3RT:19 – Warlocks from the Ninth Lodge of Hell vs the Sons of Hemlock

A.Ron attempts to distill what he’s learned about how, when, and why people change their minds about deeply held beliefs and how you can arrive at the truth of a thing using formative experiences from his past and tortured video game metaphor.

The following is an edited transcript of episode 19 of the Three Right Turns podcast. The above player is included in case you’d prefer to listen.

Folks, I think it’s time we took a step back and talked about philosophy, and cognitive dissonance, the process on how people change their minds, and how we can help each other.

I don’t remember when I believed in God for the first time, because I can’t remember a time until my contemporary history when I didn’t. I can remember learning my ABC’s, I can remember learning long division, but I don’t remember learning to speak english. Being able to talk and believing in God were things I just came with a default understanding. I can say the same thing about being a boy, actually. My parents tried to do a lot of things right, tried to be enlightened people, and hell, they laid the foundation for better or worse for who’s speaking right now, so, all curses and credit go to them for at least setting me on the path.

But my mom and dad got me dollies, and I had a little kitchen play set, and a little vacuum sweeper. And trucks and tools and spaceships. And I incorporated them all into my play, and I did the same thing with my kid, too. And he grew up with me cooking every one of his meals, until Cecily moved in with us when he was 6 or 7, and I still do at least half the cooking in the house, probably more. I do dishes, clean bathrooms, laundry, all that stuff. I think my son would think it to be weird if someone were to describe this kind of labor as “women’s work.”

My mom was a Sunday school teacher and I can remember going to Sunday school. I didn’t go to her class because she taught the older kids and I was in the under 5 year old division where they essentially just had us color pictures of Jesus and play with toys for a few hours while the parents worshipped. 

I have a few memories from sunday school that stick out. One was a picture of Jesus healing some lepers. I didn’t know what leprosy was, but these were sick people, and you could tell cause they had bandages everywhere. They clearly had a lot of ouchies. And Jesus was there waving at them, cause he had just healed these people, and they were unwrapping themselves, and their skin was all clean! And they were waving back. And the gimmick was that we cut out their little arms from construction paper. You know those big brass tack things you can stick through paper and spread out these wings on the back, so it’s like a big paper rivet? Well, we attached those arms to the paper at the lepers shoulder back, and look! Now they could wave their arms.

We also did one where Jesus was walking on water across to this man Peter who tried to show he had faith by walking on water, but he got afraid and started to drown so here is Jesus, pulling him out of the water. And we colored that, but we also had two different colors of blue yarn; a dark blue and a light blue. And we spread that over the water part side to side and scotch taped it down on the sides, so when we blew on them, it looked like the sea was rippling.

So that’s what I learned about Jesus, he was basically a superhero that lived a long time ago and Jesus loves me, this I know For the Bible tells me so.

I got until about 16 when I had my first serious doubts about God. We were reading George Orwell’s 1984, and I had this funny feeling in the back of my skull every time I was reading a passage where Winston, the protagonist, had to just go along when the party decided to revise history, told him what books he could and couldn’t read, who his heroes and villains should be. It didn’t matter that he himself could remember that today’s villains were yesterday’s heroes. How could he trust his own memory when the party controlled history. Removed people out of this picture, added people to that one. Changed this quota so that what would have been a dismal year for chocolate was written as a bumper yield. But who can find chocolate in a store?

I say this was my first serious doubt, but it only landed because of my accumulated experience being in the Jehovah’s Witness cult. Since they got to me before I entered school, it didn’t seem strange that someone would be told what they could read or what they could watch. And not by their parents, who might restrict what their kids could watch to things age appropriate with the goal of them one day being functional adults who could be trusted to think for themselves. No, these were designed to be permanent restrictions. Don’t watch rated-R movies. Don’t read history and science books. The Witnesses have their books on science and religion and history, why would you need anything else? Our books were free from the confusing lies Satan is out there sowing in the fertile fields of academia and the humanities. They think they’re so smart, but the bible clearly says in “Psalms 14, Only the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” And that’s what scientists and historians were all about. Proving that god doesn’t exist, because they lust over the power that only God has. The ability to tell us what is right and wrong, and if we listen to these, latest and greatest of satan’s false prophet’s we’d be doomed.

I imagine most of the kids I read 1984 with in Mrs Hadley’s sophomore english class that year were Christians. But I can almost guarantee I was the only one having a minor-religious crisis. Because they couldn’t relate to the authoritarian way I was being raised. 

George Orwell wrote essays that are included as appendices in 1984 building out the world of English Socialism a bit more, in it’s newspeak and doublethink, and these hit too, because I could see similarities in the odd ways witnesses would speak. We had our own terminology. We didn’t have churches, we had kingdom halls. We didn’t have priests or fathers, we had elders. We didn’t have deacons, we had ministerial servants. We weren’t going to heaven, at least for the most part, we were to inherit an earthly kingdom. 

