Motivated Reasoning, and Vigilantism

Two themes today.

  • A prime example of motivated reasoning, from today’s NY Times font page (as if on cue from yesterday’s post), about conservative opposition to transgenders
  • And several examples of the increasing Republican approval of vigilantism

NY Times, 16 May 2023: How a Few Stories of Regret Fuel the Push to Restrict Gender Transition Care, subtitled “In the campaign to ban gender therapies for minors, Republicans have amplified a group of activists who no longer identify as transgender, overriding objections from transgender people and medical experts.”

What I quoted and said yesterday:

“Motivated reasoning makes us come up with reasons for believing things that we wish to be true.” And the ignoring of evidence of things we wish not to be true. This is the prominent strain of thought among conservatives.

(Pretty much the same as the cherry picking fallacy.)

According to this NYT article, on today’s front page, Republicans have managed to find a handful of — no more than 10 — people who transitioned and then changed their minds and detransitioned. And are parading these people around the country to speak to conservative legislatures to support bans against transgender treatment for minors. The article opens:

When Missouri lawmakers took up bills to ban transition care for minors, Chloe Cole, an activist from California, traveled to Jefferson City to offer her story as Exhibit A.

After living as a transgender boy for years and getting a mastectomy at 15, Ms. Cole says she felt stifled by a male identity and distraught by her body’s changes. She decided to detransition, returning to her female identity.

She also decided to speak out. She has told her story in Florida, and in Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah. Republican lawmakers typically listen attentively, sometimes in tears. In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida relayed Ms. Cole’s story in his State of the State address, while she received a standing ovation.

Yes, there’s a secondary issue here, beyond transitioning — it’s doing so as a minor, and maybe minors aren’t mature enough to make such an irreversible decision. (I could make similar comments about minors being inculcated into religion.) What would be relevant is to know how many minors transition and don’t regret it. Far far more than 10, I’d guess. The article does address this:

As more American teenagers have identified as transgender, it is difficult to say how many will transition medically — many transgender people do not — and precisely how many will later change course. Methodology, demographics and even the definition of detransition vary widely from study to study, which typically show that between 2 percent and 13 percent of people detransition, and not always because of regret.

But conservatives don’t want to hear from the majority who are happy with their new lives:

Their stories of regret and irreversible physical transformation have tapped into strong emotions about rapidly shifting gender norms — from hardened prejudice to parental worry. Lawmakers have used these accounts to override objections from all major medical associations, which oppose bans on transition care, as well as testimony from the far larger number of transgender people who say transitioning improved their mental health.

“They don’t really care,” said Chelsea Freels, 17, a transgender high school student in Missouri who testified at legislative hearings there to oppose bills that Ms. Cole supported. Ms. Freels says hormone therapy has helped her thrive. She is more comfortable socially and deeply involved on the robotics team. But she says Republican lawmakers look away when she tells them this story.

Conservatives don’t believe experts. They *know* what is right. And simply won’t listen to people who, through personal experience, tell them otherwise.


A sampling of recent headlines from a site that follows what conservatives say about trans people.

Owens: Trans People Are A “Cancer We Should Fight”

Florida Rep: Trans People Are “Demons And Mutants”

Newsmax Host: Trans People Are Worse Than Nazis

Carlson: Trans People Are “Natural Enemies” Of Jesus

Anti-LGBTQ Extremist Ejected From Texas Hearing After Repeatedly Declaring Trans People To Be “Pedophiles”

These people know not of what they speak.


And this:

Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist, 17 May 2023: Hate-preacher: Parents who let trans kids get surgery should be “shot in the back of the head”, subtitled “‘There should be no excuse to not put these people to death,’ added New Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher Jason Graber”

Of course, hate-preachers used to say this about gays, too, and perhaps some of them still do. Christian love!


If conservatives seem not to respect the freedoms of people to make their own decisions about their lives, they increasingly don’t seem to believe in law and order, either.

NY Times, Jamelle Bouie, 16 May 2023: The Republican Embrace of Vigilantism Is No Accident

It’s been nearly three years since the riots and subsequent shooting in Kenosha, Wis., where a gunman — Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from nearby Antioch, Ill. — killed two protesters in what a court eventually determined was self-defense.

Among the most troubling aspects of the shooting was the almost jubilant reaction of conservative media to the news that someone had taken the law into his own hands and meted out lethal force. Tucker Carlson praised Rittenhouse as someone who decided “to maintain order when no one else would.” Ann Coulter said she wanted Rittenhouse “as my president.” Marjorie Taylor Greene, then a candidate, called him an “innocent child,” and Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky praised Rittenhouse for his “incredible restraint.”

With further, more recent, examples.


Washington Post, Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman, 16 May 2023: Opinion | DeSantis’s celebration of vigilantism is a new low in MAGA extremism

When Ron DeSantis defended Daniel Penny, the former Marine accused of killing a man suffering from mental illness on a New York City subway, the Florida governor didn’t just laud Penny as a hero. He also cast the law enforcement apparatus prosecuting Penny as presumptively illegitimate.

In so doing, DeSantis joined many on the right seeking to transform Penny into a martyr being punished by the “deep state” for supposedly defending civil order. But this is particularly sobering coming from DeSantis; it suggests the two leading contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination — DeSantis and former president Donald Trump — are open celebrators of vigilante “justice.”

“Law and order” and “tough on crime” rhetoric from Republicans goes back more than half a century and has a long history of shading into support for vigilantism in popular culture. (Think of Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.”) But in the Trump era, it seems that wide swaths of one of our major parties have taken to blatantly celebrating extralegal violence.


The Hill, 16 May 2023: Haley says NY governor should pardon Daniel Penny in subway case (via Haley: New York Gov Should Pardon “Brave” Vigilante)

Penny pinned Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man who had a history with mental illness, to the floor of a subway on May 1 after Neely apparently began yelling at passengers and acting erratically and in an aggressive manner. Witnesses have said Neely said he was hungry and thirsty and did not care if he went to jail or died but was not physically threatening anyone.

Penny held Neely in a chokehold for about 15 minutes, causing Neely to lose consciousness. He was pronounced dead shortly after at a hospital.

Also, Daniel Penny is white, and the victim, Jordan Neely, was black. You don’t think Republicans would be supporting the killer if the racial roles were reversed? Can you imagine how *that* would have played out? A crazy white guy on a subway train being restrained, and killed, by a black guy??

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