Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Kim Jong Il and the origins of credulity

The death of Kim Jong Il a few days ago has brought the country of North Korea into the news, and a lot of time has been devoted to exploring how the people of this country saw their odd, probably delusional leader -- and how they are viewing his son and heir, Kim Jong Un.

All of it has made me wonder about the origins of credulity.  Is it really possible to brainwash a whole nation?  What fraction of the people of North Korea honestly believe all of the nonsense they're saying -- and how many are just saying it because it's expedient, given the nature of the brutal, repressive regime they are subject to?

Let's look at a few of the things that have been claimed, regarding Kim Jong Il:
  • He was born on the sacred mountain, Mount Paektu, and as a baby was recognized as the future "savior of the North Korean people."  At his birth, soldiers inscribed his name on trees and rocks to celebrate his coming ascendancy.
  • The first time he ever picked up a bowling ball, he bowled a 300 -- a perfect game.
  • He's also miraculously good at golf -- in his first-ever golf game, he hit five holes-in-one, scoring 38 under par.
  • The day he died, a Manchurian crane, a traditional symbol of longevity, circled a statue of his father in the city of Hamhung for hours, and then landed, hung its head, and then flew off toward Pyongyang.
  • At the moment of his death, the glacier at the top of Mount Paektu "cracked with a deafening roar," and the skies glowed red.
So, I'm reading all of this, and I'm thinking, "They actually believe this stuff?"  Any one of these would have made me say, "Oh, come on," and probably burst out laughing, which is why I would probably not last long if I lived in North Korea, especially given the fact that I'd have followed it up with, "That pudgy little guy with the blotchy face and the weird hair and the gigantic glasses did not score a 38 under par golf game."

I know that mythologizing famous figures is a frequent practice; what I wonder is why common sense doesn't kick in at some point.  You get the impression that all it would take is one person guffawing, and shouting, "That's bullshit!" to blow the whole thing away.  But no one ever does, do they?  Now, I'm not trying to claim that the North Korean people are stupid; and I just don't believe you can brainwash someone so as to remove all traces of common sense without leaving them incapable of functioning.  Somehow, the intensive training these people receive as children, to consider their "Dear Leader" as a god, must create a peculiar blind spot in their logical facilities.  It's as if the principles of rationality work just fine in all venues except for one.

It's fine to use your brain in everyday life; at your job, at the grocery store, while you're driving, while you're home with family.  Everything there operates by the normal rules, science works, common sense works, logic works.  But Dear Leader?  No, Dear Leader can cause birds to fly around, and trigger bizarre geological and atmospheric phenomena, not to mention performing miraculous athletic feats.  And apparently, they all just nod their heads and say, "Yup.  Good old Dear Leader," despite the fact that all of it is clean contrary to the way they know the world works.

Of course, it'd be nice if such holes in rationality were limited to North Korea, but it's not just them, is it?  Mythologizing is hardly limited to the odd figure of Kim Jong Il; it just stands out in starker relief because we haven't been indoctrinated into that particular cult.  We have our own ways of straining credulity to the limit -- specific areas in which so many of us hear impossible, counter-rational nonsense, and sit there nodding and saying, "Yup.  Makes perfect sense."

And here, having thus skated to the edge of the thinnest of thin ice, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.


  1. Let's skate just a bit further. American politics, the GOP debates as only one of the many examples by all parties, have essentially consisted of the same kinds of mindless, blind following of essentially insane ideas. America is quite good at following mythologies too.

  2. Agree with ddugas. Our 24 hour news agencies deal in perception and propaganda, obfuscating the truth, even when it's transparent. The vast majority of Americans believe there is something fundamentally wrong with the collusion of business and politics, yet they are also easily convinced that OWS is just a drug-fueled party for underachieving, lazy hippies.

    *Dons Southern accent*
    Cut yer hair'n git a job, losers!


  3. "We have done two public opinion polls, one in 2009 and one just a few months ago. And in both cases, we found that Americans absolutely believe in this idea of American exceptionalism, that the United States is a country that promotes opportunity, that hard work and ambition are what matters the most for getting ahead. And the truth is the data doesn't support this idea that we as a nation have about ourselves."

  4. Man alive, nobody skated in the direction that I was anticipating.