Joan studies political issues from all angles. She shops as if she were making an important purchase. Weighing pros and cons, she has formulated some thoughts and beliefs.
Kay also has thoughts and beliefs, but she’s an impulse shopper. She never thought about politics until she heard a slogan that made her feel warm and proud. Now she’s into politics, but just for fun. She “believes” and ‘thinks” whatever makes her feel like a badass. She shares hot selfies and “belief” memes. To her, they’re the same, just easy ornamentation for feeling cool.
There’s a problem with calling both Joan and Kay’s ideas, “beliefs” and “thoughts.” They’re as different as deciding to get married after years of dating and having a beer-goggle one-night stand. Granted, there are carefully married couples who divorce and occasional drunk one-night stands that turn into strong marriages. Kay could be right. But she’s unlikely to be.
The point is that “believe” and “think” are mighty broad terms for covering both Joan’s thoroughly shopped convictions and Kay’s impulse-buy ornamentation.
People will say “I think such-and-such” without thinking at all. Because they haven’t thought, they’re often insistent. They didn’t doubt before buying their ideas, so they’re not humbled by the challenge of deciding what’s right. Kay may shop more carefully among shoe alternatives than idea alternatives. It’s easy to weigh in hard on your ideas when alternative ideas don’t weigh on you.
These days, I make a point of not using the term “believe” or “think” when talking about the ideas that impulse shoppers ornament themselves in. I’ll say that Kay “acts like” or “feels.” I won’t say she thinks or believes.
To call impulse-buying “thinking” or “believing” is dangerously enabling. Psychopaths don’t think or believe. They do whatever feels good in the moment. You don’t ask a psychopath what they really believe. Belief is the wrong term for what they’re doing. It’s closer to animal braying or territorial marking. Just in words.
Kay is no psychopath, but she’s just as casual about buying notions. I wouldn’t call Kay’s notion’s beliefs any more than I would call a drunk one-night stand a carefully chosen spouse.
These days, I distinguish between “belief” and “relief.” A belief is at least somewhat carefully shopped, a decision made after an effort to decide. In contrast, a “relief” is a notion grabbed impulsively for relief from having to shop.
Some people believe in God. They’ve weighed the pros and cons and have come to careful conclusions. Others just “relieve” in God. They’ve never thought about it. They just branded themselves with whatever the cool kids were wearing. In their culture, God was cool. They’re relieved in God to fit in locally.
About any idea or ideology, I suspect there are far fewer “true believers” than there are “true relievers,” people who get true relief from branding themselves to notions that alleviate doubt. Anthony Fauci, believed various things over the course of the pandemic. Many people just “relieved” in claims that they were doing their own research and knew better than the foremost American immunologist.
True relievers might know alternative ideas but not as contenters. All they know is that it’s cool to hate those alternatives. That’s not shopping; that’s ornamenting with what’s in fashion, not what’s out of fashion.
True relievers are proud of their confidence because pride is what impulse shoppers buy for. They impulse-buy notions that fill them with proud relief. The notions hardly matter, so long as they’re relieved to feel like geniuses for embracing them. The poet Charles Bukowski said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
If humans are going to survive freedom of belief and speech, we need to attend to the distinction between impulse-buy relief and careful beliefs.
To get a sense of how important this distinction is, imagine hiring two consultants to help you make a pivotal decision, a major business investment, the largest purchase of your lifetime, or deciding how to treat your child’s deadly cancer.
Both consultants tell you what they “believe” or “think” you should do. One is a little boring, weighing all the pros and cons with plodding seriousness. The other consultant is emphatic. He knows exactly what you should do. His confidence is reassuring. He flatters and soothes you, making it sound like your pivotal decision is easy and obvious. Listening to him, you feel relieved. You act on his recommendations.
Only when your actions fail do you go back to the two consultants to ask how they came by their thoughts and beliefs. The emphatic one boasts that he always just follows his gut. He has no training or experience. He simply hung a shingle out and makes stuff up. When you tell him about the other consultant’s thoughts on your pivotal decision, he smiles unapologetically and says he hadn’t considered that possibility. Why would he? Considering possibilities isn’t his thing.
When hiring consultants we pay attention to credentials. But we don’t in everyday life when we treat all opinions, including the thoughtless ones, as beliefs or thoughts.
People say that everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. That’s true. In democracies, everyone gets a vote no matter how much thought they give it. And it’s good to call people on their claims to have “alternative facts.”
But the problem runs much deeper than collective agreement about facts. Facts don’t decide things. People can have the same facts but weigh them differently, Some don’t weigh them at all except for how much flattering relief from doubt they’d get by ornamenting themselves in braying noises that people will mistake for beliefs.