This language separates us. If a classmate asks, “What did you do this weekend?” I could lie and say I go to church, or I could tell the capital-T Truth and say I went to the kingdom hall. I imagine it’s probably pretty similar to a jewish kid in my same home town. They can lie and say they go to church if they want to pass for “normal”, but if they say they go to a synagog or a temple, they’re sticking out. The difference of course is they’re sticking out because they’re in Mooresville, IN. If they grew up in New York City, it would be considered normal. If they grew up in Tel Aviv, it would be the default. 

The witnesses did this deliberately. We had a theocratic language that set us apart and made us distinct from the rest of the world. But it’s a trap. It works really well because you control the information your people see, but it’s really brittle, because if the person ever manages to escape the control for a second, like when they’re assigned to read 1984 as a school assignment. 

The funny thing is, my mom knew about me reading 1984. She monitored what I read pretty closely, and often would request me having alternate readings or studies if the material was going to conflict with her religious beliefs. And she knew 1984 and what it was about, she was an English teacher, as well as a Sunday school teacher. But when she read it, in high school, or college, she read it from the perspective of a regular person, ah, this is an allegory about the dangers of communist authoritarianism. She didn’t know what it would be like to read it as a witness teen. She didn’t know the payload it was going to deliver.

Now, people that know my story know I made it another 10 years before I realized the truth about the capital T Truth, which is that it was a russian nesting doll of lies. And another 5 years after that before I made any exterior changes in my life that would belie the internal changes I’d already made. Ex-witnesses have a term for that, they call it “physically in, mentally out.” PIMO for short. What can you do, they’re ex-witnesses, they gotta make up a little language for themselves, you know?

But it’s handy because if you’re a baptized member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there isn’t any easy way out. You can’t be like, “Guys, guys, I just don’t see it that way anymore.” You can still believe in God, I certainly did, for the first few years. You can believe witnesses are 90% right, more correct than any other christian religion, which I also felt for a while, that’s not good enough. If you admit that you are anything less than 100% on board with Witness theology, you’re an apostate, and that’s grounds for disfellowshipping. Once you’re disfellowshipped, every witness in good standing has an obligation to shun you. That means they will not say hi to you on the street. They will not call you and check up on you. They will not invite you to their homes. They will do their best to cut you out of their lives, as if you are dead to them. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not regularly associate with worldly people, ie, non witnesses. You see the trap. Everyone you love is a witness. You have, by some miracle, escaped their thought control. But they own, with few exceptions, everyone you care about and everyone who cares about you. Why would a grown man sit in a kingdom hall learning the same things he knows is false, recite answers and read bible passages he knows are misleading, and knock on doors to convert people to a religion that is a trap, after he knows it’s hogwash? The answer is obvious, right? Fear, fear of change, fear of loss. 

I promise this is all going somewhere. 

So I had my first doubts about god at 15 or 16, but that doubt was easily dismissed. As I learned, this book was a warning about authoritarianism, specifically about one the brand of totalitarianism as was being practiced by the soviet union and communist china. So what if the form of the arguments and structure of control was the same, that was coincidental. 

And the Bible always has an answer. Romans 3:4 – “let God be true, though every man be found a liar”. And this was a big one, too, because it’s in the context of a large doctrinal dispute that was going on among the early christians. As it spread from being a minor jewish messianic cult to the world wide success story it is today, one of the early roadblocks were the gentile faithful being all like, “Really, we gotta cut off part of our dicks?” and the apostles were like, “Oof, maybe not” and the Jewish Christians were all like, “Excuse me?”

There are two things I’m trying to do. One, if you have genuinely conservative beliefs. I used to, too! Hey, you can come out, and you can tell me about your beliefs, and I won’t mock or belittle you, I’ll take you seriously, and I can offer you the same intellectual path that led me from where you are right now to where I am today. 

Two, I think I make a good spokesperson for conservatives from a progressive standpoint. They actually believe that being on this side makes you soft, makes you weak, makes you stupid, makes you feminine, etc, etc. But how are you going to run that talk with me? I’m a multiple time entrepreneur. I was successful in the private sector. I’m self made, you’re not going to find a rich mommy and daddy in my back story. I grew up in a literal cornfield. My wife is cute as hell, and she’s funny and supportive and caring and industrious. My kid is smart and funny and well adjusted. We hang out as a family because we like to. We eat home cooked dinner at the table and talk about our day. My swimming pool is the little miami river. 

I’m not trying to brag, but it’s pretty fucking wholesome. I’m a lucky guy.

But I think I’ve failed at that part of the mission, because thus far not many conservatives, or at least mainstream conservatives, have come forward to talk about these issues. Best I’ve had is a never-trumper, a neoliberal, a liberal brit gender critic, and a libertarian. Maybe they’re listening out there, and they’re seething. Which, still I guess a failure on my mission.  Or they’re afraid to talk… which would still be a failure, or they’ve had these talks and they know where they’ll go, or…

I mean, it took me 10 years to figure things out about a tiny religious cult in the day of the internet, right? And another 5 years after that to actually start making changes.

