Monday, March 25, 2019

Thinking the Unthinkable: A Challenge for the Botkins

I thought about the Botkin daughters today – and it's approximately six weeks since I received their letter. As cognitive dissonance teaches us, all people find it uncomfortable when others believe unpleasant things about them, and it occurred to me that dissonance itself is something that I definitely share in common with these young women. 

I suspect that I might also share a strong penchant for what I've called an Optimism Bias in the general sense, but my variety actually falls into a tighter category called naïve realism. They claim that if I would have addressed my criticisms with them directly, as reasonable people together, we could come together and understand one another. The naïve realism bias rests on two intertwined ideas: 1.) that we are rational beings with a reasonably objective grasp of the reality around us, and 2.) that other reasonable people who share our understanding and information will agree with us. I was their age when this flawed belief failed me miserably. I would show my heart to people, and I'd have more of a 'pearls and swine' result. I expected an embrace but was torn instead.

I don't know if that's the case with the Daughters Botkin or not. I don't expect to get a 'Thank You' note for changing the blog that named them in the title into Enmeshed for Jesus with a footnote that I was right about naive realism. But I understand it. I respect their optimism – if that is indeed what it is.

Unique Cultural Warriors or Great Commission Retreads?

Along with the emotional hook of 'names and faces' comes the idea that all of the Botkin children have been told their whole lives that they are unique and special with a greater calling to be leaders – an even greater 'peculiar people' than the rank and file Christians around them 'should' be in this world. Just like we regular folks do, we draw an integral part of our identity from our history. At the same time, I know too well how well cognitive dissonance dovetails with our selfish, self-serving ways of remembering things. Our minds are so kind to us, and we rush to self-justification, just as I have done these past few weeks. 

The Botkins define themselves as spiritual warriors and champions because that's what their family taught them to believe. Along I come with alleged lies to challenge this defining feature of who they are, yet I consider that their perspective doesn't constitute a lie any more than my own does. I have the luxury of considering outside information – and if anyone truly wants to study the fallen nature of man, they have only to open a book about the research on the (un)reliability and subjectivity of memory. Our memory wields confabulation like a tyrant that serves to make us comfortable, all without our knowledge – until someone challenges us. It happens to all of us, and it is part of how the mind works and codes information to turn pieces of information into retrievable, multifaceted, and integrated knowledge which we might just be able to turn into wisdom.

The 'Illusion of Memory' always brings to mind a notable example for me. One of the kindest, dynamic, and brilliant women I've ever met came up to my mom when I was volunteering with her at her job. I always think of her because she talked about her vivid memory of my mother's kelly green dress and matching shoes and pocketbook when she showed up for her job interview. (I was with my mom and picked out the purse myself. She was dressed in navy blue from head to toe.) That woman was lovable and loved my mom, and for what is probably a good reason, she sees green in her memory. If she could get something like that wrong, why couldn't I? Almost four decades later, I remember it because it became an anchor for what I would later learn about the malleability of our memory. 

Today, I can think of no better example of cognitive dissonance as the Botkins' claim that I've published lies about their father. Though I don't like the colorful character's politics, that Pat Moynihan could come up with some good one-liners, and I love his quote, featured here in a meme. We are entitled to our opinions, but facts are non-negotiable. Spin them however you like, but as Churchill once said, the truth is incontrovertible, and no matter what you do, it still stands to bear witness to reality. How do you come to terms with what might actually be facts that your father is a spin-doctor?

Those adult children have some heavy lifting to do by way of cognitive dissonance. How can real people with real faces who knew their father and his family forty or fifty years ago be wrong about their extended family? How can reasonable, respectable Christians with excellent reputations have knowledge of the religious group that their parents joined, believing it to be aberrant? How could their father's 'business associate' for decades be considered a cult leader? Their father told them that he worked for a think tank or perhaps a lobbying agency. How did he pay the bills if he spent so much time on college campuses, talking to co-eds? He may call that cultural activism, but people in the real world called it cult recruitment.

But that is the nature of memory, and I'm sure that Geoffrey Botkin believes that his personal account is accurate. I don't know how he gets around the story of his original family as Marxist unless someone voted as a Democrat or something. I came from a family of atheists, agnostics, and other assorted non-church goers for the most part, and they were all Democrats. In my own Christian Reconstructionist days, do you think that I didn't tell them that I thought that both two parties were "Socialist Party A and Socialist Party B"? (That was a great Howard Phillips line – and at the time, I thought that I "set them straight for Jesus.” Yeah, right.) Good spin doctors are skillful, and as memory works, if we rehearse an idea enough, our mind will accommodate a falsehood as a fact. 

I pray for the Botkin Family – that they will be able to work through what has got to be complicated information that flies in the face of what they know and believe. I hope that some of it does trouble them, and I hope that they take the time to learn more about the trappings of their humanity. One of the only identifiable conditions that are tenuously considered to be a predictor of someone who might join a cult is someone who experiences great distress when faced with ambiguity. Those who can't tolerate it often find solace in a totalist group because they offer ways to resolve ambiguity with black and white answers. If we don't look to external solutions in ideologies, our tyrant brains create solutions for us through the "foot soldiers of confabulation, distortion, and forgetting." 

The discussion of how others have tackled their own false beliefs, I'll reserve for another day. It deserves it's own hearing, as do the different ways in which we humans deal with dissonance as both victim and offender as another tributary of the Botkins' dilemma. (Hint: Adam started doing plenty of it in the Garden of Eden.) Perhaps in the meanwhile, the Botkins might find cause to explore their family history beyond their immediate family of origin.  I don't envy them. 

Further Reading: