The Frustration of Fact Deniers in a Post-Truth Nation
Have you ever had a debate with a friend who thought she was voicing a difference of opinion, but, in actuality, displayed a total disregard for, well, reality?
Usually, it’s a viewpoint on politics or religion that makes us think, “Huh, I’ve read about people like this, but I didn’t know I knew one.”
Unfortunately, since the 2016 election, this phenomenon occurs more frequently. However, it’s no longer limited to personal interactions. In the post-truth era of fake news and spin-doctors, polarizing media outlets and online echo chambers, the great mental divide may now result from a single tweet.
To call it disconcerting is an understatement, as it minimizes the endless permutations of thought that inevitably follow…
- How can someone refuse to believe facts so self-evident they’re taken for granted? (See deniers of the Holocaust or the Earth being round.)
- How can someone lack a basic understanding of the human sciences? (See questioners of climate change or the theory of evolution.)
- How can someone so easily be misled by propagandists? (See believers of immigration causing crime or raising the minimum wage causing job loss.)
In the information age, it’s downright dangerous to put gut feelings over reason, especially when knowledge is only a keyboard click away. Today, the truth has been obscured to unprecedented levels, whether it’s vaccines causing autism, or Iraq having WMDs. (It doesn’t. They didn’t.)
The worst offender is the President:
Education was supposed to be the great equalizer, immunizing us against crackpot theories and urban legends. Critical thinking was supposed to protect us from propaganda and political myths. And science was supposed to dismiss snake oil and misconceptions.
Yet the college-educated are equally susceptible; and the divide between the reality-based community and the rest of the country only deepens.
It’s led to a reluctant realization:
To be informed in Modern America is to be a modern-day Cassandra.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a princess who caught the eye of Apollo. As a token of his love, he gifted her the ability to see the future. But when she spurned him, it became a curse, for no one would believe her prophecy.
Cassandra famously warned the city of Troy about the Trojan horse, but her pleas fell on deaf ears, and the city fell to foreign invaders. Likewise, those who try to sound the alarm in our own times find a similarly tragic response: disbelief, dismissal, even derision.
The ability to see inconvenient truths and their consequences should be an asset to civilization, but like Cassandra, it’s often a curse.
No matter how hard we try to educate or inform, we are often helpless to do anything but bear witness to tragedy, while others remain blissfully ignorant at the public’s expense.
“Cassandra captivates our imagination…because she embodies that baffled rage that we all feel when no one else can see what we see,” writes Margaret Heffernan in Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Own Peril:
“The epitome of frustration, because she is doomed always to be right, Cassandra shows us that the truth is knowable, but won’t necessarily set us free.”
How can so many of us be so willfully blind – denying truths that are too painful or frightening to accept?
Heffernan explains that after an industrial or organizational failure, individuals will inevitably surface who foresaw the crisis, and even warned about it, only to be mocked or ignored.
“Many, perhaps even most, of the greatest crimes have been committed not in the dark, hidden where no one could see them, but in full view of so many people who simply chose not to look and not to question. Whether in the Catholic Church, the SEC, Nazi Germany, Madoff’s funds, the embers of BP’s refinery, the military in Iraq, or the dog-eat-dog world of sub-prime mortgage lenders, the central challenge posed by each case was not harm that was invisible – but harm that so many preferred to ignore…Cassandras may see the truth, but they inspire fury because those truths were so energetically and necessarily hidden, and because their revelations demand change.”
It’s easy to dismiss truth tellers or whistleblowers who warn about inconvenient truths or disrupt the status quo. It’s easier to deny, to believe the lie, rather than risk the discomfort of critical thinking.
We do this when we choose to believe everyone is treated equally under the rule of law, regardless of race, sex, or color, and when we fail to see discrimination unless we personally suffer from it, be it whites refusing to see why Black Lives Matter, or men failing to recognize sexism.
This ignorance is commonly referred to as our “privilege.” Unless we have suffered the same abuse ourselves, it’s all too easy to deny it exists.
Journalist Michael Specter refers to this type of willful blindness as denialism.
