You’re don’t look prejudiced to me. You look pretty cool, pretty right thinking (which is to say left-thinking), pretty socially liberal, pretty passionate about social justice. We’ll probably agree on a lot of stuff. We’ll probably get on. Chris Thorpe isn’t happy with that, he wants to know why. He wants to know why a bunch of left-wingers can stand at the same point in the same revolving world and see two completely different panoramas shifting around them. He wants to talk about interpretation of evidence, he wants to talk about prejudice.
Confirmation bias is the topic of Thorpe’s impassioned one-man show, which sees him stalk around his forum audience like a cross between a political science lecturer and a panther. Thorpe has been reading The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which examines the ‘moral matrices’ we use to interpret the world and develop tribal bonds. They’re the things that make one man’s euthanasia another man’s murder, one man’s irrefutable evidence of climate change another man’s political smoke-screen.
Thorpe tests his audience with some simple games, showing us how rules are formed and tested via example on their ways to becoming the opinions or perspectives we hold dear. Front-loaded with easy-access, TED-friendly science, Confirmation has its drier points whetted by Thorpe’s ardent, almost aggressive presentation. As he explains his decision to confront his own prejudices through conversations with figures from the extreme right, he makes no effort to soften the vehemence of his own beliefs, even as he strips their surfaces away to reveal the cognitive scaffolding that supports them.
Thorpe tells us he was explicitly warned not to seek out the extremities of the far-right to be his interview subjects, and there’s a disappointing feeling that this advice was not heeded. There are moments of power in his description of his tea and biscuits with Geoff, owner of a white supremacist website, but when the subject’s views are such patent absurdities, he begins to look rather like a straw man. Holocaust denial may offer a splashy example of confirmation bias at its most potent, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting for Thorpe to contrast his views with a more mainstream right-winger? To discover the differences in pattern recognition that create an austerity-wild Tory or a campaigner for social justice?
It feels like a missed opportunity, but it can’t capsize what remains an enthralling and forceful commentary on the power of pre-conceived ideas. Confirmation may not teach us anything directly about the base-code of our own personal matrices, or those that underpin contemporary politics, but it’s a vital shake-down of moral and intellectual complacency. Thorpe writes to provoke and performs to confront, and this is a challenge issued with crystal clarity to think deeper and look harder. Our tribes and our biases may give us vital solidarity and sustenance, but they’re also the path to totalitarianism and to horror on an unspeakable scale.