What we Believe to be True
24 Minute Read
The Wild West of 1900’s America was a rough arsed place to live. Picture the constant gunfights, shootouts and bank robberies. Where the saloon doors swing freely open into a bar full of cowboys. Where the piano plays its honky-tonk and where the bartender seems to be perpetually wiping a glass.
You know the place …
Where everybody wears a cowboy hat, spurs and a waistcoat. Where the cemeteries fill up faster than the graves can be dug, thanks to the endless gangs, gunslingers, vigilantes and outlaws riding into town, willing to start a fight with anyone from poker playing card-up-his-sleeve Hex to someone with a bigger and meaner moustache than they had.
A place where if you didn’t wear a six-shooter on your hips you were either a kid or dead – or a law-abiding citizen for that matter but we will get to that in a bit.
Oh man, those were the days …
But the thing is, they weren’t.
You see, the so-called Wild West wasn’t really that wild at all. Simply because it never really happened, well not in the sense that Hollywood has led us to believe anyway.
In the 40 year period of the Western Frontier, there was a pathetic 8 bank robberies1, the average town had 1.5 murders a year and the rapper 50 Cent, has been shot more times than Billy the Kid and Jessie James combined.
Ok, so I didn’t really research that last point but you get the gist.
In Abilene, the supposed ‘wildest’ of the wild west, in the years 1869 and 1870 nobody was killed at all. Rather ironically, it wasn’t until the establishment placed officers of the law, sheriffs employed to prevent killings, that any gun related murders started to happen, and those were very few and far between.
In his book, Frontier Violence: Another Look, Eugene W. Hollon stated that “the Western frontier was a far more civilised, more peaceful, and a safer place than American society is today.”2
To say this whole period of American history is exaggerated is a bit of an understatement. If it wasn’t for the good ol’ Western movie selling us the idea of this rugged land while the pioneers traveled further west we would probably be none the wiser.
But the myths actually started back in that time period as a form of a PR stunt.
Towns like Dodge City, Deadwood and the winner of the coolest name, Tombstone, were calling out for settlers. So they figured they would start rumors that their town was the most violent of them all, in the hope to draw in the ‘manliest’ of men. As each town competed in the newly invented newspaper, things got a bit out of hand.
The manly men who bought into the whole idea most probably found themselves bored shitless as they watched the tumbleweed roll down the dusty streets. A nineteenth-century version of rocking up at a hotel and immediately saying “it didn’t look like this in the brochure”.
As I’ve started this, here is a quick rundown of some real life events of some common myths.
- Many handguns, especially in the early years were so badly made and inaccurate that they were more used as a secondary weapon over shotguns if anyone even bothered with them. Forget Clint Eastwood ‘fanning’ the revolver, he would be lucky if it fired at all and luckier still if it actually hit what he was pointing it at. They didn’t use bullets as we know today, but more like musket balls. Also, the way that handguns used gunpowder meant that you would end up with sometimes, quite serious burns to your hand any time you fired it, even once.
As time progressed into the era, handguns, of course, became much better, leading to…
- The gun laws were tighter than they are today. Dodge City even had a sign up declaring no firearms (this was probably due to too many people in the local burns unit).
- The famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral wasn’t much of a gunfight and didn’t take place at the O.K. Corral. It actually took place in another town nearby, so it was more like the-gunfight-in-a-small-town-down-the-road-from-the-OK Corral. The ‘gunfight’ lasted a messily 30 seconds, even though producers managed to make a whole movie out of it when in reality it was shorter than most tv ads. (another ironic situation as it happened to be over one gang objecting to the tight gun laws at the time).
- Everyone came away from the-gunfight-in-a-small-town-down-the-road-from-the-OK Corral with burnt pinkies.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were famous for their daring bank robberies. This is true and that’s the whole point. They were famous because they were doing the one thing that nobody else was stupid enough to attempt and hence only 8 banks were robbed in the entire period.
- The Mexican Vaqueros were the original cowboys, which predated Plymouth Rock so they are actually older than America itself, making ‘cowboys’ a Mexican invention.
