Generations ago, hunter-gatherers who had even the slightest sense that there were lions nearby were generally wise to assume there were and act accordingly, even if the actual chances were negligible. Their survival depended on it. After all, if there is even a 1% chance of being eaten alive in the next hour, you are probably best to move on.
We are therefore pre-disposed towards belief, and away from doubt. After all, there is simply no room for doubt if there is even a 1% chance it will lead to death. Therefore, once we have determined something is the case, it is extraordinarily difficult to persuade us otherwise.
Let us take the demonstrable fact that the DUP is homophobic – it has Councillors who blame hurricanes on gays, MLAs who describe homosexuality as an “abomination”, MPs who describe it as “repellent”, Ministers who equate it to paedophilia and as a corporate is involved in bringing forward a bill which would effectively legalise discrimination against homosexuals; needless to say, it has never had an openly homosexual elected representative. The evidence speaks for itself and is, rationally, indisputable.
Firstly, there are in Northern Ireland thousands of social conservatives from a Protestant background for whom this homophobia is a fundamental part of their belief system. Determination to hold what we have and draw security from – from Royal Family to nuclear family – is an innate part of who they are. It is astonishingly difficult to shift that belief system, despite the compelling evidence all around us that things have moved on. Doubt in this belief system is not to be tolerated – after all, it suggests insecurity and uncertainty (things social conservatives inherently dislike) and even risk of survival.
Secondly, there is another group who are actually not homophobic and who support social conservatives for other reasons (security policy, straightforward nationality or low tax). Remarkably to others but quite obviously to themselves, they simply deny, again as part of the belief system, that to vote DUP is to vote for an innately homophobic party. They deem homophobic statements regrettable but see them as “isolated incidents” – despite the fact evidentially there are lots of incidents and precious little isolation. Again, it is astonishingly difficult to bring doubt into this belief system.
At the other end we have social liberals – typically young, well educated, well travelled and professional – who have just as strong a belief system. This belief system is at the other end of the spectrum but is just as rigid (it also happens to be mine) . Again, even a hint of doubt in obvious markers of social-liberal progress such as same-sex marriage is regarded as behind the pale and not even to be engaged with – anybody even engaging with doubters is regarded as clearly uncivilised and untrustworthy. At an extreme, you end up with the view that officials should be sacked for not believing in climate change and religious faith should not be tolerated, as both are obviously irrational and therefore have no place in this apparently innately advanced belief system.
This intolerance of doubt is alarming, regardless of its source. In fact, people who really care about all of society should always allow for a reasonable dose of doubt – to do otherwise is to be closed and ultimately bigoted (yes, social liberals can be bigoted in the strict sense of the word too). Particularly, they should always be willing to change their views in the light of new evidence, and not just within the confines of their own belief system – they should not just wait for “the other side” to do this. Without this compromise, and ultimately social harmony, is impossible.