Here’s another example. Five years ago, Jim and I were commissioned to cover a documentary about the beef industry called Cowspiracy. I watched that film, taking my notes, and thinking, “Oh man, this poor commissioner, I’m surely going to shred this film on it’s factual merits.” Cause that’s what I do with documentaries. I take it most people watch them and just assume their the god’s honest truth.  I watch them, then I like to see what people are saying. Does the documentary have a POV? It’s rare that they don’t. If it has a POV, what do the people from that POV say about it. What do the people from the other POV say about it? What are the holes, what were the exaggerations, what were the omissions, what were the outright lies? 

Look at a movie like Blackfin, about orcas held in captivity, and it pitches pretty straight down the middle. You watch that movie, then read Seaworld’s rebuttal, and it doesn’t seem convincing on the face of it, but then you read an expert cross-examination of that letter, and it’s devastating. And then you read seaworld’s response, and oh, there isn’t one. 

With cowspiracy, like I said, the numbers on greenhouse emissions, environment destruction, water usage were, to my mind, ridiculous. But as I researched the doc I found out, to my surprise and growing horror, that these were pretty on the money. Maybe they are at the top end of the estimates in places, but there weren’t outright exaggerations.

That was five years ago. For the first few years, I didn’t change anything about my life because of it, other than having that familiar buzz at the back of my head. Maybe I should cut out meat from my diet, maybe I should be vegan or vegetarian. But I can afford it, and I’m just one person, and if you think I’m a vegetarian today, much less a vegan… no, not at all. But I have cut out about 90% of the meat from my diet. Maybe I’ll get to 100% one day. On the other hand, if every American cut their meat consumption by 90%, we’d all be healthier and the planet would be much better off.

I find that’s how my mind changes the most on things I’m entrenched in. I get exposed to new information, I find out if it’s true, but then I have to deal with the cognitive dissonance and resistance to change that seems to be built into the human experience. And this process, from getting new information to changing my mind to actually doing something about the change, it can take years. 

But how do you know if something is true? You start exploring the arguments. Look for problems in an arguments structure. Look for logical fallacies. Look at the studies. Do the statistics being cited agree with the studies conclusion? Why or why not? How many studies are we talking about? Are there 1, 5, 15, 150 studies? 

If there are 150, and 99% of them agree in their conclusions, then for a lay person, the answer should be easy. Go with what the experts think. Sometimes experts are wrong, but if you’re a betting person, the safest money by far is to go with expert consensus. 

And most of the time that the experts are wrong, they’re wrong in a way that doesn’t matter to lay people. Issac Newton was wrong about the mechanics of how gravity works. Einstein was more right with this theory of relativity. But he wasn’t 100% correct, because there’s this whole quantum mechanics thing he didn’t know about yet. But still, what Issac knew, is good enough to launch a rocket from earth, and hit any heavenly body in our solar system, often slingshotting around other planets to receive speed boosts along the way.  

And you see this with a lot of stuff. Our diet. Are calories bad? Carbs? Fats? Trans-fats? BPAs? Lead? formaldehyde? Mercury? The answer in the past 30 years has been, yes, no, maybe, it depends. But one thing is for sure, if we all insisted on eating like a 19th century farm hand or lumberjack, a lot of us are going to die in our 50s.

And a lot of this public perception of science being wishy washy in the late 20th century and early 21st century isn’t the fault of experts, so much as our media consumption. Studies that confirm findings we already know or make subtle, small changes in our understanding don’t get reported. Studies that say if you eat fish oil supplements and your balls will be 23% less wrinkly yeah, give me that, I need that. Where do I get these supplements, can I order them in bulk from Amazon. Never mind that we’re reporting on one study that might have some problems with their methodology, or hasn’t been confirmed.

So you have to decide whether you’re going to trust expert consensus. If you don’t, then you’re going to be at the mercy of conspiracy theory land. You’re going to be trafficking in secret knowledge, that society doesn’t want people to know, that they’re trying to keep quiet. Every problem in the official narrative is a place where you can wedge in a theory that relies on common sense and conventional wisdom, and every disproved point of yours is just part of the conspiracy to discredit your ideas. 

And you know what, every once in a while, there is a genuine conspiracy. The CIA really did inject people with LSD and other substances to try to control their minds. The United States really did sell illegal arms to Iran to finance the illegal overthrow of governments in latin america. But again, if you’re betting that whatever random hill you’re wanting to stand on is going to be the next MK Ultra or Iran Contra affair, you’re far more likely to go broke.

Sometimes going broke can be fairly benign. Like, there are worse things to be than someone that believes in a flat earth. Mostly, you’ll be seen as a harmless eccentric. But, then there are the guys that go all in, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on experiments that end up proving, oh shit, the earth actually *is* round. And they lose their jobs, and family, their social life, sometimes their sanity. 

