I didn’t care much for music (still don’t) and owned very few albums or CDs as a youngster. One of the handful I purchased was Sting’s turgid and pretentious Dream of Blue Turtles, released in 1985 as I turned fifteen. It was the year Mikhail Gorbachev took the helm in Moscow, the beginning of the end of the Cold War – but it didn’t seem like that at the time. It felt as though the world was teetering on the brink of annihilation.
One of the singles from Turtles was Russians – a minor hit, if I’m not mistaken. This is a sample lyric:
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too
Since I enjoyed politics considerably more than music, and since I had gone out of my way to purchase the album, I really wanted to love Russians. But I didn’t. I hated it – and here’s why.
It seemed self-evident to me – glaringly so – that of course Russians love their children. I was aware some extreme Cold War partisans might contend otherwise, but surely anyone who clung to the view that Soviet citizens hated their own kids must be an ill-educated buffoon.
So what was Sting doing, warbling this twee little truism at us? Wasn’t he revealing contempt for his audience– me included – who, he seemed to think, might continue, without the benefit of his song, to believe that Russia’s Mums and Dads hold their offspring in contempt?
The song seemed misguided to me in another way: what if one of those mindless patriots who thought Russians loathe their children were to encounter the song? Would it change their mind – “that former Police frontman really made me interrogate my assumptions about Soviet parent-child relations!” – or would they simply conclude Sting is another soft-on-communism peacenik who thinks he knows best? (The latter, obvs).
So my objection to the song was twofold: it treats the vast majority of us as idiots who need persuading that Russians love their children when it would never have occurred to us otherwise; and that any actual idiots who need convincing will find it utterly unpersuasive. In fact, my intuition at the time was that Russians would most likely lead such people to adopt an even more strident anti-Sting, anti-Soviet posture.
It turns out that bloody-minded doubling down in the face of contradictory arguments is an actual thing. In 2000, a University of Illinois study concluded “not only that most people will resist correcting their…beliefs, but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.” The study’s author, James Kuklinski, calls this phenomenon the “I know I’m right” syndrome; it’s also sometimes called the “backfire effect”. A famous study, conducted in 2005, found that self-identified conservatives presented with facts about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were not only unpersuaded; they were more convinced than ever that WMDs were present. While this tendency appears stronger among conservatives, researchers from the University of Michigan found that all “ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions…we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects”.
I was reminded about all this in the immediate aftermath of the ISIS terror attacks in Paris when my Facebook and other social media feeds were swamped with declarations of compassion for Syrian refugees and outrage at those who conflated their plight with ISIS terrorists.
Because the attacks coincide with a key juncture in the GOP presidential primary, conservatives in the U.S. have been furiously – and despicably – exploiting the refugee question for political gain. The dynamic is especially toxic because the issue arose at the precise moment in the political calendar where candidates are most eager to burnish their right-wing credentials – and, with Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson dominating the race, the rhetoric has been redder and hotter than usual. Far-right parties throughout Europe are similarly milking the issue for all it’s worth, as are a small group of neo-Nazi wannabes in Australia who have jumped atop the bandwagon under the absurd Reclaim Australia banner.
Whenever I’m chastised to the effect that Syrian refugees are innocents and we should stop punishing them for the crimes of the very people from whom they are fleeing, I am reminded of Sting and Russians. Most people don’t need the lecture in the first place – I, for one, don’t believe refugee vetting is fail-safe, but nor do I think we should curtail asylum programs as the result of terror attacks – and it will backfire among those who do.
But, anyway, are those protesting on behalf of Syrian refugees actually interested in changing minds? Or is their primary motivation the ostentatious display of superior moral virtue? As with Russians, I strongly suspect the latter – and, if I’m right, it’s not only that they don’t care whether Trump supporters or Reclaim Australia’s dolts change their minds; it’s in their interests that they don’t. Even keyboard warriors, whose heroism exists purely in their own imagination, need a suitable cast of villains.