An Inflection Point

I just watched one of those “viral” videos of people protesting–almost rioting–against a mandate that they wear a mask. If I were being kind, I would say that their complaints were uninformed. More accurately, their commentaries ranged from stupid to selfish to deranged. 

If protesting the wearing of masks to prevent transmission of a virus was the only symptom of American irrational behavior these days, that would be concerning enough, but these people are also, clearly, Trump voters. And for the past four years, I have struggled to understand the psychology of people who can look at this aggressively ignorant President with his pathetic make-up, listen to his inarticulate word-salads, read his childish and ungrammatical tweets, and think “Yes! That’s someone who should represent my country abroad, and control the nuclear codes.”

The United States is at an inflection point. Where we go from here will depend upon how we respond to the pandemic, to climate change, and to unacceptable levels of economic inequality, among other challenges–and whether those responses improve our society or further debase it will depend upon whether we decisively eject Trump, his appalling administration and his GOP enablers. 

That, in turn, will depend upon the number of voters who think wearing a mask deprives them of “freedom” and believe the ludicrous buffoon in the White House is doing a great job.

Political science research has convincingly tied Trump support to racism, and that relationship has become quite clear–but when you think about it, the persistence of so much virulent racism despite some 50 years in which society has (slowly) changed, and during which Black and White Americans have increasingly come to know each other as individuals is a puzzle of its own.

Why are these people so angry and hateful? Why does the loss of unearned social dominance enrage them? What do they fear?

It’s true that bigotry increases in tough economic times, but many of these people are financially comfortable. It’s also true that these attitudes are more prevalent among the  uneducated, but I know a lot of people who never went to college who are “salt of the earth” and I have also encountered plenty of racists with advanced degrees. 

One of Paul Krugman’s email letters (I don’t have a link) suggested to me that the answer may lie in an inability to live with ambiguity. Krugman was discussing Trump’s dismissal of science in general and climate change in particular, and noted that epidemiology, climatology and  economics all require the modeling of complex systems in which no prediction ends up being exactly right. Certainty eludes us.

Science and technology have created a world of constant change and multiple shades of gray.

The scientific method rests on consistent efforts to falsify prior results. Political ideologies and economic theories inform legislation that in practice often generates unintended consequences and sends us back to the drawing board. Religious diversity challenges fundamentalism. Technology continually upends everything from transportation to communication. All of these influences combine to open new intellectual vistas and cast doubt on the old– and that process inevitably changes the culture.

As I tell my students, the two phrases I hope they use more often after leaving my class are “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

A significant percentage of humans evidently cannot deal with an environment characterized by ambiguity and change, with a lack of “bright lines” and universally-accepted certainties–and as a result, they reject the possibility that people who look, love or worship differently from themselves have as much claim to humanity and respect as they do. 

In November, I guess we’ll find out how numerous they are.


  1. I don’t believe the problem is ambiguity. It’s factual. White dominance is declining numerically, that’s an undisputed fact. And the so-called white population is reacting accordingly.

    So instead of denial, we have to find a way to stop the ERUPTION before it becomes catastrophic.

  2. And our inflection point has been further, and probably forever, affected by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg last night. She has been the torch bearer for justice for all throughout her career and Trump’s target to block justice by replacing her on the Supreme Court. Will the few Republicans in the Senate who have SAID they are against appointing a new Justice at the end of this election year stand strong or will they cave in to Trump and McConnell’s knees on their necks?

    Race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or wearing of masks to protect lives; what would those protesting masks today do about my generation when the Health Department posted a large yellow Quarantine sign on the front of their home for measles, mumps and chicken pox? Those signs meant only immediate family allowed in and the infected child was not allowed outside their doors.

    “In November, I guess we’ll find out how numerous they are.”

    And we will find out what they have done!

  3. Your point: “I have struggled to understand the psychology of people who can look at this aggressively ignorant President with his pathetic make-up, listen to his inarticulate word-salads, read his childish and ungrammatical tweets, and think “Yes! That’s someone who should represent my country abroad, and control the nuclear codes.” says most of the explanation. These poor folks don’t listen, they don’t read and they don’t think. In other words they are Trump and he is them.

    Trump is an outright racist. Always has been. So are his followers. They’ve kept their rage, hate and bigotry bottled up for decades while teaching their children their “values”. I saw these folks coming when I taught science in public schools.

    “Mr. Turner, I really enjoyed your class and learned a lot, but my minister says science teachers are the spawns of Satan.”

    Or: “Mr. Turner, I learned a lot, but don’t worry, Jesus loves you even if you don’t.”

