As Amanda Gorman so beautifully said in her inaugural poem, “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
How did we the people stray so far from truth? The tribalism of today’s politics has created warring factions (far-left woke posturers vs. radical-right propagandists) that routinely assault truth, reason, and tolerance. It’s more difficult than ever to have a conversation grounded in reality.
Fear, identity politics, and the vice grip of power play a role.
Many fear the change necessary to move the country toward reason and equitability. Fear is fueling the explosion of identity politics that radicalizes citizens and leaders who are willing to lie and cheat to maintain power.
Social media and the cable news ecosystem, where opinion displaces truth, have amplified this trend. Fox News (a.k.a., Faux News), NewsMax, Facebook, Twitter, and other purveyors of propaganda have purposefully, or carelessly, allowed the spread of misinformation. News and posts don’t reside in rational thought and facts but rather in sensational, alluring opinions. It only takes a casual glance at the nightmarish assault on the Capitol to see the consequences of the attack on truth. Armed for war and hunting the vice president and speaker of the House, these domestic terrorists were the product of brainwashing at the hands of cowardly leaders more concerned about their next election than what’s best for the country. The insurgents were both perpetrators and victims, and they’re prime examples of human frailty
The January 6th insurrection is forcing us to consider difficult questions, among them:
· Why are humans so susceptible to untruths spoken as truths?
· Why is it so hard for people to separate fact from fiction?
· What are steps that can be taken to protect the truth?
I believe the answers can be traced back to our elemental stories. As the poet, Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
Yes, those in power who are spreading lies should be held accountable, but a lie survives only when we received and believed. As human receivers our brains filter all incoming data, we aren’t simple mechanical receptors like TV and radio antennae — message sent, message received.
From birth, we’re defined by the narratives we adopt from the culture we grow up in, the religion we learn, our educational opportunities, our families, our friends. Each influence contributes to our stories about what’s right, what’s beautiful, what’s fair, what’s frightening. We’re natural storytellers. Those narratives are inspiring… until they’re not.
Our senses deliver billions of bits of information to our brains every moment of waking life, and in a nanosecond, our brains weigh incoming data against our beliefs and experiences, make assumptions, and deliver a seemingly cohesive story.
As the Talmud said, “We don’t see reality as it is. We see reality as we are.”
For example, I grew up believing I wasn’t man enough. The synopsis of that long story is that my father and grandfather shaped my story of manhood. I innocently gave their voice authority and adopted as fact their opinion of what a “real man” was. A similar dynamic played out in the lives of every Capitol invader. Similar but different, I lived by a cultural story believed by my grandfather, while the people assaulting the capital gave great authority to leaders intentionally perpetuating lies.
Understanding our stories is a first step in distinguishing between fact and fiction. Our stories are comprised of three elements: facts, emotions, and opinions.
This is what happened, this is how I feel, and this is what I think. It seems simple. Then how does the difference between fact and opinion cause so much trouble?
There is no such thing as alternative facts. Facts are the foundation of science because they’re so firm and cannot be argued. Without them, science would die, and democracy would be lost.
Our opinions are a reflection of our beliefs, biases, and experiences. They’re the root of our identities and perspectives. Our opinions are complex, and they reveal our desires, concerns, relationship to power, and the standards we live by. Without them, we would be lost.
Our emotions are a physical manifestation of our opinions. They’re what we feel based on our interpretations of the world. Investigate your emotions and you will find an underlying story. Anger arises from my belief that I have been wronged. Sadness reflects my belief that something happened that shouldn’t have. Happiness is an expression of satisfaction.
So simple, yet so complex.
My work in the last twenty-five years has made me appreciate the importance of the painful but enlightening process of self-reflection — becoming aware of our judgments, beliefs, prejudices, relationships to authority, and egos. It’s the thinking behind our thinking. In the absence of self-awareness, negative stories hijack reality. Racists can’t see the humanity in all people. Conspiracists can’t hear the truth behind the lies. Without reality-based facts, our positions are poisoned. Our emotions run rampant.
Last year I removed myself from multiple conversations that were not based on fact or open and collaborative. I tried numerous times to have reason-based interactions, but I simply hit brick walls. Clients touted untruths, relatives spouted QAnon craziness, and friends promoted false equivalencies. For me, those conversations based on emotions and strong opinions without supporting facts weren’t worth having. Collaborative conversations — comparing differing positions and wrangling over solutions — are key to compromise and tolerance. I have studied conversations for twenty-five years and have advised many people about ways to have better conversations, but I also know that when facts are relegated to the trash heap, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk away from conversations not grounded in truth. To keep engaging in ungrounded conversations is harmful psychologically and physically and a subtle form of sustaining untruths.
Others’ opinions belong to them.
In conversation with people who have strong opposing opinions, we respond partly by what voices we grant authority.
The first — and most common — response is to take it personally. Someone we respect throws a piece of red-hot judgment at us, and it burns as we let it sink into our psyche.
We can choose to catch it but not let it in. As Miquel Ruiz says in his book The Four Agreements, “Don’t take things personally.” The second response requires accepting that the judgment thrown our way says more about the thrower than about us. It’s their story, their opinion. We can choose to give their voice no authority and throw their harsh judgment to the wind.
The third response, which is only possible if we respect and grant authority to the thrower’s voice, is to catch it with curiosity and humility. Then we can say, “Let’s talk about this opinion of yours. I’m open to hearing more about your position. Let’s start by agreeing on a few facts.”
Conversations are a dance; they are not solo performances. It takes two to tango. All parties have to participate in good faith with respect and a commitment to facts. Otherwise, there is no dance.
What to do? Where to begin?
Politicians who privately recognize the damage bad faith actors have had on our democratic republic would do a great service with one simple act — publicly tell the truth about the election and promote fair and open elections in the future. If they could find the courage to do that, they would free themselves of the insidious cult of lies in which they are entangled. Their freedom to speak the truth may serve them surprisingly well in upcoming elections.
It is time to seriously reconsider how to hold social media and news outlets accountable for pushing lies with no regard for verifiable facts. Without diminishing vigorous dialogue on opposing views, new regulations could require a commitment for information based in fact, to better serve the common good. An amendment to or reexamination of the 1949 Fairness Doctrine would be a good start.
And we, the people, are part of the dance. What kind of receptors do we want to be — awake and aware, or asleep? Awake, our response is informed and grounded. Asleep, we remain uninformed, deceived, and vulnerable. As we march toward a more perfect union, let’s hope that reason, facts, and robust conversations prevail.