Idea Smuggling

One thing that became quite clear with last month’s trucker convoy in Ottawa, is that idea smuggling is alive and well. The concept probably has an official term, but I am going to call it Idea Smuggling because it sounds catchy and secretive. In fact it has all the ingredients I need to lower the core concept’s barrier to entry into your mind! OK not really, but that is what idea smuggling is; finding a path into our minds that is unguarded and using that to get ideas into our heads without subjecting them to the usual scrutiny.

The easiest way to do this is to find something that we are uncompromising on. Let’s start with an example where Chuck wants to convince Alice that Bob’s ideas are dangerous.

Chuck: “Bob’s ideas are dangerous."
Alice: “They could have merit. I have to evaluate them individually. The only thing I write off immediately is racism."
Chuck: “Then I hate to be the one to inform you, but Bob … is a racist."

Granted conversations usually don’t proceed in this way. Generally people pick up on the cultural currents that cause the most visceral responses and then lead with that. A more likely conversation would be as follows.

Chuck: “Not to imply anything about Bob, but his ideas are racist."
Alice: “Oh dear, and he seems so nice on the surface."

Notice we are no longer really interested in Bob’s ideas. We are concerned for him at best and thinking about how we can counter his ideas, whatever they happen to be. I am not trying to pick on racism as something we shouldn’t care about. It works so well because most of us do care about it. Things that are unquestionably bad are what allow ideas to enter our minds without question. Charlatans are quick to pick up on where those holes lie and exploit them.

The smuggler’s tunnels in our minds vary from person to person but, at times of great division, the vast majority of people can be hacked by using one of two competing narratives that exist at the time. As some tunnels get over-used, they attract attention and people start looking a bit more critically at the payload. Calling someone a witch doesn’t elicit quite the same result today as it did in Seventeenth Century New England.

Last month is was Justin Trudeau implying that anyone who disagreed with him was an anti-science racist MAGA Nazi. This month everyone who anyone disagrees with is a possible Putin sympathizer. Next month it will change again if society collectively decides that something is unquestionably bad or good. But these are the broad examples and, after some short time, are easy to spot. There are more insidious and persistent holes into our mind. I am talking of course about the ideas so precious to us that they form the core of our identity.

We aren’t completely unaware of these, we joke about them even as they quietly hit home. “Real men wear Old Musk cologne.” “Good Catholics, the daily rosary types, are in short supply.” Things like this sound innocent enough, but they slowly move the needle about what it means to be a “people like me.” Consider Chuck trying to recruit Alice to his anti-government militia.

Chuck: “The Government’s lies sure make it hard to be a real catholic these days!"
Alice: “True."
Chuck: “Thank God for the Second Amendment. When they come for that we’ll see who is truly faithful."
Alice: “I … suppose."
Chuck: “O hey, some of us are going to offer a safety course at the gun range followed by a pot luck and bible study. You should come, after all prayer is the only weapon we have."
Alice: “Wait? How did this get so tangled?”

There are two conversations going on here, the exploit and the payload. The exploit conversation sounds like. “Being a catholic is hard. In times of trouble the faithful need to stand firm. Prayer is essential.” None of that is anything that Alice, someone really trying her best to be a good catholic, disputes. That is the bulk of what she hears. The payload conversation is a bit different and sounds like this. “The Government lies and is coming for our guns. Guns can protect us and you should join us in preparing to die for them.”

If someone said that outright the whole thing would be written of as pure insanity. Nothing in the catholic faith is specifically anti-government or pro gun. In fact it is a bit more “render unto Caesar” and “submit to authority.” “Turn the other cheek” and all that. But thinking critically, especially in the moment of conversation is difficult. This is why it is important to take a moment to review our interactions, news, and conversations with our own biases in mind, thinking hard about what the payload of the information was. Remove all the parts that you unquestionably agree with and see what is left. If there are no parts that you unquestionably agree with, ask why you are being so dishonest with yourself, because you definitely are being taken in.

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