- The Stetson company was indeed formed in this time period, yay. However, its first hat, The Boss of the Plains was more of a Sombrero than what we consider a ‘cowboy hat’. It was originally conceived by John B. Stetson as a bit of a joke and when he found people actually liking it, it was sold as an upmarket item and nothing a regular ranch-hand could afford. Most people opted for the English Bowler hat. As the modern ‘cowboy hat’ was a work of Hollywood this makes the likes of Garth Brooks actually a pretty successful Cosplayer.
- There were no skirmishes between the natives and the western pioneers. They traded with each other quite peacefully.
- Though the US cavalry did indeed slaughter the natives en-mass
The Wild West myth is all well and good for a bit of fun and games; nobody said Django Unchained was based on anything true. But the problem and the point here is that situations like this can become caught in our psyche where we simply just accept and believe them to be true. Therefore, as they become our beliefs, they will constantly be leveraged from, to form opinions based off the top of them.
“Do you like my hat?” – Garth Brooks
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE …
What about poor old Christopher Columbus who seemed to be the only person alive in 1492 who believed that the Earth was round. Everyone else thought it was flat, and that by sailing out too far one would succumb to falling off its edge. As the church wouldn’t sanction Columbus’s voyage to prove his theory as it went against their beliefs from the Bible, Columbus got the backing of Queen Isabella who pawned her jewels to raise the funds for his required three ships and off he went into the yonder.
His epic voyage of discovery was one of the crucial steps in mankind’s throwing off the superstitions of the dark ages.
Again, it didn’t happen. At all.
The Ancient Greek Pythagoras hypothesised the Earth was round way back in the 6th century BC and the mathematician Eratosthenes worked out its circumference to a 1% accuracy with nothing more than pieces of string and the newly developed calculator the day, the abacus, 100 years later.
In history, no educated man, including Columbus’s peers ever thought the Earth was flat.
So pissed off and bored where the Historical Society over how rampant this myth is, and they have to constantly correct everyone about this, that they put out a press release to kick this whole flat earth and Columbus stupidness in its butt once and for all.
“The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching”.
So we basically believe that the ancients believed something that they never believed at all. Odd.
Incidentally, this common belief makes the people today who believe the Earth is flat, or the ‘Flat Earthers’ as they are fondly known, to actually be a rather modern phenomenon.
We can see examples of this everywhere. Some common torture devices associated with the Middle Ages never existed, the Vikings never wore horns on their helmets, there was never widespread panic after Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and we could go on and on.
My money is on that in a couple of thousands of years time The Lord of Rings will be considered true. Future archaeologists will be trying to pinpoint Mordor as J.R.R Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as an alternative account of pre-history and who is to say he was wrong. We can already see this happening with Atlantis where Plato first described it in his book Timaeus and Critias. Though in this book Atlantis was described as a ‘hypothetical’ lost city as merely a point he was trying to get across. Nonetheless, Atlantis has merit in lots of people’s eyes and are steadfast in their belief that it will one day be found.
It’s out there somewhere – probabily – not – maybe – who the fuck knows
THE TELEBOX IS FULL OF IT
Ok. Consider you are watching some popular sciencey show on TV, note how the information is often presented. What is nothing more than theories, or even worse, hypothesis, are often sold as fact. In a surprising amount of cases, we really haven’t got a clue and its all a bit of a guess at best. Particularly with the more fundamental questions; how did life begin on the planet? What is consciousness? And when dropped, why does your toast land on the floor marmalade side down every time?
The way that our brains render information, and particularly the subconscious, there is a huge difference between “this is how it is” against “this is how we believe it is”. In this case, those two extra words make a startling amount of difference.
This is nothing more than a modern form of Scholasticism. Where information is taught on a backdrop of accepted dogma, institutional beliefs and defended viewpoints. The population at large accepts the information as fact simply because the authorities said it was true, and so must know more than they do. Interestingly, in this modern era of all-information-at-your-fingertips any checking of facts is only a couple of clicks away yet most of us take way too much information at face value.
Apart from the obvious thing of being told information simply because it fits some kind of vested interest, it also makes life increasingly hard to point out any evidence to the contrary, even if it is a massive Elephant in the room. Just look at how the lifelong friend of the catholic church, Galileo Galilei got on when he pointed out the rather uncomfortable fact that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. They loved that dude so much that they thanked him by putting him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Yeah, thanks for that, now bugger off and be quiet.
SO HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT IS TRUE?
