Thanks to a burst of media attention this week centering around a certain actor from A&E’s show “Duck Dynasty,” we may be thinking we have learned something about Phil Robertson’s position on blacks and gays; however, I contend we learned a lot more about another layer here at play that many of us have missed — originating in the brain of BOTH Phil Robertson and every person who is activated here, no matter the side one is on.

What do I mean?

In the field of cognitive neuroscience, we have a dearth of research on the many ways our brain biases information from pre-perception (unconscious filters), through the processing stages and the differential attentional systems used, and up through selective memory recall. No matter where you put the pen down on this circular creation of self-affirming knowledge, you must face at some point the reality that perhaps we are all rationalizers more than rational thinkers. Whether you are a fan of behavioral economics and their “bounded rationality” claims, or a neurophilosopher that has seen the convincing evidence that our decisions seem to originate purely in a non-rational emotional place in the brain, we all must see the mess we are all in when it comes to the objectiveness of “judging” — be it facts, ourselves, or, God forbid, others. With such an ooze of complicated circuitry at play in the massive networks that hardwire us, is it any wonder that we all seem to actually have an original thought with merit? In fact, some neuroscientists would claim since we can see activity happening in the brain seconds before we are actually aware of having a conscious intention, that perhaps our construction of free will lays more succinctly in the “free won’t” side of the free will equation.

Just for a thought experiment, let’s take this neuro-position in looking at what happens in us all — the Phil Robertson in us and in the listener/evaluator in us — when the editing of possible futures, decisions, actions that the brain generates infinitely fast are distorted…or completely missed. Here are some statements made by both Phil Robertson and the American public responding:

1) Phil Robertson stated that homosexuality is a sin, on the same level as bestiality and promiscuity

Take a deep breath. Our own pre-existing filters, biases, beliefs will read this statement in the same rushed way one tries to read the color names correctly on the Stroop Test. This statement says nothing about denying acceptance of homosexuals as human beings, nor does it deny the existence of this reality in the world. His statement is also the position of the Catholic Church and other faiths. But here, in my opinion, is where things go south and where the brain does a horrible jump discerning linguistic differences and possible triggers — for once a neural network is activated all “similar semantical networks” fall like dominoes. That is, I believe the implicit activator here in people processing this information, is the difference between “natural law” and “nature”. Sure, homosexual behavior is observed in anywhere from 500-1500 species. And for many this is the bar to measure something as “normal” — if it occurs in nature. For others, like people who follow the Catholic natural law — not the law of nature — there is a belief that beings, whether gay or not, are all susceptible to influences of desire (ie, why homosexuality was linked to heterosexual promiscuity) and a hope for transcendence of that, however it plays out in one’s life. Complex issues of our society always seem to suffer from the brain’s desire to dichotomize. Easier and more efficient to use mental shortcuts, heuristics, on many issues. While it works for media, it doesn’t work for greater understanding of humanity.

2) Phil Robertson stated he did not see any mistreatment of a black person in his 67 years of living in the South.

Is this true? Theoretically, it very well could be. Practically, who knows. But we know this — we don’t recall memories as they actually happened. This is a neurological fact. Imagine if media and the popular culture could be educated about this reality of the socially constructed brain. It has been shown that many factors affect what we choose to remember, with much of it pointing to self-affirming biases that put us in a good light. We are wired to see ourselves as good, non-bigoted people, whether we are or aren’t. Fundamentally, humanity, is no different than the experts, gurus, and pundits who claim they know more than the regular Joe, despite research showing their predictions are no better than chance.

3) Phil Robertson was suspended this week from the show and received scathing critique from the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign

While I can see how people could interpret the information outlined above in a troubling manner that justifies such condemnation, if you go deeper here, I believe this is a collusion between “default language” on the part of Phil’s brain — which leaves room for projection into the spaces of ambiguity not tightened up by language that could be more distinctive, and the self-deceiving tendencies in us all to see us better than others, and to selectively pull data out that supports our position. A true ClusterDuck. Is this story no different than the behavioral economic research that has shown that we believe we have a better chance of getting into Heaven compared to Mother Teresa? Or that we are all smarter, more attractive than a normal distribution of statistics says?

Time to remove the log out of our own brain.


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