How do you figure out what’s the truth and what’s the conspiracy? If you trust in consensus, you just trust in consensus. But that’s hard to do when it’s something you’ve grown up believing. Trust me, there is a huge consensus, that Jehovah’s Witnesses are annoying kooks or worse. But if you grew up as an annoying kook, that’s all you know. Being an annoying kook is a way of life. 

So what do you do if you don’t want to believe in the consensus; you don’t want to accept that you are a kook, with kooky views on things? Or maybe there isn’t a consensus on something. If you got 150 studies and 99% of them agree, well that’s something. But if there are one or five and they’re all from very recent – congratulations, you’ve arrived at the bleeding edge of society’s knowledge about a thing. You can get in on the ground floor and watch the consensus build. 

How do you do that? I’ve been thinking about this in terms of a video game roleplaying dialog. Think about how deep their conversation trees go. So you have shop keeps, and you enter their store, and they’ll be like, “Hail and well met, dusty traveler. Can I interest you in my wares?” And maybe you can ask about the local village, or current events, and you can ask one or two things and then there is nothing more to ask. If you ask them further about these subjects, they either repeat themselves, or they’ll just re-direct you to their wares. 

But if you get to talk to the king or the empress or Head Warlock of the Ninth Lodge of Hell, whoo boy. Their dialog trees will run deep. 

You: “Tell me about this Ninth Lodge of Hell.”

Head Warlock: “The Ninth Lodge is the superior successor to the failed previous eight lodges that were all betrayed by the Sons of Hemlock.”

You: “Oh word? Who are these Hemlock dudes?”

Head Warlock: “The Sons of Hemlock are all foul liars recruited by the ancient spirits of the Grove, but fortunately, they have been all but eliminated from our midst. Mere whispers of them remain.”

You: “Oh, people whisper about them?”

Head Warlock: “Yes, there are rumors that the spirits still seek to recruit a new champion from the grove, but we patrol that area regularly and are convinced we have it contained.”

You: “Where is this grove?”

Head Warlock: “Oh, it’s to the east, in the heart of the forest of Muk Bang.”

What are you going to do next, dusty traveler? Sure, you might screw around with the innkeeps and hunt up a side quest or two, but it’s pretty clear where this quest is leading you. Better go check out this grove. If you do, you’re sure to meet some elemental spirits that tell you, “Oh no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s those Warlocks of the Ninth Lodge that are the deceivers. They keep the land in darkness and ignorance, and we’re the keepers of the old ways, and we kept the land in balance and harmony, and they’re warlocks from hell, you can’t trust them.”

So you go back to the warlocks, and they’re like, “Ah, that’s what they say. Ask them to tell you about the old ways. I think you’ll find those spirits are feasting upon the dead, and drinking human blood from their cups.”

So you go back to the spirits. And they’re all like, “We’re insulted that they’d even suggest we eat humans. You want to look in our cups? No, you can’t do that. We like our privacy. What business is it of yours to look into our cups. 

All you can do is have the conversation with both sides and hear what they have to say, pay attention to who runs out of dialog first, and then pay close attention to what they’re actually doing. What I’ve found is crucial, is that eventually, one side runs out of dialog trees to go through. The other side has an unanswerable concern, or claim, or fact, and the other side doesn’t have a counter. Or, they have a counter, and when you investigate it, it is misleading or an outright lie. Or they misinterpreted a stat, or missed it’s significance. 

That’s the game. That’s how you find out the truth. There are layers to it, because frequently, both sides will engage in hyperbole. Both sides will have their hypocrisies and contradictions. Both sides will have persuasive, intelligent speakers, and they’ll have their shallow thinkers. Both sides will have blind spots and biases. You’ll have your blind spots and biases. 

It’s hard work. That’s why whenever there is an expert consensus, I advocate going with that.  To go with an expert consensus, all you need to do is prove to your level of satisfaction that the world’s scientists, scholars, historians, doctors, or whatever aren’t in on a global conspiracy to fool the public for nefarious ends. And while their understanding isn’t perfect, the research is peer reviewed and it’s literally the best tool we have to get at any kind of real truth in the world. 

That’s pretty easy to do. You can talk in terms of how the scientific method works, you can talk about following the money, you can talk in terms of how many people would have to be involved with a conspiracy, and as that number increases, it gets more and more difficult to keep things conspiratorial. If you’re talking about scientific consensus, you can add how many people from how many countries, with their own mutually-incompatible agendas.

And ultimately, the best argument for just going with expert consensus is that’s how we live our lives already. We trust weathermen, doctors, engineers, and other experts on a minute to minute, day to day basis.  You don’t demand to see the structural drawings of a bridge before you cross it. You don’t demand to see the inspection records for the plane you’re about to board. You don’t verify every encryption certificate before you bank online. It’s kind of telling in a way, the things that people do get worked up about regarding expert consensus. What the intellectual off ramps are for people to just get off board this whole science thing. Vaccines. Genetically modified crops. Climate change. 

