Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Reuters, Sept. 23, 2010
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the United Nations General Assembly at in New York on September 23, 2010. Photo by Reuters
Text size

In his speech at the United Nations, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the theory that the U.S. orchestrated the 9/11 attacks must be investigated seriously and announced a conference on 9/11 next year in Iran. The U.S. delegations walked out on him, and it seems that this is indeed the only appropriate way of dealing with a man who consistently denies the Holocaust and peddles conspiracy theories about 9/11.

Then again, I think that we should be grateful to Mr. Ahmadinejad for presenting us with the opportunity to think about what the Free World needs to do to counteract the type of truth-bending that he represents.

While Ahmadinejad is a totalitarian manipulator in the tradition of Goebbels, Stalin and Mao, we need to realize that his truth-bending reflects a universal phenomenon. Many of us are proud of the institutions that protect truth and truth-seeking in the Free World, and this may blind us to the fact that not all is good on the Western Front.

Almost one fifth of Americans and more than a third of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim, and more than 40 percent of Republicans believe that he is not American born. No evidence can convince them of the opposite. They have access to all the documents, to all the news analysis and still they stick to a clearly proven falsehood. Susan Jacoby has shown in depressing detail how little average Americans know, and how much they prize their ignorance. Less than a third of Americans can find Iraq on the map, and a full 70 percent believe that you don’t need to know anything about the country in order to have views about what should be done with it. Conviction matters more than knowledge; faith more than truth.

Existential psychology has shown consistently that human beings’ need for a worldview that gives their lives meaning is overwhelming. It is so strong that humans are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend the meaning-system gives them a sense of value. It is therefore not very surprising that the drive to tailor our beliefs to fit our worldview is powerful in all cultures: if American Republicans disregard evidence in order to maintain their belief that Obama’s presidency is illegitimate, because they abhor liberal values, truth-bending is not limited to the Islamic world - or to U.S. Republicans, for that matter.

The data on prevalent beliefs about 9/11 exhibits the same pattern. The stronger the negative feelings of a population against either the U.S. or Israel, the higher the likelihood that 9/11 is ascribed to either of them. Thirty percent of Mexicans asked ascribe responsibility to the U.S., and a full 43 percent of Egyptians think Israel was behind it.

If your worldview tells you that the U.S. is an aggressive power that tries to dominate the world and victimizes its opponents, the more likely you are to ascribe 9/11 to the U.S. The more you believe in Jewish domination of the world and/or the illegitimacy of the State of Israel, the more likely you are to ascribe responsibility for 9/11 to Israel.

Israel is in no way immune from the mechanism of truth-bending, and all camps have fallen into its traps. The right keeps claiming as a fact that Arabs will never accept Israel’s existence. The Arab peace initiative is simply explained away as a ploy, and the polls that show that most Palestinians are in favor of the two-state solution disregarded. The left in the 1990s consistently disregarded warnings that at the time Palestinians hadn’t given up on the right of return, and that there were no viable institutions in place that allowed for Palestinian statehood. All camps sold slogans; few faced the truth.

What can the Free World do to counteract the mind’s dangerous tendency to bend truth to serve ideology? Our democracies may be less vulnerable to truth-bending than theocracies like Iran, but they are far from immune. The whole art of political consulting and campaigning is based on the assumption that voters need to be manipulated. Truth won’t do the job in getting you votes; pressing the right emotional buttons will.

The first conclusion is that democracies in the Free World need to be much more vigilant in protecting their commitment to truth. The most dismaying recent example is indeed connected to 9/11: As is amply documented, the G.W. Bush administration very actively bent the truth about the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 and about Iraq’s possession of WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Hence the Free World must invest much more thought on how to protect the public sphere from mental debris. We must carefully balance the democratic protection of free speech with some rules that will force at least our politicians and our press to adhere to standards of truth.

The second conclusion is that the Free World is in dire need of rethinking its educational systems. Whether we look at beliefs about Obama being Muslim or at the susceptibility to buying into conspiracy theories, there is a consistent correlation: the level of education is a good predictor for the ability to make critical use of available evidence in making up one’s mind and to resist manipulative indoctrination.

The data shows that the most important threshold is between high school and a full college education. There is a good reason for this. The educational system up to high school is geared towards the acquisition of skills. College education focuses on evaluating information critically.

Unfortunately, the majority of the population will never have access to a good liberal education. Hence we must make sure that already in high school, strong emphasis is put on critical thought. Without this, we will end up with societies composed largely of members incapable of making informed political decisions and hence incapable of competent citizenship.

Nothing will inoculate us from the seduction of bending truth in the service of ideology. After all, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s doctorate in engineering has not turned him into an avid truth seeker. No single factor will do the job; a whole culture with a variety of institutions like universities, the press, the judiciary and art must guard the skills for critical thought and the respect for the search for truth. It is up to us to nurture such a culture, if indeed we want to remain a Free World.