Paradoxically we don’t know what is true, but also, we do.
Let’s use the example of Galileo.
Back in the day we collectively believed that the earth was the center of the universe. The Geocentric belief. The evidence we had for this was the sun, moon and stars moved across the sky. This gave the visual representation that the Earth was still and these heavily bodies passed overheard, revolving around us. The people of the time were happy about this. To them, this was fact and everyone carried on with their day.
In 1615 along comes Galileo and through his homemade telescope found this to not be the case and published a book which proved the earlier theories of the much earlier Nicolaus Copernicus to be correct.
When Galileo voiced this, instead of being the man of the moment and hobnobbing it at the seventeenth-century parties he quickly found himself guilty of heresy and sentenced to life imprisonment, while being told to shut the fuck up. Even while showing the undeniable evidence to anyone mad enough to listen.
Once all of the rather messy Roman Inquisition and you-are-never-allowed-to-leave-your-house-ever-again nonsense was over, and a few decades had passed, Galileo’s Heliocentrism model was finally accepted. The people of the time were happy about this. To them, this was fact and everyone carried on with their day, albeit it with a slightly different perspective.
As time has progressed further still, we have found countless other solar systems and galaxies and we understand that everything in the universe, including the Earth, all revolves around the center of it in a massive, swirling whirlpool of gravity. The people of today are happy about this. To us, this is fact and everyone carries on with their day with an even more refined perspective.
Tomorrow – who knows, but it will change at some point and what we know now will also change to reflect this new understanding.
The point is, that at any one time our knowledge is correct. We may understand how we have gotten to that point; that today’s information is more refined than yesterday, but it also stops today as we do not yet know what tomorrow will bring.
In theory, this is how it goes. We receive new updated information, our viewpoints then change and our now refined beliefs reflect this. Whether this is actually ‘factually’ correct from an overall point of view is a matter of semantics as it is how we understand things in the moment that matters. It is the meaning we impose on the information, our attachment to it is what forms our understanding.
“FFS man, they teach this stuff in kindergarten”
THE JIGSAW PUZZLE OF BELIEFS
What happened to Galileo is a prime example of the attachment the church had on their own belief system. When we become attached to our beliefs there is no room for expansion of any ideas that form them.
Our beliefs become stuck and this makes us simply refuse that there may actually be another way or even open to the possibilities of it. Worse still is when we openly defend our viewpoint, hence the church throwing poor old Galileo under house arrest for simply being a bit more educated on these matters than they were.
We can use an analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to demonstrate how the brain organises beliefs and new ideas.
The brain or the subconscious mind is the storehouse of all of our ideas and particularly, our beliefs.
The subconscious mind is logical in nature. It is also impartial. It doesn’t care either way whether the person believes in world peace or world domination, it will simply replay into the life flow whatever information is stored in its vaults.
It does this by making connections between everything it stores. Links are made between this piece of information and the next. This stops us from accepting beliefs that contradict or is simply against any other, already held belief. For example, you believe you are human. No matter what anyone tells you or what you may read on the internet, nobody will be able to convince you that you are a chicken. This simply goes against everything else that is believed and understood.
So imagine a large, never-ending jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of this puzzle represents an idea you have accepted, a belief, value and they collectively form your personality. Together they also they form the overall picture which would be your world-view. Your reality.
Your beliefs and values in this jigsaw fit nicely with their sounding pieces and they are all connected together in some way.
Over time as pieces are swapped out with newer, fresher, updated ones, or new beliefs are accepted over old, the overall picture changes. The world-view I held when I was 19 is different from the one I hold currently.
It will either fit or it wont.
When we are faced with a new idea, and no matter how much evidence accompanies it showing it to be true, if it doesn’t fit into our current jigsaw it is simply rejected. Maybe it’s an odd shape, like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If we haven’t yet built any existing connections with our more fundamental beliefs we will have a hard time accepting it.
This is why we can have such problems accepting things, even when the contrary is smacking us in the face. Think of the conspiracy theorists who hold on to their sometimes extreme beliefs no matter how much evidence is showing them to not be true; their existing belief structure is wired up in such a way that they find it virtually impossible of fit these pieces into their jigsaw even if they wanted to.