If you want to go against the experts, it’s hard work. To go against expert consensus, you have to almost become an expert yourself. Many of them studied years and have decades of practical experience in their fields. What? You’re just going to watch youtube for a few hours and outdo them? You at least have to have a good handle on bias, statistics, logical fallacies, and most people don’t. Then you have to go down all the different dialog trees to find the best arguments and see which side runs out of persuasive counters first. Most people can’t or won’t do that. 

Now, I want to talk about good faith. What does it mean to have “good faith” in an argument? To me, good faith means that you go into a discussion with a goal to tell the truth and assume the other person is going to tell the truth too. It means you’re not going to assume the other person has an agenda beyond the discussion. 

Good faith does not mean you walk into a conversation with an open mind. I believe the earth is round, and it happens to be round. I can have a good faith conversation with a flat earther, though. I would go into that conversation, not expecting a flat earther to change my mind, because the earth is in fact, round. I would expect that they have serious gaps in their scientific knowledge. They probably have an unhealthy skepticism of authority. They could be very bright in a field of science or endeavour. This happens all the time. A chemical engineer that wants to opine about mental health. A talented and successful programmer that wants to tell you how the economy works. Not because they’ve studied the issue, but because they’re smart and they assume their subject matter expertise in one field will translate into another. 

I’d certainly have a good faith conversation with a flat earther in my personal life. But I wouldn’t have one on this podcast. Why would that be? Because I personally have not seen all the strongest flat earth arguments, and that can be dangerous with an audience. Why? 

It’s because I don’t know everyone in the audience is as solid on the earth being round as I am. They might not be able to spot logical fallacies as well. They might not be very science literate. Just to make things simple, let’s assume the dialog tree for flat earth discourse resembles our example of the conundrum between the Ninth Lodge of Hell and the Sons of Hemlock in that there is just one path around a central fact. Dialog one goes: “The earth is flat, because duh, you can see it. Ever been to a beach? The horizon is flat.”

Dialog two might go: “Well actually, the earth is so large, and the horizon at sea level on a beach is so relatively close, that it appears to us as flat. However, if we look at a tall ship on the horizon approaching land, let’s say it’s a cruise liner. If you look,  you can clearly see the top most part of the ship appear first, say it’s smoke stacks. Then the upper decks, then the lower decks, and sure enough the hull. It happens this way because the earth’s curve hides the lower part of the ship, like a person climbing a hill. We first see their head, their shoulders, and so on until they’re on top of the hill and we can see the whole person.”

Dialog three might go: “Ah, but that’s not the earth’s curvature, that’s atmospheric distortion and a mirage effect. You know how when you’re driving in the summer, and there are heat shimmers that look like water as you approach them, and then they disappear when you get closer. Well, it’s the same thing, the boat is being obscured by the mirage, and as it gets closer it punches through.”

Uh oh! I have never heard this argument in my life. I’m in uncharted waters. That seems accurate, I certainly don’t know why it’s wrong. I try to redirect with: “I’ll have to look into that, but what about this? Here is a picture I took with my cell phone from an airplane window that was cruising at 35k feet. You can clearly see the earth’s curve, though it’s slight. The higher you go, the more curved it will look.”

Then they say: “Ah, but do you know about the fish eye effect? Cell phone cameras have very small depth of field, and this causes distortions at the edges of the frame, and here’s 15 pictures that illustrate this effect at various scales, and here are five explanations from world class photographers about fisheye.”

Fuck, they’re right! Does that mean the earth is flat? Fuck no! It just means they’ve studied the dialog tree more than me. And I walked right into their trap. A scientist who is familiar with this argument wouldn’t even be in this position, because they know that even from a great height, like 35k feet, the earth has a barely perceptible curve, and you’d have to have at least a 60 degree field of view to detect it, and an airline window simply doesn’t offer that good a view. 

But I just allowed a flat earth person to kick my ass across the dialog tree, and a reasonable, low information listener might conclude, damn, maybe there is something to this flat earth thing.

That’s the danger of getting into a public debate or discussion with someone where you don’t have a great command of more than just the facts. You can end up doing more harm than good. Its one of the reasons historians really don’t want to publicly debate a holocaust denier. The holocaust denier, or revisionist, can just keep nitpikcing the official record, finding inconsistencies, here and there, the historian can keep patiently correcting or adjusting, but soon from the audience perspective, “Gee whiz, seems like the expert here is really on the defensive. Seems like there are a lot of holes in the official record.” And if the historian gets huffy and demands to know exactly what the denier, excuse me, revisionist is getting at, the revisionist can just say, “Hey, I’m just asking questions. That’s still allowed right? Must we just accept the thing we’re taught and handed down as gospel? Why are there so many disputes in the official record? Why do I get called anti-semetic for just asking questions? What is there to hide? I thought this was a liberal democracy we lived in, what’s with all this thought crime crap?”