    “What? How do you know I don’t love Jesus – I’m guessing that’s what you meant?”

    “Well, you teach evolution and that goes against the Bible.”

    “Well, I’m no Biblical scholar, but I don’t remember reading anything about that in the Bible. In fact, the word ‘evolved’ didn’t show up in the lexicon of science until Darwin ended his book with that word. Wasn’t the Bible put together a couple thousand years before that?”

    The girl just shrugged and walked away. So, yes. The mask deniers are willfully ignorant, but they’ve had a lot of help staying that way.

  4. Yep… “tolerance for ambiguity” is a key idea in how psychology understands maturity. Basically, having simple and clear ideas is comforting – you know what’s going on and how you should act. Simple heuristics like, “girls all do X and boys all do Y” let you know what you should do and what you can expect from others. Protects you against anxiety.

    But, of course, when the world doesn’t cooperate, you’ve either got to expand your worldview (improve your tolerance for ambiguity), or, far easier and far simpler, punish the folks who made you feel anxious , demand that they stop, and try to force them to stop (stay intolerant of ambiguity).

    The mere existence of people who challenge an overly-simplistic worldview is existentially terrifying to those who hold that worldview. And rage is far safer-feeling than terror. Freud said “passive into active,” Simon and Garfunkel said, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.”

  5. This is the collective madness that is the GOP these days.

    As we know, mask wearing protects the wearer some, but it protects everyone else far more. For that reason it’s not about “personal responsibility” or “individual liberty”- it’s about responsibility to everyone else. People are losing their lives, their livelihood, their child’s education, etc. because “individuals” don’t want to wear masks.

    And of course as folks passionately protest the “intrusion on individual liberty” that comes with wearing a mask during a pandemic, Donald Trump and his allies are busy dismantling the rule of law and democracy in very real and substantive ways… and the GOP is mostly silent.

  6. I have often thought that the virus itself is driving the behavior of humans to unmask and gather together in large groups. Studies have examined the effect of certain fungus in rats that leads to the virus being spread, and rats with fungus in their brains reminds me of much behavior I see in Trumpists…
    And regarding your point about the racism of Trump and his followers, I agree with Marv Kramer above about the demographic decline of White men, and would add that this seems to me to be the last desperate attempt to remain in power.
    Another excellent essay!

  7. Why are these people so angry and hateful? Because they’ve been given permission to be so. By a considerable number of elected leaders, so-called religious leaders, and an emerging media/entertainment/internet industry over the last 40 years, including their biggest cheerleader – the current occupant.

    We know for a fact there were approximately 63 million Americans who were angry and hateful enough to believe that TRE45ON would make a good POTUS, and I’ll bet that he can take between 55-60 million of them to the bank on Nov 3.

    The challenge for the rest of us is to do anything and everything we can to contain the growth of that segment of our population. I personally do not believe that accommodating them, or compromising with them, or meeting in the middle with them is a viable solution. They must be shown that there is a better path. If Dems win the White House and the Senate in November, they will have yet another great opportunity to show the world that the American Experiment is still alive and well and is responsive to the needs of a great majority of its citizens.

    I truly hope we have this opportunity after November and I remain cautiously optimistic that the Dem majority will drive long-term structural changes in to our civic and economic institutions that will slowly temper that anger and hate. Their job just got a lot tougher after last night’s passing of Justice Ginsburg. Future legislation will need to be as bullet-proof as possible.

    And if the 6-3 SCOTUS conservative majority become a right-wing activist cabal then Dems must go nuclear and prepare to expand and pack the court with moderate-progressive jurists. But will Dems have the spine to do what we KNOW their counterparts in the GOP would do in a heartbeat if the shoes were on their feet? I’m not confident they will, but simply threatening to do so would go a long way to keep SCOTUS in line.

  8. Thank you, Aimee!!

    Personal growth requires the ability to reflect on one’s self. I always run into life’s challenges, but I’ve learned when there is something amiss in me, that it’s another growth opportunity. Something in me requires change – an idea, belief, or action. The world doesn’t change to accommodate me.

    After being away from my high school classmates, I thought Facebook would be a great place to connect with them again. My high school was 98% white, and we all had the mentality that we were better than the kids in the city schools, and people of color were all thugs.

    I lived in Orlando and Miami for most of my adult life and faced my racism repeatedly, especially in Miami. “Why can’t they speak English since they live in MY country?”