This is what poor old Galileo was faced with. His telescope offered a new version of the truth but this truth didn’t fit in with other accepted viewpoints of the time. There simply wasn’t any room in the jigsaw to make it fit and so it was rejected. People simply couldn’t see how it would work.
Because of the nature of this whole jigsaw-being-your-mind scenario, it is not a simple fact of replacing one idea with a new one and swapping them out. This new idea also has to fit with all of the other existing ideas that it will be connected to. So to change one belief often requires the change of other beliefs also to make a fit. This is why change can often take a bit of time and in Galileo’s case, a few decades before it was fully accepted.
This is also why you suddenly don’t believe you are a chicken because Blabber_Mouth in an internet forum simply said you are.
Interestingly, when the brain rejects new information it often does so reactionary. Ridicule, anger and arguing the toss are often the brain’s defense mechanisms to keep the status quo. As is throwing astronomers in prison when their piece is just too square for the round hole of the time.
BELIEFS GROWS OUTWARDS
As we have seen, the jigsaw of our beliefs grows outwards. Like peeling an onion but in reverse. What we consider true one moment is used as a foundation for a more updated version of it the next, and out it goes. We can never go backward. It is not our nature to reverse our beliefs to what they were when we were young, we can only refine them forward.
Think of three-year-old Timmy trying to help daddy build his landscape puzzle by jamming in a piece from his Thomas The Tank Engine jigsaw. No matter how hard he tries and no matter how many times he spins that piece around, it simply will not fit.
Timmy’s jigsaw piece comes from his three-year-old worldview. His overall puzzle is smaller and its pieces are larger. As Daddy is much older, his puzzle has grown in size yet the pieces that make it so has conversely shrunk. He is building with 10,000 pieces over Timmy’s 10.
Daddy has outgrown Timmy’s beliefs and Timmy’s pieces simply will not fit (unless it is a belief that he is still Superman, in which case he may be able to cram it in somewhere).
Now consider Grandpa trying to assist. With his years of extra experience, his puzzle is even larger than Daddy’s (his son). As his beliefs are further refined and with added extra connections he hs made between his beliefs and values, this makes his pieces smaller still. These smaller pieces will fit into Daddy’s puzzle no problem, but it is not a snug fit, there is room to move.
Daddy can accept this piece, this belief, but has to create extra connections to accommodate it fully. This is our growth. We can more easily accept beliefs from other, more experienced people than ourselves but we cannot go backward and accept beliefs of a child.
The other problem with all of this is that we build new beliefs off the back of existing ones. Like a builder building a house on dodgy foundations. If we suddenly realise that the foundations are not as solid as we thought they were, what do we do?
By changing our beliefs, all accepted information that has been built on top of them may crumble and may require a monumental amount of work to sort all of this mess out. If the offending beliefs are deep enough, making them our core beliefs, this may require a whole shake-up of what we know. Essentially, throwing our jigsaws up in the air and starting again. A complete change of view.
Often it is easier to simply ignore that some underlying belief may be wrong and carry on about our day leading to feelings of frustration and feeling stuck. This, in turn, is the ripe environment for being triggered.
WELCOME TO CONFIRMATION BIAS
Have you ever had a discussion, probably heated, with someone over a topic that is usually polarising? I’m sure you have.
Whether it is the right or wrongs of climate change, abortions, gun laws, same sex marriage or the Earth being flat. These topics are usually ripe for confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is when our beliefs are so rigid, like we’ve superglued that jigsaw piece in there that we will always defend it. No matter what.
The mind does this by choosing information to back that belief up while ignoring everything else to the contrary.
It’s a fascinating phenomena as we don’t release we are doing it.
So say you are having an internet ‘discussion’ with somebody who has the opposite viewpoint as yourself on child vaccinations. As we try to prove our point before we frantically start typing out the theses of our argument we jump on Google to find evidence to back ourselves up.
Now, no matter what websites we look at, no matter what evidence we come across, confirmation bias happens when we simply overlook, skim and basically ignore every piece of evidence which is contrary to our beliefs. Even when said evidence is startlingly staring us in the face. It is almost like it isn’t there at all.
If we believe something, and it’s deep enough. No matter what evidence is shown, if it doesn’t fit, it simply will not be accepted.
Change will come when each of us has the courage to question our own fundamental values and beliefs to allow for growth without stagnancy.
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