Is he asking these in good faith? Maybe? Or maybe he’s wanting to discredit the official record to make it seem like one of the third reich’s worst sins wasn’t so bad after all. And if people would lie about that, what else would they lie about? 

So that is one trap, wading in from the shallow end of the dialog tree, quickly getting out of your depth, and then floundering before your intellectual opponent, or worse, an audience too. 

But there is another danger, and that’s having the final form of an argument and using it to crush a good faith argument from a well intentioned person. I had that happen plenty of times to me. Imagine you’re arguing with a flat earther and they say the earth is flat because that’s how it looks and I just say, “Look, man, the astronauts took a picture from the moon of a round earth shaded by the round moon and if you’re going to start up with airline windows and fisheye lenses you can go and fuck yourself.”

My opponent didn’t know anything about fish eye and the curvature of the earth, thinks Nasa is in on the conspiracy, and the audience just saw me go nuclear in round one of the fight and now sees me as being brittle and defensive and not very “open minded.” I’m not going to score any points with either the opponent or the audience. 

Remember our imaginary role playing game and imagine you’re in round one of the investigation between the Warlocks of the Ninth Lodge of Hell and the Sons of Hemlock. And just as you’re beginning your inquiry someone busts into the room and starts screaming, “Enough of this talking shit! Ask them about what’s in their cups, huh? WHY ARE THEY DRINKING HUMAN BLOOD?!”

They would probably sound like a crazy person to you. But that would also be a rational reaction if you’ve gone down the dialog trees and you have come to the conclusion that the Sons of Hemlock are a bunch of reactionary cannibal assholes, you know? 

I’m also thinking of those clips where some young woman with candy colored hair is screaming red-faced about something or another and they get passed around with a “Would you get a load of this psycho?” The thing is, a lot of time, they’re upset because they’ve had this conversation 100x, they have the final form of the argument, but they might not be able to argue it from first principles and now they’re a meme passed around conservative circles as an argument against liberal culture, or whatever. 

Sometimes, as maddening as it can be, you have to walk a person through the dialog trees, one step at a time. If you’re not willing to do that, then just don’t have the conversation. And maybe you get a pass if you’re at a rally and someone sticks a camera in your face, but I think this is a good thing to think about, because as I’ve seen on the Bald Move forums, and the Swizzbold reddit, and other places, stuff like this tends to happen. 

Now, if you do have the conversation, let’s talk about expectations. Let’s say that my English teacher gave me the 1984 assignment specifically because she knew I was a Jehovah’s Witness and knew the book was going to give me some serious spiritual problems. Boy, she’d be really disappointed in her efforts. If she’d checked in on me a year from then. Still a witness. Five years later. Still a witness. 10 years later, still a witness. At 10 years in, I actually made a pretty profound internal change, but if she was just going off what I was saying and doing, still a Witness. She’d have had to wait 15 years to see me actually make external changes in the way I lived my life. But on the other hand, she’s also played a foundational role in the path I eventually took. 

It’s easy to change someone’s mind when they haven’t thought much about a matter. It’s easy to change their mind when doing so doesn’t have any affect on their lives one way or another. It’s really easy when both are true. 

It’s very hard to change people’s minds when they have thought a lot about a matter, and the matter is important to them. And if they have personal experience with the matter, and you don’t, it’s almost impossible. 

I say this because it’s pretty common sense stuff, but a lot of people don’t really put it into practice because a lot of people don’t make major changes in their belief systems during their lives. It is hard to change a person’s mind when they have thought a lot about the matter, and the matter is important to them.

When we have discourse here on Swizzbold, I want us to remember that. When someone comes on a show and has a discussion with me about a controversial topic, I think the expectation is that they’ll hear the facts and then change their minds. Or I’ll hear something new and change my mind. 

That’s unreasonable. Three Right Turns isn’t a safe space. But that doesn’t mean that safe spaces are bad. Safe spaces are very valuable, but they have an unfair reputation. When they are discussed by conservative, you’d think that they are places where fragile people who can’t bear to hear a differing opinion go to survive because they’d cry themselves to death if they’d ever hear a dissenting opinion.

Now, I’m not going to say that’s entirely unfair characterization. I’m not going to answer for every stupid thing a 19 year old has said and done on a college campus. But safe spaces are useful. How? 

Okay, let’s say you have a conference for climatologists each year, to go over the latest science, look at the research, talk about alternative forms of energy, carbon sequestration, you know, real climate science shit. And let’s say that to one of the panels Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Ben Shapiro crash it and tie up all the time asking level one dialog tree questions of the scientists involved. Are they going to stop what they’re doing and patiently answer these guys questions? No, they’re going to call security. They’re not there to answer questions from rando bad faith tv personalities and intellectuals. Violla, they’ve just created a safe space; a space where it’s safe to talk about climate science in a productive, positive way.

