The Neurolinguistic Basis of Belief
In Defusing Belief, we encountered the term resolute belief, that is, any belief that cannot be falsified by evidence. In other words, a resolute belief is held firmly and will not be abandoned, no matter what is presented to refute it.
Fundamentalist sects of all religions are founded on resolute belief. By contrast, metahistory proposes “views toward alignment.” We are free to examine a range of beliefs and to choose what we believe, rather than receive our beliefs unquestioningly.
Metahistory identifies about twelve distinct modes of believing. A dozen variations sounds like a lot of terminology. Why so many particular terms to define belief?
The underlying dynamic of belief that drives human behavior is a complex mechanism and it often conceals itself. Consequently, critiqueing belief is rarely a simple, straightforward task. If it were, beliefs would be far less effective determinants of human attitudes and actions than they are.
One of the more insidious mechanisms of belief inheres in the preemptive function of the language used to transmit belief. This mechanism relies on the phrasing of beliefs in “sacred texts” (which, by definition, cannot be improved, altered or questioned), and on doctrinal statements based on such texts. Preemptive language occurs as well in political rhetoric, ideological arguments, common sense adages, cultural clichés (drawn from advertising and the media), and family mythologies. Ultimately, the phrasing (or syntax) is coded in the mind of the believer and played back like a mental tape-loop, a subliminal message that endlessly repeats and reinforces itself.
Preemptive syntax is perhaps the single, most problematic factor to be overcome in the initial inquiry into belief-systems. Almost any story, any script or scenario, can be used to illustrate how preemptive language operates. In this essay we will review a well-known family script (parental sexual abuse) and a current national-political script, the invasion of Iraq by the U.S..
Preemptive is an awkward but familiar term. It comes from the Latin verb emere, “to buy,” so it literally means to buy a chance before someone else does. In the 2003 version of the story of the America/Iraq conflict, the US military makes a preemptive strike against Iraq. The reason for the attack is to protect America from being attacked with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons Iraq is accused of possessing.
The meaning of preemptive action is clear enough. What about preemptive language, or preemptive syntax? How is a belief phrased so that it acts preemptively?
Scenarios of parental sexual abuse also present examples of preemptive syntax. Typically, the story goes like this: a family is shocked to learn that the loving father has sexually abused his little girl. (Let’s assume in this case that the abuse actually does occur. The story here is about real perpetration, sexual molestation or beating, not about falsely alleged deeds, as in the case of “false memory syndrome.”) Something typically occurs in the aftermath of the discovery of the abuse. Once she accepts what has happened, the wife realizes that she was previously incapable of believing it could happen. As she comes out of shock, she sees that she had been in denial without knowing it. She simply did not believe that he husband could do what he did.
Next, she painfully realizes that she had an option she didn’t exercise: the option to believe that her husband could sexually abuse their daughter. The key to the hidden mechanism of preemption is that single word, “could.” (To highlight the mechanism of preemption, I will use bold type for certain words. This indicates exactly where the preemptive syntax is situated in the verbal formulation of the belief.)
The story of abuse in a family always unfolds along predictable lines. At first the wife, then the entire family, then the community, all react with the same words: “It never occurred to me…” “It’s unbelievable…” “I would never have thought that such a nice man …” These stock phrases are endlessly repeated. The point is always the same: this event was unthinkable until it happened. The realization that the husband did commit abuse on his daughter comes as a shock, but not only because of the horrific nature of the deed. At a deeper level, the preemptive belief that he could not commit such abuse is shaken. Due to its preemptive syntax, that belief disallowed the possibility of wrongdoing in the minds and hearts of all those who held it.
“Seeing is believing,” says the old adage. As a general rule, we perceive according to what we believe. Believing the husband could not abuse his daughter, people are less likely to perceive that he does so. In effect, the abuse is screened from the believer’s perception, even if obvious clues and warning signs exist. Typically there are almost always obvious signs. One of the most painful elements in this scenario is the guilt of the witnesses who realize, too late, that they might have detected the perpetration or even that they did perceive it, but dismissed what they obliquely saw and sensed.
