August 2, 2020

We Have the Tools to Resist Psychological Warfare

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If one country wanted to weaken or even destroy another more powerful country, it seems like undermining the confidence of its citizens in their government would be an obvious place to start. But just think how much more effective such a strategy would be if it were to go well beyond government and undermine several key institutions (e.g., science, education, the news media). Undermining trust in the government would be valuable, but cutting the legs out from under these other targets would make the overall approach even more effective. Those living in the country being targeted would feel increasingly powerless, uncertain, and scared. It might take them a while to do so, but they'd likely begin turning on each other. They'd look to their tribes for security without realizing that doing so played right into the divide-and-conquer strategy being used against them. Eventually, they would be too divided to effectively respond to the real threat they faced.

Scenarios like this are frightening to consider. At least, they should be. Not only are we unlikely to see them taking shape until it is too late, but many of our own citizens will actually participate in the aggressor's efforts. With the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to look back to the months before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and not interpret the "burn it all down" sentiment we heard from many at the time as something far more sinister than what it seemed then.

What do we do to prevent more of this sort of thing in the future? While our politicians debate whether to regulate social media platforms, I think we might do well to consider some target hardening approaches. That is, we should work to make ourselves less susceptible to such attacks. A good place to start might involve healthy skepticism, reason, critical thinking, and freethought. None of these are easy tasks, but all can be learned and practiced.

Healthy Skepticism

I am adding the healthy specifier in front of skepticism because we have seen a disturbing trend of unhealthy skepticism. In fact, I think this is one of the many negative consequences of the efforts to harm us. It reflects the success of those efforts. Healthy skepticism does not entail refusing to believe anything; it involves belief proportionate to the evidence. For example, most major news outlets have made mistakes; however, this in no way justifies the rejection of the entire mainstream news media. Those who have decided to get all their news from random crazies on YouTube are not paragons of skepticism; they are victims of coordinated efforts to undermine their trust in various institutions.

Reason

Reason goes hand-in-hand with healthy skepticism, but we must recognize that reason also becomes far more difficult when we are fearful. We atheists have seen what some religious believers are capable of when they are frightened, and it is not pretty. And yet, it is vital that we learn how to maintain our ability and willingness to reason even when gripped by fear or outrage. Our survival may depend on it. Some have figured out how to use social media to effectively undercut our commitment to reason, but we can flip the tables and use the same platform to practice reason.

Critical Thinking

If healthy skepticism is more of an overarching philosophy, then critical thinking (along with reason) might be the set of tools the skeptic employs in search of knowledge. Unfortunately, critical thinking is hard. It requires us to recognize and confront our many biases, as well as to guard against them. It is not something that comes naturally to most of us, and relatively few have received much training in critical thinking skills. Fortunately, we can all learn these skills, and we can practice them until they stick.

Freethought

Freethought is a great antidote to the worst of tribalism, and can help us resist the impulse to turn on each other. By recognizing that complex issues are rarely as simple as we would like to make them and cultivating an appreciation for nuance, we become better able to resist polarization. We may learn, for example, that those of our neighbors who voted for someone we don't like are not our enemies but people with whom we disagree on some important issues. The fact that they disagree with us does not make them bad people. If we treat them as our enemies, they may become our enemies. This weakens all of us, though, leaving us less prepared to confront those who seek to harm us.

Time to Resist

The divide-and-conquer strategy has been around forever because it works so well. One country can do serious damage to another with a well-orchestrated campaign of psychological warfare, and the best part is that the victims will be too busy fighting among themselves to effectively confront the threat. Fortunately for us, we can do a better job of resisting. Unfortunately for us, we have another presidential election on the horizon. Now is the time to strengthen ourselves through healthy skepticism, reason, critical thinking, and freethought. Some seek to divide us, but we can refuse to let ourselves be divided.