Three Right Turns, is not a safe space. It’s not the wild west, either. I’m not going to invite a klansman on to explain their ideas on how a more homogenous society will solve all of our problems in this country. I’m not really interested in having a dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative on to explain how our markets aren’t free enough and the reason healthcare is so expensive in this country is government interference and blah blah blah. Watch CNN if you want to hear that stuff.

I think the line I’m trying to draw is right at the boundary between “real racism” and structural or institutional racism. I don’t want to debate a klansman. But I’ll have a discussion with people who don’t believe racism is alive and well in America. These people are enabling racism, and probably harbor a lot of at least unconscious racial bias. Hell, most of us do. I think the world would be a helluva better place if academics created a new term for structural racism. Like, we have supernovas, and we have novas. From an astrophysics point of view, you would not want to be in the solar system of a star going through either process, but they’re not the same thing.

Maybe we should have called being in the KKK or supporting segregation or wearing a nazi arm band as “super racism” and the structural and systemic racism could just be racism. You know? Because right now the ambiguity allows people to have ridiculous conversations. “Black people can’t be racist towards white people.” That’s dumb. Black people can use slurs, black people can be prejudiced towards whites, black people can harbor thoughts of black racial supremacy. Black people can, in my new parlance, be super racists. 

But they can’t be systemically racists towards whites. They just can’t. Not in America. Maybe in South Africa. Maybe in America 200 years from now when whites are the minority and the previous minorities shit on our rights the same way white people have historically shit on theirs. Maybe then we can have black Americans be structurally racist, but right now? It’s literally not possible. How would it be? They are like 13% of the population.

Well what about South Africa, that you just mentioned? I think the highest percentage of white people living in South Africa was just under 10%, and most of us understand the horrors of Apartheid. But you know that doesn’t really apply to the black people living in America, where they hold few of the levers of power. If Africa had, say, colonized Europe and the Americas in the last 500 years, you might have an argument, but you know, that’s not how history goes. 

But here again, this last weekend, I was on step two of a dialog tree with a person who took exception with the idea that everyone in America is racist because we elected a black president just a few years ago. Now, that’s not an unreasonable position to take, right? It’s wrong, but it’s not by itself, pants on head crazy. So I said something like, “most of the time when you hear people say something like ‘everyone in America is racist” they don’t literally mean they are racists in the sense that they literally hate black people” and he came back with “let me make sure I understand you, you’re saying when people say all people are racists they aren’t saying all people are racists.”

Now, this is a crucial point. He thinks he’s on to something. He’s got me in this logical vice grip, right. He thinks this is ridiculous, that you can use a word with a meaning different than what is commonly understood. But then I say, “yeah, you know how like how when a person who is technically proficient says the word “CPU” and they mean an actual chip within a computer, but when someone who doesn’t understand computers says “CPU” they mean the big squarish box where you plug the keyboard and mouse and monitor into?”

But, even as I was trying to explain this, I had 4 or 5 people in my timeline all saying variations of “ENOUGH OF THIS DISCOURSE SHIT! WHAT’S HE GOT IN HIS CUP? HUH? I BET IT’S BLOOD! IS IT BLOOD?!?”

And then the structurally racist person fucked off with a bunch of hand wringing and flowery shit about “why can’t people have reasonable conversations about things in this country and what a shame it all is.”

Now, it would be entirely factual to scream back: “BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE DYING BECAUSE OF YOUR UNINFORMED BULLSHIT.” But would it be productive? 

And I can’t say if I would have gotten anywhere with the “CPU vs CPU” argument. But maybe. Maybe next year. Or five years from now, or 10. Maybe I’d never know. And maybe he’d raise his kids with a better understanding of the world. I know there are certainly people out there who never knew that patiently engaging with a backwards young man with reactionary ideas about gay people would mean he’d take his son to PRIDE 20 years later. 

Look, I’m not saying you gotta be charitable to hateful racists. Especially if you’re a minority, it’s exhausting. But you know, the people in my timeline being all like “WHAT’S IN YOUR BLOOD CUP, YOU FUCKING CANNIBAL?”… mostly liberal white guys. Maybe they’re suffering from racial exhaustion too. I don’t know. 

When I have people on Three Right Turns, I’m certainly not expecting to change their minds. I’m not expecting them to change my mind, not necessarily, though there are plenty of areas where my mind is open to change. I’ve gotten emails about that Terf Wars episode, right? And wow, the subreddit was really taken with the topic, and I got to say, most of the discourse was really positive. But a lot of people asked me, why didn’t you use this tactic or that tactic? Or some people who are gender critical themselves didn’t like the fact that I didn’t go into the debate with an “open mind”, or that I didn’t consider this point or that point. I mean, it was a 2 hour conversation. We could have talked 8 and not considered every dialog branch in every tree you could possibly have about the intersection of feminism and gender theory. 

But here’s the thing. Is one conversation with a liberal woman where the topic is, broadly speaking, “What does it even mean to be a woman, anyway?” going to change her mind? What were we just saying? It’s hard to change a person’s mind when they are personally invested in a topic. 

