
- Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.
The four possibilities listed here might be characterized as (in order) stupidity, lying, nonsense, and something like quibbling. But I wonder whether the last two might also, in some cases, be understood as cases of what Wittgenstein calls secondary uses of words. So the sentences "Obama was born in Kenya" and "Obama is a Muslim" are not believed in their literal sense, but are regarded as having a kind of symbolic value, and perhaps even as expressing a kind of truth other than the literal kind.
I am not suggesting that this justifies nonsense of this kind. I'm just trying to understand how so much bull is taken in and spouted by so many people. Perhaps we can understand the phenomenon better if we think of it as a (bad) kind of religious belief. And I think Wittgenstein's thinking is often helpful when trying to understand religious language and belief. But maybe 'doublethink' is a better term after all.
I might also need to do more to distinguish symbolic thinking from thinking that uses words in a secondary sense. They aren't the same thing. Morrissey might be failing to analyze the issues as much as he might, but he doesn't seem to be in the shibboleth business exactly. But I still feel as though there is a connection here that might be usefully articulated.
Or is this feeling an illusion?