Even the Truth Isn't Convincing to Some People

by DavalosMcCormack on December 13, 2010

Our willingness to belief what we want despite all evidence to the contrary is one of the charming oddities of the human race. In most cases it’s not a big deal, how else would Chicago Cubs fans retain their sense of hope at the beginning of each baseball season despite not having won a championship in more than 100 years. But in other cases that refusal to believe the truth or disbelieve something we know to be wrong is not just silly, it’s potentially destructive.

Ground Zero

Take for example the recent furor over plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center in New York City a few blocks from Ground Zero. The Imam behind the proposed center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, had been active in the community for decades, had written a number of books trying to break down barriers between Islam and the west, and had founded a number of non-profit organizations whose goal was to foster a more thoughtful discussion on the role of Islam in western society.

When plans for the Islamic center were first announced no one really paid attention. Then it became the focus of the right wing political talk-show circuit and all hell broke lose. Suddenly there were allegations that Abdul Rauf was a terrorist sympathizer who had refused to criticize Islamic extremist attacks on civilians. All nonsense of course, but once rumors and lies take a grip, they are difficult to shake.

Belief and disbelief

Just how difficult was shown in a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University. The researchers surveyed 750 Americans about the issue, asking them about rumors and reports that Abdul Rauf was a terrorist sympathizer etc. They then presented them with detailed evidence showing the rumors were wrong. But even in the face of that overwhelming evidence, fewer than one third of people who had heard and believed the rumors were willing to change their mind. In other words, two thirds were willing to cling to an idea even though they had been shown that it was clearly false.

Even more worrying was the fact that even among those willing to accept they were wrong, that openness of mind was weak and could be changed simply by showing them a photo of Abdul Rauf in traditional Arab attire rather than a western-style business suit. Showing him dressed as an “other” was enough to convince some people that this demonstrated that Abdul Rauf was not “American” and therefore couldn’t be trusted.

On one level this is disappointing simply because America has long prided itself on being a nation that supposedly welcomes people from all over the world. On another level it is deeply worrying because it shows that among some Americans there is a deeply ingrained willingness to be suspicious of Arabs or muslims, simply because they are not like “us”.

At a time when we are trying to send a message to the rest of the world that we are not opposed to Islam only Islamic extremists, this suggests quite the opposite.

The lie of the land

We’ve seen other examples of this refusal to believe something despite overwhelming evidence proving it. For example a recent Newsweek poll found that 24 percent of Americans think President Obama is a muslim, despite the fact that he has consistently denied it and is a practicing Christian. Others persist in the belief that President Obama was not born in this country despite his producing his birth certificate, and despite statements from the Governor of Hawaii (a Republican by the way) that the certificate is legitimate.

Holding on to misplaced beliefs is nothing new, what is new is the level of vitriol and almost hatred that surrounds those misplaced beliefs and the people who cling to them. Some people dislike the President and so are willing to seek out or believe rumors or lies that feeds into their preconceived ideas of him. Some people dislike or fear Islam or muslims and so are willing to seek out or believe rumors or lies that feed into their preconceived ideas of them.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said that “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” It seems that even after it has its pants on, many people are much more comfortable with a naked lie than the truth.

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