Preemptive belief carries a negative spin, the signature of denial: “I just don’t believe it could be so,” or “It just couldn’t be so” are common phrasings. This negative syntactic spin filters out perception that might undermine the belief. Preemption thus hides itself in a subliminal message. The phrasings “don’t believe” and “couldn’t be” are registered in negative syntax, so they falsely suggest that belief is not in play. The denial encoded in preemptive belief is both covert and self-enforcing.
Believing the Worst
It is typical of human tragedies that people only come to believe that something as horrible as sexual abuse could happen after it does happen. What would be required for them to believe sexual abuse could happen before it does in fact happen, and thus be more alert, more vigilant, more capable of crediting their own perceptions? Being closest to the situation, the wife is the one who might first detect signs of a problem. But in the dynamic of preemptive belief, her capacity to perceive what’s happening in her world is determined by what she believes about her world. Here is where the crucial nuance comes into play, the decisive twist of syntax: to believe that her husband could sexually abuse his child is not to believe that he actually does so, or necessarily will do so. Normally, however, this nuance is totally ignored.
For the wife, merely believing that her husband could abuse their daughter seems to carry a terrible burden, as if she suspected the man she loves of being evil. This is tantamount to “believing the worst about people,” and there is a strong taboo against holding such a view. It seems that merely believing the husband could perpetrate sexual abuse on his daughter is a negative act, almost as perverse as the act itself! If his wife believed that, how could she have married him in the first place? One shies away from believing that beloved and trusted individuals, or elected authorities, or religious and ethical role-models, could do terrible things.
This “shying away” exposes the self-concealing advantage of preemptive belief.
Believing that her husband could not abuse their child, the wife is blocked from observation and critical thinking that might allow her to detect such behavior. On the other hand, if she believes that he could commit abuse, without assuming that he actually does so, everything changes. In the revised syntax, could does not indicate suspicion. In a variant of the abuse scenario, let’s imagine that the father has been convicted of sexual abuse before he was married, but he was caught, punished and rehabilitated. He is a recovering pedophile; so his wife would be correct to think, “Since he has abused children before, he might also abuse his own daughter.” The syntax thus changes when there is concrete cause for suspicion.
Believing “my husband could sexually abuse our daughter,” the wife will be able to own her perceptions and determine by observation and reasoning if anything in his manner and behavior, or in their daughter’s, indicates cause for concern. Abuse might still occur and escape her, of course, but at least this wouldn’t happen because she is in denial at the outset. Belief that the husband could perpetrate sexual abuse leaves the wife in possession of her own faculties, able to determine if he does so or not, to the best of her abilities. Belief that he could not do anything of the kind closes her mind and impedes those abilities. This is the dynamic of preemptive belief: to preclude observation and to impede, if not nullify, critical thinking.
Preemptive belief clouds our faculties of observation and judgement. This is a well-known objective of mind control, used by perpetrators who often cloak their operations with religious and political idealism. Authority figures and leaders of all kinds rely on preemptive beliefs to instill blind trust in their followers. We are conditioned by such leaders and by their supporters. We are educated to believe that they simply could not do certain things. For instance, a devout minister just could not consort with ladies of the night. It is crucial to understand that the statement of this belief, “Pastor Allen could not be having sex with prostitutes,” is not the sole determining factor in its power to filter out or impede critical thinking. The main preemptive force of whatever is believed inheres in the way it is stated, in its syntax. The belief so stated is not merely a personal conviction, or a deeply held opinion. The phrasing, the language in which the belief is expressed, is neurolinguistically imprinted in the mind, so that the syntax employed affects the believer as much the belief itself. Moreover, the syntax is hidden and difficult to change.
Metahistorical inquiry recognizes that beliefs are not merely adopted for their content but also imprinted by their syntax. The stated content of a belief such as “wearing Levis 501 jeans makes you cool” is effective because the belief is neurologically programmed by striking images and catchy phrases used in advertising. Even though on the surface they often appear banal and ridiculous, advertizing jingles and images are highly effective in exploiting neurolinguistic reception. The Nike slogan, “Just do it,” carries a powerful subliminal impact because the syntax commands. The role of syntax is to program the mind to “receive” a belief without rational assessment.
