We humans find it nearly impossible to change our minds once we’ve come to believe something. This is because during most of the 400,000+ years of our evolutionary history there was rarely any need to change our minds.
Once we knew how to nap a flint, those flints got napped. Once we knew how to track a gazelle, those gazelles got tracked. Once we knew how to make fire, fires got made. Life was simple and in consequence so are our brains.
Unfortunately our modern world is complex and simple brains don’t really handle complexity very well. We especially don’t handle changing situations.
To see the consequences of simple brains meeting complex situations let’s look at why the NRA in the USA and Brexit in the UK have morphed from embodying vaguely plausible ideas to being harbingers of terrible destruction.
The National Rifle Association began in 1871 as an association intended to represent people who went out shooting rifles for sport (hence the R in NRA). Back in those days a lot of people shot animals not to bolster inadequate personalities and shrinking egos but to supplement the family’s food supply. And back in those days handguns were quite rare.
Brexit meanwhile began as a way for a small number of unscrupulous politicians to elevate themselves from obscurity by playing on the simplicity of older and less educated voters. Early on, Brexiteers believed there was absolutely no chance of Brexit ever happening and therefore they felt free to tell the most outrageous lies and make the most impossible promises, secure in their belief that they’d never have to deliver on any of them.
There is, however, an inevitability that is created by sheer existence alone. Once an organization exists those within it have an ever-greater interest in ensuring its survival and growth. As the saying goes, “they take on a life of their own” and over time momentum builds up far beyond anything ever envisaged by the founders.
Thus the NRA began to deploy its members’ dues in pursuit of buying political influence, and Brexiteers began to bluster and bully more forcefully simply to show that they were not to be ignored. Over time these two strategies inevitably led to the NRA owning most of the US Republican Party and the Brexiteers disrupting the UK Conservative Party.
The NRA hadn’t originally been about defending gun ownership at any cost, nor about defending the mass spread of handguns (which, sensationalist mass shootings notwithstanding, actually cause the vast majority of daily gun deaths). Brexit was originally sold to the gullible masses as easy, cost-free, and something that would instantly result in massive additional wealth.
But in both cases, driven by the inevitable logic of ever-more, the NRA became an organization dedicated to ensuring that despite 33,000 gun deaths per year, year in and year out, the USA would forever be precluded from thinking about the fact this is an insane way to live. Brexiteers were told that well, yes, there may be some “bumps in the road” but even if the UK economy does go into a protracted recession and the UK Pound has already collapsed, Brexit is still essential because anyone opposing it is “the enemy of the people.”
And at every stage of these twin transformations, their supporters have gone along quietly and adopted the new Official Position as soon as it was spoon-fed to them.
Merely because we humans find it nearly impossible to change our minds about our beliefs.
And so today NRA supporters argue that 33,000 gun deaths per year and the traumatization of 330 million people is a perfectly acceptable price to pay in order to defend an insane idea. They argue that the 2nd Amendment is equivalent to a religious text, set in metaphorical stone, rather than a poorly-worded addendum that was always supposed to be altered as times changed.
And so today Brexit supporters argue that even if the UK breaks into four separate nations, there’s a massive and long-lasting economic collapse, there are shortages not only of food but also of essential medicines and supplies, the UK Pound dives to parity with the US dollar, and society is torn apart by racist violence, Brexit is still the only possible way forward.
We call this phenomenon “the boiling frog.” The idea is that if you put a frog into hot water it will jump out immediately in order to save its own life. But if you put a frog into cold water and then heat that water slowly, the frog will remain in situ and be boiled alive.
From the outside, supporting the NRA and Brexit is clearly stupid. There are precisely zero real-world reasons to do so and a great many real-world reasons not to do so. But from the inside, within the heads of NRA members and Brexiteers, it’s the outside world that is the threat, the enemy, the opposition that must be crushed at all costs. Because otherwise those people would have to change their minds. They’d have to accept they’ve been gulled by the most simple-minded lies, conned by blustering charlatans.
And who wants to admit they’ve been taken for a ride? That they’ve been played as the patsy for all these years?
So by the logic of keeping on keeping on, millions of ordinary US citizens contribute to the daily gun death toll and millions of ordinary British citizens contribute to tearing their own society apart.
Because for these people, madness makes total sense. There was never a moment when the temperature of the water changed rapidly enough for them to notice.
And so their brains were boiled alive.