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Ideological Inoculation

Andrew Badham 2018-04-17 12:02:40


When I was still in school, I remember being taken on a field trip to the Cradle of Humankind, to Maropeng. We were taken through the Sterkfontein caves to see the dig sites where archaeological treasures such as Mrs Ples were found, and then through the educational centre not far from that. In the educational centre, we were treated to the sight of the fossil remains of long extinct rodents, sabre-toothed cats, and of course, early hominids.

It is impossible to discuss hominids without broaching the subject of evolution, and as part of our tour through the educational centre, we saw a brief video detailing the evolution of man. When I saw the video, I was immediately upset. The topic immediately triggered a cognitive immune response which hindered me from really listening to what the video had to say. Why? Essentially, I had been ideologically inoculated.

I had been introduced to the idea of evolution already but from the perspective of people who disagreed with it. They had provided me with a description of the theory, but not with the detail and nuance that someone who agreed with it might have. It was a weaker, more easily refuted version of the idea, so naturally, I thought it was obviously wrong.

Worse, I became unsympathetic to anyone who held that idea to be true. I thought of them as stupid and ignorant. How could they possibly believe something so clearly false? In reality, I simply didn’t know their side of the story. The first piece of information I encountered on the topic told me it was false, so I was anchored to that idea. Nothing further could sway me. And if nothing could sway me, how could I possibly know whether I was wrong or right?  

When someone is given an inoculation in the medical world, a weakened version of the disease is administered to the patient. Their immune response has no trouble dispatching the enfeebled intruder. Once it defeats the pathogen, it learns how to defeat the same opponent in the future. So when the immune response encounters the pathogen in its true form, it is ready.

The same process happens for concepts, for ideologies and understandings of the world. We’re presented with a weakened version of an argument, a straw man if you will, and told how the argument is flawed. Our mind develops an immunity to the idea and defends itself against the encounter. When you finally do encounter the idea again, you don’t objectively hear the points of the argument. No, you feel angry, uncomfortable, or simply a quiet disbelief. You might not even be sure why you disagree with the argument, it just doesn’t feel right.

It’s that feeling that we need to be aware of. It’s the surest indication that we’ve been inoculated, that we’ve prejudiced an idea. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re wrong. Sometimes our preconceived notions are correct. However, it does indicate that we’re not really listening to opposing views. And, if we’re not really listening to thoughts that contradict our own, we certainly won’t recognise when we’re wrong. We will be as broken clocks, only right twice a day.