The use of syntactic preemption to disempower people is repeated in countless scenarios of social and spiritual domination. In religious indoctrination, sytnax is neurolinguistically anchored by rote learning or mindless repetition. Muslims believe that the Koran was received as an oral recitation by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed. Although Mohammed wrote it down (miraculously, for he is thought to have been illiterate), the text itself commands repeated recitation from memory. Young children in pre-school training programs are mandated to recite the Koran for hours at a time, day after day, sometimes holding the holy book to their foreheads to emphasize the imprinting process. (In NLP the key moment of belief change leading to behavioural change often occurs when the facilitator touches the body of the subject, usually on the shoulder, to indicate that the anchoring of a neurological program has been bodily disabled.) Similar behavior in rote-learning is seen among Jews who nod their heads rapidly as they pray or who fasten to their foreheads their philacteries, small boxes containing prayers or passages from the Torah.
The mechanism of preemptive belief is so banal and so routine that exposing it may seem rather silly: an elaboration of the obvious. Common sense protests by saying, “But of course, if I don’t believe something could occur, I will resist believing that it does occur.” But this protest does not address the true dynamic of preemptive belief. The tension is not between believing and not believing, but between not believing something could occur and being able to perceive if it actually does occur. Preemptive syntax engenders a conflict between believing and perceiving, not between two opposing beliefs. What seems obvious really isn’t so: the content of the belief matters less than the way it is stated.
The wife’s belief that her husband could abuse their child does not lead directly to her believing that he does so, and it must not. Equally so, her belief that he could do so must not lead to perceiving that he does so. To suspend preemptive syntax, we must apply a discretionary rule: to believe that something could be so is not to assume that it is so. This attitude disengages our denial and restores our powers of perception and critical thinking without throwing us immediately into the opposite posture of belief. Nor does it incline us to be suspicious or paranoid. It does however require an unusual kind of mindfulness. This mindfulness does not come naturally to us, but must be cultivated. Failure to do so is common, and this failure makes preemptive syntax easy to use.
Unfortunately, the effect of preemptive belief is to render us less capable of paying attention to what happens around us, for good or ill. Most of us wish to be caring, but caring can be useless if is not supported by the capacity for honest and ruthless perception. Mindful caring depends on our powers of perception not being stunted by the mechanisms of preemptive syntax.
If the President Lies
In the scenario of the U.S./Iraq conflict, preemptive belief widely affects the public acceptance of George W. Bush’s story about why an attack was necessary. In metahistorical terms, we do not say that Bush provides reasons for the attack, but that he tells a story that presents the nation with reasons. The story-line is: Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and is bent on using them, sooner or later, to attack the U.S., so the U.S. must act first to protect itself. This is just a story, one scenario described in one short sentence that might as well serve as the plot for a Hollywood action movie.
Regardless of the truth or falsity of what Bush says, the world listening to him faces a critical option: to believe that he could be lying when he says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and is capable of using them against the United States. This is not to claim that he is lying, but merely to allow that he could be. Those who cannot make such an admission are stymied by preemptive belief. They cannot participate intelligently in any debate over the official story line and actions based on it. However, if more and more people come to believe the President of the United States could be lying to the world, they are then free to consider if he’s really lying, and if so, how. Then debate would develop around official lies might be working, rather than be stalemated in a pointless standoff between those who insist “Yes, Bush Lies” and those who insist “No, Bush does not lie.”
Once again, what happens in preemptive belief is not the head-on collision of one belief against another, but the assertion of the value of believing over and against that of perceiving. This distinction points to a key rule of metahistorical inquiry:
By eliminating preemptive beliefs, we reclaim our capacity to perceive what human beings are really capable of doing. This enhanced perception includes the power to detect how lies and deception are perpetrated.
