The How to Think Series for Political Survival – Part 1: Malignant Trust

It’s no secret that Robert Rapplean (otherwise known as my husband) and I love to collaborate on projects. We met while working for the same company and, after a scandalous romance resulting in one of us getting fired, eventually settled down to co-produce some podcasts, run a gubernatorial campaign, lead a Batleth team, develop and test a better Batleth, and raise some socially-responsible and politically-savvy offspring (this project is still in progress). And those are just some of the highlights in an incomplete list of our ongoing adventures.

Given this propensity, it should come as no surprise that we have decided to take turns writing articles for this new series in which we will offer our (sage? uninvited? well-practiced? blasphemous?) advice on topics including:

  • Surviving the flood of information
  • Navigating the landmines of misinformation
  • Resisting the mires of self-limiting sources
  • Avoiding the pitfalls of malignant trust

But first, why should we choose to share our thoughts on this topic? Doesn’t everyone already know how to think, or at least how to think the way they want to?

Political KeyholeThe answer is that although we, as a species, are generally taught what to think, few of us receive much formal or informal learning on how to think. Across cultures and from childhood into university and later in the world of corporate training, we are too often simply given the answers that the powers that be wish for us to have and to hold. Instead of being taught the skills — such as logic and critical thinking — to explore our informational options and figure out what to think for ourselves, we are simply spoon-fed facts and truths. Over time, we regress from being the small, curious creatures we began as to the intellectually lazy, narrow-minded and even torpid beings who cease to question what they are told so long as they trust the source.

Few areas reveal the dangers of this learning gap so clearly as the vast and pervasive arena we know as politics.

But to back up a moment, what is trust? According to dictionary.com, the first definition is “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence.” The next definition is not quite as strong: “confident expectation of something; hope,” but still corresponds with my own perceptions of the word. Scroll down to the eighth listed definition, “something committed or entrusted to one’s care for use or safekeeping, as an office, duty, or the like; responsibility; charge,” and we get closer to trust that could reasonably be applied to businesses, government entities and individuals or groups holding official public positions such as judges and police officers. Then there is the definition Robert likes to share, particularly when applied to information or entities disseminating it, “the sense that you need not vet information or positions because of the source.”

Trust, in all of the definitions above, implies a lack of certainty and therefore an element of risk, albeit arguably a small one. “Complete trust” insinuates that the uncertainty and, hence, the risk, have been removed. But trust need not be complete to be dangerous.

Consider, as an example, the loyal congregant who enters in perfect love and perfect trust to the worshipping grounds of their lord, the televised presence that, at least to them, is the omniscient Fox (Faux) News. Completely ignoring the fact that we can and should blame the source when it engages in yellow journalism, spreading half-truths at best, blatant lies at worst, the recipient who trusts the source and therefore accepts what it tells them to think is equally at fault. This individual too often doesn’t just passively accept the misinformation; they often spread it, sometimes act upon it, and regularly vote with it.

Unfortunately, because of the position of trust their source holds with them, they don’t vet, challenge or question the information. They trust the source, so they trust the information, no matter what contrary data, facts, opinions and sources might be available, readily or otherwise (thank you, cognitive dissonance — see episode 5). Through years (or decades) of sluggish cognitive behavior and societal rewards for their lack of original thought, they have taken the easy path of blindly accepting what they are told to think.

And this is when trust, a seemingly benign behavior, becomes malignant.

A malignant trust is like a tumor. It feeds off of the trusting, making use of its energy and thoughts for its own ends. This is the terrain of modern politics, where the coin of the realm is the minds of the trusting. It is into this realm that we will attempt to provide understanding and, perhaps, a few solutions.
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Tiffany Rapplean is passionate about far too many interests, though her geeky husband, online gaming and cat fostering certainly bubble to the top of the list. She often surrounds herself with rather non-mainstream people and topics, only to forget later, usually mid-conversation, that some of her comfortable topics are more than a little inappropriate for polite society. Her old science and tech podcast, Intellectual Icebergs, has long been on hiatus, but her alter ego currently adores ranting about politics on Twitter.