Well, I’m sure Nat is very invested in the idea of being a woman. I mean, she’s got to be more invested in that idea than I was in the idea of god, and look how long that transition took me. She’s been one her whole life, it connects her to women’s past and current struggles, it unites her with her fellow women, she’s intimately aware of the dangers of being a woman, how men can abuse women, the whole works. It must be unsettling, to say the least, to consider the idea that a person who is of the oppressor class (That’s men, btw. Sorry, we’ve spent most of civilization subjugating women. Please send questions for follow-up to 3RT@swizzbold.com) can go through some process and become a woman. Especially if that process is “I declare that I am a woman.” My god, if a man can become a woman by declaring it, with no other mental, emotional, or physical changes… Yeah, I can see that being frightening. 

So we have a topic that women spend a lot of time thinking about, an issue that personally involves them. And if that were not enough, there is a lot of open hostility between the two camps here. But it’s also tough, because this is an issue between two minority groups under-represented in society, women and transpeople. 

How long has trans rights been a big issue in western society? I feel like it really took off since gay marriage was legalized in the US in 2015. But obviously transpeople have been around for longer than that. I started getting interested in social justice topics about 10 years ago, but it was a few years after that that I started learning more about trans issues. And it was less than 3 years ago before I even heard the term non-binary. This is pretty cutting edge stuff for society.

It took me 15 years from my first doubt to making a change in my life when it came to my regressive religious views. How long will we give gender critical people to come around? How long will we give people who grew up in 99.9 percent white areas to come around to the idea that structural racism is something that exists in America? 

Now, this is a separate issue from asking how long trans people should have to wait for legal protections and rights? It’s separate from asking how long black people should have to continue to wait for equality and dignity? But they are connected, because the faster society moves towards progressive ideas and empathy the faster positive change can happen, and the more society digs in its heels, or takes a frightening turn towards reactionary backlash. And we all play a role in that. Gay marriage was legalized five years ago, just a few weeks ago the supreme court ruled that you couldn’t be fired from your job just because you happen to be gay or trans. And yet, with this progress, we still have people with homophobic, and transphobic views out there. The legal protections and rights are here and more are still to come, but what do we do with the people not on board? When do you write them off? 

If trans people want to be all “fuck terfs”, okay, I get that, and if feminist lesbians want to say “fuck off” to those that insist they have to be sexually attracted to people possessing penises, I totally understand that. Black people can be like fuck these “all lives matter” white people.

But if we’re not personally invested in an issue, if we have the luxury of being able to read a tone-deaf comment from someone ignorant of trans or racial or economic or any kind of equality and not just instantly PISS BLOOD, and you have personal capital with the person making these tone deaf comments, maybe you can use that power for good? Maybe you don’t have to jump straight to the “WHAT’S IN YOUR BLOOD CUP, YOU FUCKING PIG?” kill shot? I mean you can, god knows I’m not exactly proud of every interaction I’ve had with a person on the internet or real life. But if we have the emotional capacity to engage in good faith with another person, if we have the patience to not expect a 180 degree turn, if we know that it can take reasonable people of good will years to change their minds (if they do it at all), if we can exploit these small windows where people haven’t made up their mind one way or another, and we can inoculate them with good information before they’re exposed to terms and arguments that will either deceive them with bullshit or press every defensive, reactionary button in their bodies, if we can get to these people before they hear “eat the rich” or “black people can’t be racist” or “white fragility” or “people are being fired for saying biological sex is real”, that’s a gift we can give to that person, and to society. And this isn’t just white people’s burden. If you’re cis, doesn’t matter if you’re man or women, or the color of your skin, educate yourself and fight the good fight. If you’re straight, same deal. If you have a privilege use that shit to disarm, deescalate, defuse, and educate. 

I certainly want the 3RT podcast, and by extension, the Swizzbold subreddit, to be a place where we can help people in this way. Swizzbold isn’t a place to lose your cool. It’s not a place to grandstand. It’s a place to build empathy and educate. It’s a place to organize and strategize. If you’re not in a place to do that, sit back, take a break, and let others do the heavy lifting. Because people can go lots of places on the internet and get dismissed as racist and sexist and bigoted for essentially being a few years out of step with the Overton window or being born in a place or time where they weren’t well educated on issues that at the end of the day have little direct bearing on them but, of course, have tremendous impacts on society at large, which does impact them. Help them connect the dots. 

And I think we’re getting there. For every time I’ve come to a Swizzbold thread and thought “whoo boy, things could have gone a lot better here,” I’ve gone to five where I have been really proud of the way people handled themselves and difficult questions and situations. 

Help each other. If you see people arguing past each other, try to be the translator.  That’s the mission here. And that’s what I’d like to see in the community. I know some of us know more things than others, and we all have our biases and blind spots. I want you to help me with those things, and help each other, and we can all learn and grow at the same time.

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