A Few Choice Words
Jon Talton, the economics columnist for the Seattle Times, (and a novelist on the side) is one of the paper’s best writers. It takes some doing to get me to read about business and economics, but Talton’s reliably insightful columns have accomplished that.
This Sunday the Times magazine insert, “Pacific NW,” kicked off a year-long focus “on the theme of truth.” The lead article was Talton’s “Untruth, Injustice and the American Way.”
What seems to be driving the paper’s focus on truth is the way that we Americans have come, increasingly, to our views and conclusions without the benefit of — even indifference toward — factually accurate information. Trump the serial fabulist is Exhibit A. Climate change is a close runner-up.
“Studies published in peer-reviewed journals indicate that 97% of climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change. Not only that, but this planetary threat is getting worse faster than had been feared. If 97% of the cardiologists I visited thought I needed heart surgery, I would get it.”
While Talton has lots of choice words for Trump and his “truth isn’t truth” toady, Rudy Giuliani, he also a few choice words for Seattle’s liberal/ left establishment and it’s own fact-free version of reality. Talton:
“For example, many Seattleites take it as ‘truth’ that the police are routinely brutal and biased.
“They believe that rising numbers of homeless people are a result of the city’s economic success, not because of City Hall’s ever-rising and poorly overseen spending on a complex and multi-faceted problem.
“‘Diversity’ means different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, but does it also mean different life paths and viewpoints? Does it include older people, the disabled, conservatives and religious believers?”
Those are important critiques — not dissimilar to one’s I have also voiced about my blue-bubble hometown.
But the question that intrigues me is, “How have we come to this pass?” How have we gotten to place where choosing sides is more important than finding truth? Or, how have we come to embrace the idea that there is no truth really, only interests, only power? (That is the argument of the post-modernists like Foucalt and Rorty. No truth just power. They meant it as a critique of the right. But the Trumpets right has turned it on the left in much the same way as it has done with identity politics.)
And what can be done about it?
As to the how we got here question, Talton drops a hint in a comment that is almost an aside. “With lies as the new currency of political discourse, the only ‘reality’ becomes signaling to one’s political tribe.”
Flashing our colors, signifying our group, has become terribly important.
Post-World War II writers like Orwell, Koestler and Camus warned against “group think” having seen its consequences close-up in fascist and communist regimes of the mid-twentieth century.
In the U.S. today, we live in our own version of a group-think culture. My observation is that people embrace fact-free or challenged versions of reality because belonging has triumphed over truth, group identity over reality. Few will jeopardize such belonging, and its consequent social acceptance, by questioning the orthodoxies of their own group.
There was a time when we paid a lot of lip service to “thinking for yourself” and to those of an “independent mind.” And maybe it was more than lip service. But those days are over. The group has come to eclipse the individual in contemporary American society. Doubt it? Consider how people are described. Race, gender, sexuality and politics.
Now, I understand that “individualism” can be, and in a sense is, a real problem. But I’m not talking about the “ism” or the myth of the rugged individual evoked to sell pick-ups and guns.
I am talking about actual individuals whose identity and sense of self is secure enough to risk truly thinking with some degree of independence and skepticism.
So pushed to a deeper level, I am arguing that we have become a terribly insecure, quite frightened people. We are frightened of what might happen to us if our group belonging is jeopardized or lost. So we accept group-think and satisfy ourselves with words and arguments that “signal to one’s political tribe.”
What to do about it? Three suggestions. Not a one being a “quick fix.”
- Build real relationships. Get beyond the labels and signifiers. Get to know other people in greater depth, in their complexity. See individuals more, groups less. Resist the impulse to classify, categorize and dismiss people with labels.
- Allow people, including yourself, to be surprising, even inconsistent. What was it Emerson said? “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Group think demands consistency.
- Dare to contest those who assert that there is no truth only power, and that all arguments are therefore in service of protecting oppressors or freeing the oppressed. Truth is, yes, elusive and not easily known. But that does not mean that it doesn’t exist.
I think that part of what I like, and respect, about Talton’s work as a reporter and columnist is that he recognizes two, often in tension realities: complexity and truth. Kudos to the Seattle Times for taking on the topic.