In the past, I’ve mocked the privileged obliviousness of Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist and Man Who Knows One Thing. I have to revisit Adams, because in this election, he’s come out of the closet as a Donald Trump fan.
As Ben Dolnick hilariously outlines, this makes sense because they’re kindred spirits in many ways. Like Trump, Adams has a pronounced narcissistic streak and an extremely high regard for his own talents. (Remember the sockpuppet incident?) He also shares Trump’s belief that our culture is conspiring to oppress white men (in Trump’s case, with bad trade deals; in Adams’ case, with V-neck sweaters).
This brings me to this doozy of a post on Adams’ blog. In it, he selflessly offers to “wake you up” from the delusion that Donald Trump harbors racist tendencies. Here’s how he does it:
If a friend said he could see a pink elephant in the room, standing right in front of you, but you don’t see it, which one of you is hallucinating?
…In nearly every scenario you can imagine, the person experiencing an unlikely addition to their reality is the one hallucinating. If all observers see the same addition to their reality, it might be real. But if even one participant can’t see the phenomenon – no matter how many can – it is almost certainly not real.
Adams uses this logic to argue that Trump’s racism is a mass delusion contrived by the Clinton campaign (though he can’t even do that without praising himself for how smart he is):
Here I pause to remind new readers of this blog that I’m a trained hypnotist and a student of persuasion in all its forms. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to learn the tricks for discerning illusion from reality. And I’m here to tell you that if you are afraid that Donald Trump is a racist/sexist clown with a dangerous temperament, you have been brainwashed by the best group of brainwashers in the business right now: Team Clinton.
…If you see something unlikely – such as a new Hitler rising in the midst of America – and I see nothing remotely like that – I’m almost certainly right and you’re almost certainly having the illusion. I say that because the person who sees the unlikely addition to reality is the one experiencing the illusion nearly every time. Trump as Hitler-in-America is an addition to reality that only some can see. It is a pink elephant. It is a classic hallucination.
OK, let’s take this one step at a time.
The problem with this argument is that it proves too much. If we go by Scott Adams’ logic, there have never been any racists or sexists. No matter how bigoted a person may seem, we have to declare them not guilty if they have even one defender who’s willing to shrug it off.
What else could we “prove” using Scott Adams’ reasoning? If any existence claim denied by a minority is false, then the Holocaust never happened, the moon landing never happened, global warming isn’t real, smoking doesn’t cause cancer, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and evolution is false (oh, wait – Adams actually believes that last one).
To be clear, a positive claim does bear the burden of proof. Anyone who makes the claim has the responsibility to put forward evidence backing it up. But in ordinary circumstances, there comes a point where the buildup of evidence meets that burden. That’s how science works and how humanity makes intellectual progress, by the formation of consensus. By contrast, Adams is advocating the heckler’s-veto position that evidence is meaningless unless it literally convinces 100% of people. This intellectual nihilism would prevent us from ever acquiring any new knowledge about anything, even whether the Earth is round or flat.
Adams appears to be arguing in all seriousness that the only reason why some people might believe something that others deny is that the former group is suffering from something like a mass hallucination. Anyone as intelligent as he claims to be ought to be able to imagine a few alternative possibilities.
One hypothesis is ideological: some people like Trump but feel uncomfortable at the thought that they’re supporting a racist, so they deal with the cognitive dissonance by denying that he’s said racist things. They might be racist themselves but are aware that they’re in the minority, so they seek to cover up Trump’s racism as a strategy for winning the election. Or they might simply be ignorant about what racism looks and sounds like.
As long as Adams wants to traffic in strained analogies about mental disorders, let me tell him about another one. There’s a brain disorder called hemispatial neglect which causes the sufferer to be unaware of one-half of their visual field. It’s not the same thing as blindness, but a selective failure of conscious attention. A neglect sufferer won’t attend to anything in the “blank” area, even when it’s pointed out to them.
A person with this condition, if asked to draw a clock face, might only draw half a clock, just the numbers from 12 to 6. They might eat only the food on one side of their plate, or shave only one side of their face. In extreme cases, even if half their body is paralyzed by a stroke, they might insist that they’re feeling fine and nothing is wrong with them.
In response to Adams’ mass-hallucination analogy, I’d counter with an analogy of racism neglect. Whether through incapacity or ignorance, Trump supporters are collectively failing to spot something that’s right in front of their faces. It’s the rest of us who are seeing what’s really there.
For everyone other than Scott Adams, it’s not hard to see how Donald Trump acquired a reputation for racism. This is, after all, the man who launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” who were bringing crime and drugs. His signature pledge is to ban all Muslims from the United States. He said that a federal judge couldn’t be impartial because he had Mexican ancestry, a remark that even Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment”. He called a Hispanic beauty contest entrant “Miss Housekeeping”.
He was sued by the Justice Department in the 1970s for refusing to rent apartments to black tenants. He said, according to a biographer, that “laziness is a trait in blacks“. He continued to demand the execution of the Central Park Five even after they were exonerated by DNA evidence. He promulgated a racist conspiracy theory against the nation’s first black president.
What, in Adams’ mind, is the real explanation for all of this? Did the Clinton campaign somehow force Trump to utter these offensive remarks? Did they travel back in time and contrive to have him sued by the Justice Department? Did they forge public records, transcripts and videotapes and use their sinister hypnotic powers to convince us that we witnessed something that never happened?
Adams steers clear of directly addressing anything Trump has said or done, so it’s impossible to tell what he thinks. All he can do is mutter about the Clinton campaign’s dark mastery of persuasive skills. Ironically, this is yet another example of Knows One Thing-ism: because Adams fancies himself an expert hypnotist, he believes it’s the framework that explains everything.
So if Donald Trump is no racist, what is he? Adams again:
In my elephant-free view of the world, Trump is a guy who uses provocative language (as New Yorkers do) while succeeding across several different fields. And he knows risk-management. You can see that in everything he does.
Really? The guy with multiple bankruptcies is a risk-management expert?
But never mind that. The more important thing to notice is that, in Adams’ mind, his view and his alone is correct and objective – “elephant-free”. Basically, he’s arrogant enough to think he should be able to tell women and people of color what they should think. And he’ll cling to any intellectual framework, however tenuous, that makes him feel justified in doing this.
Image credit: Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license