Whether it operates in the family scenario or in global politics, preemptive belief favors the perpetrator. Think of the countless times when a serial killer or pedophile has been apprehended and the neighbors are interviewed. This situation always produces the same sad story line. The community cannot believe he could have done it. “He was such a normal, decent guy, etc.” “He never behaved in a suspicious way.” “I can’t imagine how he could have done such a thing, or how anyone could.” The natural tendency of perpetrators to hide and to lie is favored by preemptive beliefs that cloud observation and impede critical thinking.
The Perpetrator Within
Due to the prevalent taboo, it seems quite horrible to disengage from preemptive beliefs. What kind of society would result if its members believed that each member, including oneself, could be perpetrating or abetting evil? The very suggestion conjures up visions of morbid suspicion, a situation leading to a Big Brother scenario. It reeks of a Stalinist paranoid mentality in which every citizen maliciously spies on every other. To think the worst of others is a bad option, compared to the ideal promoted by ethics, religious or secular: look for and expect the best in others as well as oneself. This outlook reflects a universal faith in an ideal model of ethical goodness, such as Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed.
But this idealism may not be as benevolent as it looks. Behind the taboo against on “thinking the worst of people” there is a bombshell waiting to explode. The taboo is irrational and charged by the very negative emotions it appears to reject. To believe that someone could commit evil is not to believe that they are doing so, or will do so, so this option does not fit the case of “thinking the worst of everyone, including oneself.” To believe that any human being, including oneself, could perpetrate evil is mindful caring. It demonstrates a realistic familiarity with the human species. To hold this belief, delimited by the careful qualifications stated above, is extremely positive and empowering, because it allows our skill for detecting lies and perpetration to be developed; but preemptive belief stymies this skill. Due to our neurolinguistically conditioned receptivity to preemptive belief, it leaves us powerless before the evil, both from without and within.
“Evil” in this context is simply the worst of which we are capable. Preemptive belief allows people to dissociate themselves from the potential for evil-doing innate to the human species, hence to deny the perpetrator within each one of us.
If we disallow that the US President could lie to the world in the global debate over Iraq, we have been well set-up for the game now unfolding. In the Clinton years millions saw the videotape of the President stating, with fierce conviction, “I did not have sex with that woman.” This recalls the old Greek logical formula, the three-part syllogysm:
Clinton is President.
Ergo: Presidents lie.
One might suppose that blatant proof that a President lied would erode or dislodge the preemptive belief the President could not lie to the people, but alas, this is not the case. The proof that the President does lie in one instance (provided by Bill Clinton) is not sufficient to counteract preemption, although it may signal a warning. Preemption has to be disabled at its source, in its operative syntax, not merely on the basis of one incident that shows us what we believe is wrong.
Society Against Itself
It is hard to overstate the liberating effect of detecting and disengaging ourselves from preemptive belief. To believe that a government official sworn to high authority could deliberately lie in public can produce in our minds a more powerful shift than exposing any of the lies such an official might pronounce. Why? Because the exposed lies can be denied, contradicted, discredited or simply spun into oblivion, leaving everyone baffled, heads spinning in a swarm of ambivalent issues, suspicious about dubious sources, confused by shaded and disputed facts. As with the lies and disinformation around the Kennedy assassination, one ends up believing everything and nothing. If, however, we come out of the debate about the murder of JFK believing that some faction in the US government could have perpetrated it, this belief is more potent than any “irrefutable” proof of who actually might have perpetrated it.
The belief that the American government could not act harmfully against its own citizens is more potent that any proof that it is doing so. Solid proof is hard to come by and lacking it we could wait a long time before deciding to act on suspected wrongdoing. The shift of syntax liberates the mind to inquire if wrongdoing does in fact occur, and if it does, to detect how it occurs. Operating through the syntax “it just could not be so,” preemptive belief automatically dismisses rational inquiry and obscures critical observation. It hampers judgement and makes us susceptible to manipulation by rhetoric. Worst of all, it precludes the perception of evil-doing and conceals the very presence of evil, within and without.
Eliminating preemptive belief is the single most empowering act we can direct against the operation of evil and deceit in personal, social and global situations. It is the beginning of the end of our collusion in everything that makes human society sick with lies and manipulation, and turns humanity against itself.