fact – noun – the quality of existing or of being real; actuality; truth.
I feel like we’ve been sliding further and further into a multi-dimensional reality with no mutually agreed upon truth.
I don’t ever remember people questioning Walter Cronkite’s ability to honestly and correctly report the news. Signing off with his signature “And that’s the way it is,” it was pretty much unilaterally accepted that that’s the way it is. News programs took reporting the facts seriously and avoided venturing into opinion. After hearing all of the facts, the public was left to draw its own conclusion. There were, of course, editorials, like Cronkite’s famous report on Vietnam, which marked the turning of the tide, but journalists were usually respected and trusted, as far as I can remember.
Thanks in large part to FCC deregulation, beginning in 1985, the media landscape has morphed into the quagmire we see today. I am no expert in the history of journalism, but it seems like things have changed – more opinions, more sensationalism, more advertising. Add to that the flood of information inundating us through the web and it’s no wonder we’re confused!
But why the distrust of facts? Why is fact-checking not standard procedure (like spell-checking), especially in an era when the information is just a click away (again, like spell-checking). And why can’t we seem to agree on even the most basic facts? Climate change is real and manmade. Obama created more jobs than Bush. Mexico is not going to pay for a wall. Hillary Clinton is not the founder of ISIS. Chocolate is better than vanilla. Being gay is not a choice. A penny dropped from the top of the Empire State building will not kill a passerby below. The theory of evolution is as real as the theory of gravity, because scientific theories are not “guesses” but “reliable accounts of the real world.” And only one of these facts is really an opinion.
It’s hard enough to agree on the intangibles like morals and values (Should women be allowed to vote? Should gay people be allowed to marry? Should the good of the whole supersede the good of the individual?) But when you can’t even agree on the facts, you can’t agree on reality, and when you can’t agree on reality, you most certainly can’t agree on solutions. It’s a war of wills resulting in a stalemate.
I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, with the span of 70,000 years covered in a mere 415 pages. One thought provoking concept is that the creation of a shared “fiction” is what has allowed us to live and cooperate in such large numbers. “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” If humans disappeared from the planet, all of these things would disappear with us.
So when we can’t agree on the facts, and we can’t agree on the intangibles, we no longer have a shared “fiction” to bind us together. We become divided into a multi-dimensional reality, where world views can be so fundamentally different as to make it nearly impossible to understand each other.
I woke up Wednesday morning feeling like I was suddenly thrust into an alternate universe. A world where crude language is presidential, global warming is a hoax, division is more powerful than unity, and facts are nothing to be worried about. Perhaps this divided reality is a constant, but only becomes visible to the other side during times of upheaval. We all go around living in our own protected bubbles of “reality,” confirming our own biases by seeking out only those ideas and people that conform to our personal world views.
So what do we do now? Do we claim irreconcilable differences and build walls around our disparate realities, or do we head to counseling and try to work it out by building bridges over the divide? I must admit Calexit sounded pretty good Wednesday morning (I even went so far as to re-read The Declaration of Independence), but I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on this great American experiment just yet. And in either case, we are really first and foremost citizens of the world, so we can never escape the importance of other people’s actions.
In this day and age of global issues, from climate change to terrorism to outsourcing, we desperately need more unity, not less. So for now, I vote for counseling. My call to action: reach out to one person you know who voted opposite you and get to know them. Try hard to bridge that chasm that separates our realities. It’s not easy. It takes time and patience and an open heart. Use facts, not opinions, and choose your words carefully, because they matter. Listen closely to find common ground and truly understand the reasons for your differences. And pray that we are wise enough to find solutions that move us forward as a civilization.
I thought I was done with this post, but then I listened to a Radiolab podcast last night called One Vote. It aired the day before the election. Let me just begin by saying I LOVE RADIOLAB! If you are not listening to this podcast, start today! And check out their fantastic new spin-off called More Perfect, with fascinating stories from the Supreme Court. So, back to One Vote. The final segment of this episode takes us to Nashville on August 18, 1920. The vote for women’s suffrage was about to lose, with a tie of 48-48. A 24-year-old Representative named Harry Burn had been squarely in the anti-suffrage camp…that is, until he received a letter from his mother. Phoebe Ensminger Burn filled her son in on the usual comings and goings of the family and life at home but she also added in some encouragement. “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet…be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” And with that one letter from a mother and one vote from a young man, I now have the right to cast my ballot on election day. Hurrah for Phoebe and Harry Burn!
The fact is, that the right words reaching the right people can change the world, for better or worse. So don’t build a wall, write a letter. And be thoughtful and loving with your words. And please, please, please, try very hard to get your facts straight. Check your own assumptions. Put on your critical thinking cap and look at all sides of the argument. Try to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes and exercise your empathy muscles. And join me in trying each and every day to be a wiser, kinder citizen of the world.
Published November 15, 2016
Photograph taken of the dictionary my mom gave me for my high school graduation in 1989. My mom used to read the dictionary for fun and, at the time, I thought she was crazy. Now, I get it. Thanks, mom, for teaching me to love words. They matter.