    Decades later, with the help of FB, I discovered that most of my old classmates still have their racist beliefs. They all want the changes made via liberalism to be rolled back to the way it used to be so they don’t have to change to adapt to our new world. God forbid you mention globalism or one people on one planet. #MAGA

    All the opportunities they had to grow were resisted. Instead of changing themselves, they want the world to change back. This is why they are so angry — the world hasn’t behaved the way they’d like.

    Self-centeredness. Closed-mindedness. Fearful. Ego manifestations.

    What I found interesting is when challenging their beliefs, they couldn’t articulate or support why they believed that way. Instead, they threatened me with violence. That was the primary response across the board. Is it any wonder they all want to carry their guns around with them?

    That’s what they are doing now—attacking and destroying all perceived enemies that have allowed the world to change. Even better, demonize them first. The religions haven’t helped much here either since they don’t adapt.


  9. There are many factors at play, and some have already been discussed here. I contend that fundamentalist Christian religious teachings play a part. These teachings can glorify blind faith and denigrate curiosity, reason, intellectualism, investigation, etc. What would you expect from a person taught from the beginnings of sentience to avoid questioning their own beliefs, to believe that a god is controlling everything around them, and that agents of the devil are out to get them? It’s not surprising to me at all that they tend to believe conspiracy theories, fear social change, and distrust “others.”

    And of course they distrust scientists and intellectuals. First, they fear that their children will fall away from the faith when they go away to school, but second, and more importantly, scientists are the antithesis of everything they’ve been taught. It’s the job of a scientist to question and investigate and disavow pronouncements by “authorities.”

    As usual, this comes down to education, and in this case, the poisoned mind that a religious education can produce. Sheila’s own stated goals for her classes would be exactly the kind of situation they’d fear.

    P.S. I believe in every person’s right to believe what they like and practice their own religion (as long as it stays private and personal and doesn’t infringe the rights of others). That doesn’t mean I have to like how badly it affects some of those people.

  10. I always heard “you don’t have to stick your hand in fire to know that it’s going to burn”, but it seems that people actually have to feel/experience the burn for themselves to appreciate what it is. We’ve been warned that Covid can be a death sentence and/or have long term adverse health consequences, and yet many are rejecting a self empowering simple method of protection. They’re turning over their real power in this pandemic to an idea of American independence & rights that is being generated by “herd mentality’. I agree it’s a way those Americans fight their fears, and one that isn’t beneficial to anyone. We’re in an inflection point (social evolution) that would benefit from collaboration of all fields in an un fundamental way. Thanks to Justice RBG for her public service and advancement for the rights of women in US.

  11. John H. captures very well, the willful ignorance that bible thumper’s must cling to. I suppose they see their “faith” as a life preserver to hold onto no matter what, in the stormy seas of life.

    Science is built to challenge, it is built to explore, this leads into dangerous intellectual territory for the bible thumper’s. At what point is the bible and other “holy books” simply a figurative story vs absolute total fact. The bible thumper’s must accept the bible as fact especially when it clashes with science. Thus, they cling all the harder to to their faith their “life preserver”.

    The Trumpet realizes the danger of critical thinking that his followers fear so much: From The Guardian:

    “Leftwing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” Trump declared in a speech on Thursday. He went on to condemn critical race theory and the 1619 Project, the New York Time’s Pulitzer-prize winning initiative to reframe American history by placing the consequences of slavery at the center. “The crusade against American history is toxic propaganda [that] will destroy our country,” he announced. Per Trump, the only way to save the United States is to revise its history entirely; to gloss over violent colonialism and slavery and pretend America doesn’t have a bigoted bone in its body. Which is why, Trump said, he is setting up a 1776 Commission to teach students “about the miracle of American history”. Well, “miracle” is certainly one way to describe something completely made-up.

    Whenever Trump comes out with an outrageous plan there are always people rushing to point out that he won’t actually be able to follow through with it; that checks and balances will stop him. But Trump has already stormed through many of these checks and balances; he’s already normalized behavior that would have brought down any other president. If he gets another term there are no limits to what he might do; hello re-education camps, goodbye reproductive rights! And that, ultimately, is what his speech on Thursday was about; it wasn’t so much about American history as it was about America’s future. It was a promise to his base that he will Make America White Again.

  12. Todd: Good analysis. The “demonize them first” is especially pereptive. We saw and see that daily with Trump’s putdowns of intelligence, the FBI, DOJ, and anyone and everyone who stand in his way to dictatorship. Institutionalism is the enemy of authoritarianism and can be used to slow the pace of change as well, so wannabe dictators must first trash the existing institutional order in order to ride in on their white horses in Sir Walter Scott fashion and rescue the damsels and royalty in the castle from the socialist serfs and their demands for change.