As he explains in his book of the same name:
“We have all been in denial at some point in our lives; faced with truths too painful to accept, rejection often seems the only way to cope. Under those circumstances, facts, no matter how detailed or irrefutable, rarely make a difference. Denialism is…when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”
It’s easier for those who drive gas guzzlers to believe climate change isn’t a threat to human survival, despite 281 gigatonnes of melting ice per year, 3.4 mm rise in sea levels per year, and nearly 2% rise in temperatures the last century. It’s easier to accept the lies of the multi-billion-dollar oil industry over 97% of the scientific community and their 15,000 peer-reviewed articles.
The roots of such denial lie in the brain. For many of us, there is a cognitive barrier than prohibits us from accepting such disruptive truths.
Social scientist Leon Festinger labeled this gap between what we believe and objective reality as “cognitive dissonance.” Each time our beliefs clash with reality, we seek to dispel one of them in order to restore our internal harmony. We do this subconsciously – it’s our own internal coping mechanism.
“Merely hoping for the best will not prevent the worst…When a risk is unlikely – and unpleasant to consider – there is often a strong desire to overlook it. The explanation is that human beings must continue living, day in, day out, despite the risks we all face, whether it’s a car crash, a theft, an act of terrorism, or a visit to your bedroom by a random serial killer with a hatchet. But with the help of laws, government regulations, and technology, we face fewer risks each year.”
This is why we turn a blind eye when police kill three times more black citizens than white, even when unarmed and innocent. It’s why we ignore the fact there are more black men in prison than were enslaved before the Civil War, even though poor youth of color are less likely to commit crimes than whites. It’s why we ignore how blacks are more likely to be targeted with unconstitutional stop and frisks, more likely to serve longer sentences, and more likely to receive the death penalty.
Festinger concluded that once we’ve settled on a core belief, this shapes how we process new information.
“More specifically, we are likely to try to avoid encountering claims and information that challenge that belief, because these will create cognitive dissonance. The technical term for this phenomenon is ‘selective exposure’: what it means is that we selectively choose to be exposed to information that is congenial to our beliefs, and to avoid ‘inconvenient truths’ that are uncongenial to them.”
It’s why when Fox News repeatedly reminds us of petty welfare fraud, we willingly ignore the 1.65 million Americans living off $2 a day, and fail to question why 50 million Americans live in poverty with tens of millions more in near poverty. And despite calling ourselves Christian, we disregard our childhood poverty rate, which is the second highest in the developed world.
To feel secure in our own status, we judge the poor to be lazy, rather than acknowledge nearly a third of all workers earn only $15,000 while the poverty level is $25,000. It’s easier to assume when 49% of Americans live in a home that receives money from the government, that they’re moochers instead of attributing the lack of economic growth to mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing, and profit motives.
It’s easy to assume the poor don’t seek employment while ignoring an actual unemployment rate of 11.3%, and ignoring that only 44% of U.S. jobs are full-time. Or that our living standard has declined so much, the rate of death has increased for a large segment of the white population.
It’s easier to allow our fellow Americans to die in squalor than feel that even one of them may undeservingly qualify for a meager $300 a month. In other words, “the poor must deserve their poverty.” Or else, we’d be compelled to help them.
“In public policy, as in science, there are truths and there are untruths, and the wrong actions can have dire consequences. It has proven untrue that deeply slashing income taxes promotes investment and creates an increase in tax revenues; it has proven disastrously untrue that deregulation the financial sector benefits the consumer; it has proven tragically untrue that abandoning social-welfare spending and locking up millions of young black men solve the problems of the inner city.”
The fervency with which people believe these things does not make them true. And ignoring the problems and their consequences do not make either go away.
Delusion provides comfort when we lack the constitution to confront the truth – and lack the moral responsibility to change it.
It is not knowledge, nor intelligence, nor wisdom that creates a Cassandra.
It’s courage - courage to accept the truth no matter the cost, and the courage to help others see it too.
“We admit information that makes us feel great, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation, and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia.”
For those of us with the courage to accept life’s most inconvenient truths, we have neither the will nor the luxury for illusion.
We are Cassandras in a world where too many of us remain unwilling to question our own beliefs.
To be a Cassandra is to know the pain of isolation, the soul of despair, and the hope that if enough of us continue to speak the truth, eventually, someone may hear it.