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Approaching the Civil War Rationally – Part One: Facts, Bias and Dopamine

The study of history must always be approached with a sober, critical mind. While this task may be simple for the distant past or when learning the history of other cultures, it’s often an insurmountable prerequisite when it comes to the American Civil War. As Americans, we are reared in the lore and traditions of the Civil War era. Because of this ingrained upbringing, it is often difficult for us to understand that much of what we believe to be true, might not actually be based upon historical evidence.

Through this three-part series, we’ll try to understand what it takes to become a rational and critical thinker, especially when it comes to the study of the Civil War. We’ll also look at the pitfalls of bias, as well as some of our most bothersome logical fallacies. We will, I hope, learn how to become better students as well as teachers of history.

When I first became interested in the Civil War, I gravitated toward the pro-Confederate side of the conflict. Like many neo-Confederates, I insisted that slavery had almost nothing to do with secession, let alone the war, and I was certain that thousands upon thousands of black Southerners willingly picked up rifles to fight for the Confederacy. I had Confederate flag bumper stickers, practically worshiped books by the Kennedy brothers, and believed that Lincoln was a racist tyrant.

But the more I studied the war, the more I studied the words of the Confederacy’s founders, and the as I read into how the seceded states tried to sell secession to the border states, the more I understood that what I thought to be factual history wasn’t actually history at all. At best, it was wishful thinking and blind hope. For personal reasons, I was willing to deceive myself.

This realization led me down a path to becoming a better history researcher and communicator. It made me take an honest look at my biases, my flawed logic, and completely reassess my approach to history.

In our first segment, we’ll outline the basics of rational historical thought and communication.

Approaching History as Science

To properly study history, we need a basic respect for evidence regardless of what we wish the “truth” to be. We also must have a healthy amount of humility to admit our beliefs might actually be wrong. History is a process, and you never stop studying. Our conclusions should never be so final that they are unchangeable in the face of insurmountable evidence.

W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the first historians to analyse and deconstruct the Lost Cause mythology in his 1935 classic  Black Reconstruction in America.
W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the first historians to analyse and deconstruct the Lost Cause mythology in his 1935 classic Black Reconstruction in America.

History should be approached like one might approach science. Neutrality, critical thinking, and a healthy dose of skepticism are essential. Without even knowing that I was doing it, I eventually began to see holes in my neo-Confederate philosophy. I saw the inconsistencies and mental gymnastics that it took to bend and shape history into what has been more lately called heritage.

Bias Might Not Be What You Think It Is

Our brains love internal consistency. This flaw allows us to read almost anything and, if we’re not careful, pick out the stuff that supports our opinion, and disregard anything that doesn’t. This is known as confirmation bias.

Our brains don’t care at all about accuracy or whether something is factual or not. All it wants is internal consistency, and confirmation bias is most often how it gets what it wants. We may not be consciously or purposely deceiving ourselves, but our minds naturally accept anything that supports our convictions and similarly they disregard anything that doesn’t.

For example, if we’re discussing wartime atrocities and the only example we can think of is General Sherman’s march to the sea, we might be accidentally disregarding the burning of Chambersburg, the kidnapping of free blacks, or most of Quantrell’s entire wartime career. Yet, if we approach history away from our biases, we won’t be coming at it with any pro- or anti- stance concerning the sides which fought a century and a half ago. 1As an aside, if you read this paragraph and attempted to come up with more “Yankee atrocities” to counter my examples, you might want to start this article over.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Our brains will not only skew or forget facts, but will actually invent new “facts” if we’re not careful. In this respect, just look into the purported back stories of slaves like Silas Chandler, who many neo-Confederates claim to be a “black Confederate.” Practically nothing is known of his personality, his beliefs or his life, really, yet an entire character was invented and circulated by folks like Dixie Outfitters who believe their own stories enough to iron it on a t-shirt. 2Seriously, you can’t even bother to screen print it?)

But I can hardly blame them. We all have a tendency to accept only the evidence that supports our beliefs. We rationalize away or simply reject any evidence that is counter to our thinking. Surrounded by what we believe to be perfect and impeachable evidence, we are dumbfounded that anyone with half a brain could disagree with us.

In the past, my belief that “the South was Right” was so strong that it overshadowed my reasoning and critical thinking. The brain loves to pass things through filters, it loves to pick and choose what to believe. If we let it run rampant, we’ll believe whatever makes us feel good rather than whatever is factual.

Let’s Roll Another One (or, Cognitive Dissidence vs, Dopamine)

When we try to hold onto two conflicting ideas at once, it actually causes us emotional pain – our brains hate this cognitive dissidence. As soon as I began to read things like the Cornerstone Speech or the Declaration of Causes – what to speak of the addresses given by the various secession commissioners – I began to find it impossible to acknowledge both conflicting ideas as fact. Before long, I just gave up and decided that the evidence was more important than my emotional need to be correct. 3The Cornerstone Speech. Declaration of Causes. Obviously, it was a lot more than just these two documents. Much of it came when studying the origins of the war for my previous blog The Civil War Daily Gazette.

Had I sided with my emotions instead, I would have had to rationalize the two conflicting accounts. 4I could have, like Alexander Stephens, denied that he actually said that the Confederacy was based upon the cornerstone of slavery. Though he approved of the publication of the address immediately after he gave it. See this. In so many different ways, we can rationalize to oblivion almost any evidence. This is handy since it allows us to bend the evidence to support our own opinion without causing too much emotional pain.

In fact, doing so is quite the opposite of pain. As soon as our brains figure out how to rationalize something, we are rewarded with a dose of dopamine. We’re actually getting high off of our own deception! No wonder it’s so hard to break this cycle. It cannot be overstated that our brains are really, really good at this. Turns out, we love dopamine. 5There’s a bit about that here as well as here.

In the past, when I’d read a book such as Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation, which clearly demonstrates how essential slavery was to the Confederate war effort, I’d have no problem dismissing it because it was published by a university press. I just knew that Levin was enthralled by academia and had been brainwashed by Yankee revisionism. Of course, I was wrong, but that really didn’t matter to me because I knew I was right. ((The book, very worth owning, can be previewed here.

This type of self-deception usually leads to various inconsistencies in our logic. While our brains might feel satisfied, in actuality, we’ve simply fooled ourselves and deceived those engaged with us in discussions. It’s essential to the study of history (and to life, really) to understand how to identify these inconsistencies and root them out.

In our next segment, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of logical fallacies we most often encounter in Civil War studies.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.