by John Griogair Bell
I have witnessed, been the target of, and, I’m sure, at least once been guilty of the Unbearable Gullibility of Fraternity. I hope, and trust, that I have not leveraged it myself, and I sincerely do not recall doing so.
I am naming this phenomenon for what happens when someone within fraternal bonds tells another something and it is believed without questioning the message, messenger, or target. The message might be a claim about something that someone did that is a completely made up Internet Fact, or it might be something with just enough verisimilitude to make made up parts of the message easier to believe. Or, the message might be a catastrophized interpretation by the messenger about the target that is based on an unfair and untrue reading of events. The messenger might be unconscious or consciously deceptive about those events or the target or their motivations. The messenger isn’t questioned or interrogated about their claims, but is presumed to be communicating in good faith about reasonable interpretations of things they actually observed, whether they actually observed anything or whether their interpretations are reasonable instead of attempts to catastrophize or whether the messenger is actually acting in good faith without ulterior motive themselves. Often times the target of the message is also not asked about these things, and is presumed to have done them in the exact way the messenger says they did and for the motivation attributed by the messenger. This is all the more egregious when the target is in the same organization having the culture of that organization weaponized against them.
This seems to me to be a form of social proof that is common in groups where there exists authoritarian hierarchies around information. When there are, within any group, sub groups that have more authority and control over information, it becomes harder to both escape the tendency to believe those on equal or higher levels of the organization or to verify the information without violating those boundaries of authority and control; and this is, I think, especially true in groups with shared experiences of imprint vulnerability, either through things like, generally negative, trauma or, generally intended as positive, rites like those of passage and initiation.
One possible way to approach this effect is to apply the scientific method. Look for experimental observation that verifies and reproduces the claims about the target, in the message, by the messenger. Have you checked with the target themselves or did you act on the presumptions formed by others telling you about the target without checking your data?
A form of this kind of pitfall is a whisper network of gossip. Hopefully your group has methods and tools designed to help avoid propagation whisper network of gossip and enabling whisper network of gossipers. But, you should also consider how you can also avoid the diffusion of responsibility about checking for the validity of data and seeking whether the information is reproducible outside the influence of the messenger, essentially a form of scientific method in a kind of laboratory conditions. Keep both the soldier and the hunchback on guard to test information that seeks entrance to your mental camp.
In particular, I want to moreover call out the way that this kind of effect is acted on. When the message is accepted without question and then someone determines a course of action based on that message, their actions are tainted at the source. In my personal experience, I’ve had people approach me saying that they heard I did something and have already decided what to do that affected me based on that. Demonstratively, the message in this case was wrong, the messenger was not acting in good faith, and I was never asked about either until after action was determined. I’ve also had people approach me and say they are doing something that affects me, without saying anything about how they arrived at that decision, and I have been extremely suspicious that they have based their determinations on faulty indirect evidence they aren’t sharing or checking. Actions taken on tainted information is itself tainted, and the contagion spreads to others when not contained.
In addition to the, I hope, self-evident disfunction of the Unbearable Gullibility of Fraternity, I want to point out the danger of how this can potentially also be evidence of a group’s vulnerability to conspiracy thinking. The same kind of unverified messages about specifically unreproducible and indirect evidence communicated with appeal to authority, protected by boundaries of control, and within a group socially conditioned with presumption of good faith by group members are foundational elements to the success of misinformation groups like Qanon.
The Unbearable Gullibility of Fraternity is bad, per se, but it can also get worse.
Consider developing or further exercising good information practices for yourself, whether or not you’re in an authoritarian hierarchical fraternal group or not, but a fortiori if you are. When hearing something, especially before making determinations or acting on them, consider what is being communicated, who is communicating, why they might want to communicate it to you for you to believe without direct observation, give pause to acting on presumptions based on indirect information, and consider testing burden of proof whilst also not accepting or making conclusions that are not based on empirical evidence.
On the other hand, if your response to all this is to ask “but, why would I have any reason not to believe and act on what I’m told by someone I trust in the bonds of fraternity?” then you are part of the problem. Also, meditate on that, won’t you?
John Griogair Bell is the enigmatic super-villain, known only, to some, as Librarian.