Arguing with a tornado, 6,000 times

You don’t reason with a tornado. It’s not a sentient being.

You don’t reason with toddlers. They haven’t developed the capacity for logical thought.

Even in adults, reason is pointless against grief, rage or belief, because they’re not based on logic or rational thought. They’re supported by emotions and values, not logic and facts. Which is why it’s difficult to understand why people keep bringing facts and logic to a fight grounded in beliefs and emotion where the principal opponent is a puppet.

Of course I’m now going to commit exactly the same mistake by offering a logical, fact-based argument, but my audience is hopefully composed of logical, rational people, so here goes…

The Washington Post estimated in November 2018 that Individual-1 had told 6,420 lies over 629 days. Some of those lies were blatant. Some were as easy to demonstrate as playing two videos: one in which he said “X”, and the next in which he subsequently said “I never said ‘X'”.

Reason would suggest that if someone lies 6,420 times, or roughly ten times a day for nearly two years without apparent consequence or sanction then there are two obvious conclusions. The first is that they’re likely to do it again tomorrow, and the second is that pointing out the next lie will probably have exactly the same effect as on the previous 6,420 occasions: none at all.

There cannot possibly be a single person now, who, if they know anything at all about Individual-1, know that he lies habitually. Which means that there must be a large number of people for whom this simply doesn’t matter. Yet still, every time he lies, social media and online media and even the mainstream media erupt with stories gleefully pointing out the lie, and providing factual rebuttals, as if that matters, and the twitterverse rings with mocking laughter and smug superiority.

To what effect?

Absolutely none. Because the lie is told in a universe of emotions and beliefs, not the universe of facts, and they’re different universes.

Individual-1 and his most ardent supporters inhabit a different universe with different rules, and trying to live or operate in that universe while appealing to reason, or logic, or facts, or any of the rules of the “rational” universe is pointless. As the analogy goes, it’s bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Now I’m familiar with the arguments that go “It’s important not to allow ourselves to become numb to this behaviour, it’s important not to allow these lies to go unchallenged, it’s important to fight back.” Yes, all of those things are important, as long as you realise that identifying and cataloguing and rebutting those lies only has an effect in the “rational” universe – it has no effect in his. It’s also only useful if you really understand Individual-1’s motivation, because the “why” of his lies is much more important than the “what”. In fact, trying to make sense of the “what” without the “why” is also pointless.

If you’re trying to have an effect in Individual-1’s universe, pointing out lies is irrelevant and just so much noise. If anything, it’s a demonstration to his supporters that he’s still “owning the libs”, and will be greeted with the same mocking laughter as a guy with a knife in a gun fight. Trying to describe Individual-1’s behaviour in “rational” universe terms is about as sensible as trying to swim on land, or walk in mid-air. Wrong universe, wrong rules.

If you’re make the basic assumption that Individual-1 cares about lies, or that he’s going to respond to logic with logic, or facts with facts, then you’re walking in mid-air. Those rules don’t apply.

For example, “rational” universe people don’t regularly say deliberately offensive or false things simply to grab attention and monopolise the conversation. Normal people don’t do it even once, let alone hour after hour, day after day, week after week, in a never-ending stream of chaos and disruption and iconoclasm. Not only do normal people never do it, the idea of doing it is both bizarre and revolting; they’d be horrified at what everyone else would think, and probably unable to look themselves in the mirror after a few days.

Not Individual-1.

Those rules simply don’t apply. And if you try to understand or describe his behaviour using the rules and structures and expectations of the “rational” universe, you’ll simply end up puzzled by how it’s possible for someone to tell 6,420 lies and yet still command headlines around the world every single day with people apparently eager to hear the next one.

Individual-1 lives in a universe of raw emotions, and beliefs, and unexamined, deeply held prejudices and un-admitted fears. It’s a ten-year-old’s universe where logic is difficult and somehow sneaky, and facts belong to whoever can shout louder or longer, where tribalism is rampant, mistakes are never admitted, and there’s safety in conformity and being “us”, and the easiest way to beat an opponent is simply to label them “not us”. Lies and insults and bullying are accepted techniques in this universe. Get used to it.

You don’t argue facts with a tornado.

A fight with a tornado is an existential battle, not a rational one. The dictators and demagogues and ideologues who have succeeded, and there are plenty of examples in living memory, succeed because they move the battleground from the “rational” universe to their own emotional, chaotic one. There’s a simple and tried-and-true way to do this, and Individual-1 is doing it. You destroy people’s faith in the structures and institutions and processes that support society, and then when the fear and uncertainty overwhelm rational thought you offer a new solution. Don’t trust the press, believe me. Don’t trust the courts, believe me. Don’t trust the police and the generals, believe me.

Believe me, everybody knows that. Everybody tells me that. I know more about everything than anybody else, believe me. I’m a very stable genius, believe me. Believe me…

Sound familiar?

Even more pointless than arguing with a tornado is arguing with a tornado that’s actually being controlled by someone else. Why argue with the tornado if your real fight is with the person controlling it?

It seems probable that Individual-1 won’t succeed, this time, but it’s important to understand that the person controlling him doesn’t really care, nor do his enablers. The damage done while the tornado is spinning is their success, and that’s the “why” that explains the “what”.

Pointing out the tornado’s lies is fighting the wrong battle, in the wrong universe, against the wrong ultimate enemy.

Defeating Individual-1 is important, but he’s a tool, he’s a symptom, not the disease. It’s the people who direct and who benefit from his chaos who are the real enemy.

Fight them, don’t argue – repeatedly – with a tornado.

Footnote: For much more scholarly and detailed examinations of the difference between values and facts, see Haidt or Kahan (abstract, paper) or Mooney, or even my own gloss. On Twitter there are a lot of fine folk to follow (and this isn’t exhaustive). For RU/mob investigation and explainers, @ninaandtito, @LincolnsBible, @JamesFourM, @traciemac_Bmore, @ZevShalev. For Intelligence Community @20committee. For RU news, @JuliaDavisNews. For legal analysis @DirkSchwenk, @KlasfeldReports, @ZoeTillman and the superb and incomparable @SpicyFiles. For more general reportage @MollyMcKew, @DavidCornDC, and finally for funny, acerbic, penetrating insight @TheRickWilson and @lauferlaw. To hear most of this a year or two ago, the one and only @LouiseMensch and her Patribotics blog and eponymous twitter feed.

I’ve been watching this train wreck since early 2016, and I’m depressed at how unpleasantly accurate my opinion of the Fourth Estate was back before the election, in October 2016.