We Don’t ‘Have’ Beliefs; We Wear them like Clothes

Observed contextually, beliefs and opinions are just events in which we say things.  No different to saying anything else, except in their specific social properties and effects.  Like all things we say (see previous blogs), the main property of any talking is that it only does something in the world by affecting other people.  My beliefs about cats cannot affect a cat except through a person.  My beliefs about poverty cannot affect the world or resources except through people.  And even… my beliefs about myself cannot affect me except through other people. [Mead’s idea but that will be for another blog…]

Beliefs are not about the structure of the brain or cognitive processing. They are all about the historical and current structuring of social relationships and conversational strategies.

So when we hear someone saying that they believe X, we need to observe all the social contexts, which is rarely done except by discourse analysts (Skinner did not do this sadly…):

  • why call it a belief even?
  • who was the audience for this?
  • what did the listeners do, and what have listeners done previously?
  • what does calling it a belief do to the listener?
  • what if they had said it was their opinion, or attitude, or some thought that merely popped into their head—what would those have done to the listener differently? (you can experiment easily with this btw)

Contextually, these are all better questions to ask and observe than whether the belief is ‘true’ or whether the speaker ‘truly’ believes it or whether they have evidence or proof.

So can you even think this: that calling something you say a belief or a strong belief is a social bluff strategy towards the listeners (a chicken game)?  Whatever the exact effects on different listeners and situations, calling it your belief changes the social game.  For example, how someone might subsequently challenge your ‘belief’ is likely to affect their social relationship with you, meaning that often people are less likely to challenge you if you call it your belief, unless they are much higher status.

So if your beliefs are socially shaped statements, why is it so hard to change what people say they believe?  There is no paradox here.  Simply, there are many social events that powerfully shape consistency in what we say, so the value of keeping a dubious but consistent belief in the face of challenges might be less problematic to a speaker than appearing to be weak or inconsistent.  Consistency in speaking, then, is also shaped socially.

The real questions then become these (something I first got from Foucault):

  • what is the value in conversations and in social relationships of appearing consistent?
  • what happens in conversations and in social relationships when we appear inconsistent?
  • does consistency really matter when people are dying?
  • the world is not consistent, things are fluid and in flux, so why stick to appearing consistent?

All these new ideas spring forth if you can start to think of beliefs and attitudes as nothing essential or ‘core’ or ‘inner’ or even clearly defined, but just as things we say that are shaped by other people and the contexts in which we are raised and live.  And we can label them as beliefs or attitudes or ‘some thoughts that merely popped into our head’ in different contexts.  If I speak with an Australian accent it is not because I have a deep-felt identity and meaning from being an Australian; I am just shaped by the listeners and speakers around me to speak that way.

So the challenge is to be able to think of beliefs and attitudes in the same way, and any emotion or consistency about them comes from the social shaping processes and the social relationships involved, not because you ‘possess’ or ‘own’ those beliefs and attitudes in the way you possess or own a scar on your face or a mole on your cheek.  We wear them and use them like our clothes, but clothes are better to have than not.  Especially in winter…

Yes, it is a weird way to think, and not recommended for everyday conversation, but it follows from discourse analysis and contextual analysis.  For another day, it also happens to solve most of the current paradoxes and issues with how we now think about beliefs and attitudes, and how we might go about changing what people say and think.  [But recall that the whole idea of this blog is to get us thinking about and observing people in new and interesting ways.]


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