    I agree with the idea of change as inexorable but that is not the issue; the issue is rather how wel can fashion the pace of change without undue damage to society in the process, and we may be at that point of decision now, as shown by the presence of white armed militia at state capitals and even the homes of politicians, a resistance to change via intimidation and suggested violence by those who want the status quo of race, for instance, to remain intact.

    As Sheila suggests, status quo exponents are having trouble in coming to grips with the ambiguities in both the presence and pace of change, but like Darwin’s observation of change in the biological world, change over time is going to happen whatever the views of its forced participants. Thus those who were comfortable in the Roman world, the Holy Roman Empire, European colonialism and slavery in our antebellum world only some 150 years ago have been swept aside by the tides of change, so it’s going to happen. The trick is to manage its pace with a view toward holding the society together as we move through this social, political, economic and technological maze. Our predecessors have historically succeeded in their day and I think we will in time succeed as well. We can begin to pace change in earnest this November 3, 2020.

  13. Thanks for saying fundamentalist Christian and not just Christian because I am a progressive UU Christian. If people are not willing to wear masks they dishonor the sacrifices my parents and their generation made during WW II. African-American men have often sacrificed their lives for this country despite its continued systems of racism.

    To the white men who refuse to wear a mask, I say it’s time to “man up” and act like an American patriot who is willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good like all the men and women who died in WW II and all the people on the home front who made sacrifices to defeat the fascist threat to democracy.

    Many of Trump’s followers are stuck in black and white morality, all or nothing thinking. They are not open to positive change because they feel existentially threatened. They see immigrants and people of color as the threat while they ignore climate change and the destruction of their jobs by AI. The people who live in rural areas also have very limited access to health care due to the closure of rural hospitals. They seem to think they can reverse that with the restoration of manufacturing jobs. I don’t think so. The question is, how do we bring them to the table so they feel more included, so they feel that some of their real concerns are being addressed? We won’t do it by ignoring them.

    If Biden is going to win, he will HAVE to suggest policies and changes in the economy that will help decrease the growing rate of unemployed peole in rural areas. He will have to convince them that his infrastructure and green jobs will actually help them get jobs with a good income.

  14. “In 1982, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. And by 1982, it was doubling every 12-13 months. In retrospect, this may sound a little quaint since experts now estimate that by 2020, human knowledge will double every 12 hours. But the real question is, “How is it making us smarter?””


    The bottom line of this imprecise measure is that we are each rapidly falling behind in what we know compared to what’s potentially knowable because it is known by the leading expert in each narrow field of knowledge.

    That makes life for the rest of us more ambiguous and I posit that has a different consequence depending on who. Some just rely more on experts and take advantage of the availability of expert knowledge. Others react by going extremist into the world of black and white inadequately nuanced culture based memories rather than trying to take advantage of what they could know if better informed.

    This is war between obsolete culture and informed consent that makes advertising on social and entertainment media that now saturates our environment so effective and devastating.

    I personally can’t even imagine where this divide leads but looking back over the previous decades the chaos that it has created so far is clear.

  15. In the months of February and March the world health organization actually said that the virus was not airborne. Also people are being told that masks do not stop the virus. Although partially this is true the virus does travel on water droplets which the mask actually would stop. The real problem with this pandemic is that it has been politicized. Most major corporations are fully behind wearing masks in the workplace and get full explanations of why they need to be worn.
    Humans no matter want their religious or political background tend to be upset when their personal freedoms are infringed upon. This is where education comes to play part without politicizing or arguing for or against something Because it is attached to a person and or a candidate. This is another reason why people tend to react even upon good information even to the point of rejecting it Today I do not see true journalism anywhere between any news agency nor do I see true representation through our representatives that are interested in our welfare only in the power that they may secure.
    Once we overcome the politicizing of mask wearing we might actually begin to concentrate on the welfare of the community at large

  16. A few days ago, when I started out writing the Ogden on Politics column analyzing Trump against the 50 pathological traits of a pathologically cult leader, I thought he might have 20 or so traits. I was shocked when going through the list I found he had 45 of the 50 traits. I now am even more convinced Trumpism is a cult of personality.

  17. My pastor years ago included similar comments in a sermon. Fundamentalist religions esteem absolutism. Adherents appreciate being told what to believe and following it. Diversifying from those absolutes is equated with unfaithfulness and sin.

    Still other religions encourage us to constantly re-examine, challenge, and grow our faith through all the shades of gray that the holy books and life itself present. Those challenges live up to the term and can be a burden to deny or avoid OR a reason to reflect, search, learn, and grow – even when difficult and painful.

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