Magical thinking and not admitting wrong-doing

I’m a scholar of train wrecks in public deliberation—when communities take a lot of time, and a lot of talk, to come to a decision they later regret. There are certain characteristics those train wrecks have, and one of them is that large numbers of people believe that speech creates reality.

I have found this topic almost impossibly entangled to explain, so bear with me.

People who committed to disastrous decisions (so disastrous they often claimed they’d never made the decisions, and tried to claim they were victims of the decisions they had made themselves) simultaneously claimed (and believed?) that their claims about reality were unmediated—what they said absolutely and obviously perfectly correlated with Reality. Yet they prohibited, punished, or dismissed any disconfirming evidence or claims—if you’re certain that you’re obviously right, then you don’t need to silence dissent. You only need to silence dissent if you either think the truth is not obvious, or if you think you aren’t really speaking the truth.

That seems really abstract, so I’ll give a straightforward example.

Slavers raped slaves. Everyone knew that. Harriet Beecher Stowe said that was a fact and made it part of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mary Chesnut in her diary condemned Stowe for her including slave rape in her novel, not on the grounds that rape never happened, but on the grounds that she didn’t appreciate how much naming such rapes hurt women like her, and how painful it was for Chesnut to have to think about the fact Stowe was bringing to her attention. Chesnut wasn’t saying Stowe was wrong—what made Stowe’s claim so painful was that it was true.

So, while Chesnut knew her father and brothers raped slaves, she was only uncomfortable when their actions were brought to her attention by being named as rape. As long as the actions could avoid the name, she could manage the cognitive dissonance.

In Chesnut’s world, an act (that she had siblings among slaves) wasn’t a fact to be managed until it was named by Stowe as a crime.

I could give lots of other examples, but they’re all pretty much the same. James Henry Hammond, notorious for his abuse of slaves, was the most ardent advocate of silencing criticism of slavery, and the whole premise of the dueling culture wasn’t that it mattered whether something was true, but whether it was said.

One of the characteristics of a deliberative train wreck is that people define reality in terms of what is admitted by the in-group to be true—as long as the in-group can keep the claim from being admitted, the claim is untrue, and they can get kind of bizarre in their verbal contortions to keep something out of the realm of a public claim. There’s a kind of magical thinking involved—as long as you can keep slave rape out of the realm of the spoken, you can feel you aren’t obligated to do something about it.

Trump bragged that he sexually assaulted women. That’s a fact.

But, he and his supporters say, he hasn’t admitted it was wrong. Sarah Huckabee is Mary Chesnut.

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