I’m not a sociologist. Nor am I a political scientist, historian, psychologist, or any other type of remotely relevant expert.
But I am a citizen of 21st century America, a distinction I am less proud of than I once was. That’s because the world I exist in now is a far different world than it was ten, or even just five years ago, and I struggle to make sense of it all – what has changed, how did that happen, and what does it all mean?
The first question, at least, I think I can answer. Growing up, I was taught (as, presumably, were all of you) to trust in facts and evidence. In science classes I learned the scientific method, and to answer questions with quantifiable data that proved me right. If I told you that a plant grew, you could ask me how I was sure. If I had done the experiment correctly, I could show you dated photographs of that plant next to a ruler, proving not just that the plant grew, but when, and how much. And you would look pretty foolish if you said I was wrong.
In English and communications classes I learned to respectfully argue a topic, backing up my opinions with facts, statistics, and evidence, often gathered using the scientific method mentioned above. If I argued that the world should switch to nuclear power, I would cite data showing how much energy a nuclear power plant can produce per unit of uranium and compare that to how much energy a coal power plant can produce per unit of coal. Were you to disagree with my opinion, you could cite the half-life of radioactive waste, or the detrimental environmental impacts still felt at Chernobyl. You would not, however, claim that I was wrong about my quantitative data. That would be foolish, and any judge would give me the win in that debate.
That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
These days, if a fact, statistic, or piece of data hurts your argument – or strengthens your opponent’s – you simply invoke the “fake news” argument. This shifts the debate from whatever it was about in the beginning to being about the veracity of a singular supporting statement, a debate that can’t be won or lost as long as one side keeps shouting “fake news” in response to anything that damages their argument. It’s simple, yet effective.
And let’s be honest, nobody wants to lose an argument, to be forced to admit that they were wrong, or even to change their minds about a topic. But to go into an argument knowing, with absolute certainty, that you will not be changing your mind – even in the face of insurmountable evidence – is to give up on any chance of it being a civil debate. If everyone did this, no compromises would exist, no opinions would evolve, and no one would learn anything. All progress would stop. The government might shut down.
To deny evidence is to not just deny reality, but to create your own. Conversations don’t function well in two different realities, each with their own set of tailor-made facts. The frustrating part of it is that it only takes one person to shut down the conversation, argument, or debate this way; there will be the true reality, the way things really are, and there will be the fake reality someone created to further their own agenda. This is the world we live in, the world of “fake news.” The implications are scary, but I’ll get into that later.
First, I want to talk about how we got here. I blame it on the rise of modern American populism, which I pretty much have to blame on President Trump.
Beyond just coining the very phrase “fake news,” he also stoked fears about the unknown “other,” and resentment against the “elite.” Preaching directly to white, working class, predominantly Christian Americans, Trump stoked fear and hatred toward Muslims and Mexicans alike. It worked both because he was saying what they wanted to hear (he would protect them from Muslims destroying their religion and Mexicans taking their jobs and tax dollars), and because his political opponents pushed them directly into his arms. However baseless the threats he said he would protect them from were, they were and are deeply rooted fears in his target demographic. And when his opponents called his rhetoric racist, his supporters took it as a personal affront, pushed ever deeper into the fold. Americans have always resented the elite, whether out of jealousy or a perception of them being an obstacle in pursuit of the American Dream, but I have a hard time understanding how Trump managed to harness this resentment for his own use.
A billionaire with a supposedly solid college education, Trump seems to come directly from the elite he purports to fight against, but his speeches – by design or not – were delivered to the lowest common denominator; no one needed even a high school education to understand everything he said. And with a large portion of his constituents lacking advanced degrees, it was easy to paint scientists as the educated evil elite. Besides, their data was bad for business. Farmers knew that regulations on herbicides and pesticides come from scientists deciding it was bad for the environment, and they know that they can make more money without those regulations. Likewise, workers in the coal and the oil industries knew that cutting down on fossil fuels emissions would cut into profits, and it was the scientists telling their customers to do so. This laid a solid foundation for the anti-science platform he continues to use today, and his constituents continue to support it.
An outlier, to me at least, is the anti-vaxxer movement. Nobody stands to profit from deregulations, and without the impetus of capitalism to explain the phenomenon, it must come directly from a mistrust of science. But looking at the demographics of anti-vaxxers is confusing too, because a large percentage of anti-vaxxers are upper class, often well-educated women. Many of them didn’t even vote for Trump, and are often liberal voters! This is emblematic that the modern American populist movement is bigger than Trump (Bernie Sanders ran on a populist platform as well, only the “elite” he demonized for his base were the super wealthy) as many people that wouldn’t be caught dead saying “fake news” have no problem with dismissing scientific evidence that goes against their beliefs. They don’t realize it, but they’re creating their own realities, too.
But what does it all mean for the future? The truth of it is that I’m not sure. I am afraid, though, because a post-truth, post-reality world is an objectively scary place. It evokes shades of Orwell’s dystopian 1984. I’m certainly not saying every American rejects truth that doesn’t agree with them, but I think a large enough majority do that our country is deeply wounded. No longer can two people with different political ideologies engage in a conversation about a hot-button issue, and have one of them learn enough facts to change their mind and find common ground. Every conversation with a political connotation will grind a stalemate, unless both participants agree with each other to begin with. That’s scary in itself, because it will only confirm existing biases and make beliefs even more deeply rooted.
An interesting – albeit nerve-wracking – test is about to be put to Americans. Robert Mueller’s years-long investigation is a nearing a conclusion, and he has been continuously discredited by the president the whole time. I believe the Trump administration colluded with Russia during the election (though I am prepared to believe it did not, if that’s what Mueller found), and if Trump is indicted, or impeachment proceedings begin, the cries of “fake news” will reach new volumes. The complicating factor here is that the majority of that report cannot be made public for reasons of national security. With so much doubt cast over facts that can be made public, how will these redacted facts be received? Trump has spent years attacking Mueller’s credibility, does Mueller have enough left to be believed? I think for a certain portion of America, the answer is no. If that’s the case, the Mueller investigation will appear – to that specific subset of America, at least – like a blatant coup. Coups are the most common cause of civil wars. I know I’m being paranoid by mentioning that, but it’s a true and concerning point.
In the case that Trump is innocent, what happens if he gains more support, convinces more Americans to abandon true reality in favor of his reality?
Our government functions on civil discourse and compromise – all democracies do! What does a world without compromise look like? I hope we don’t find out.
**I intentionally used as few facts as possible; you can disagree with my opinion, but you can’t call it fake news.**
PS: Please feel free to leave your comments and opinions below; I’d love to read what y’all think about all this, as long as you’re respectful and don’t dispute facts!