Friday, February 17, 2017
I will start out by saying that we're not going to be getting into a philosophical discussion here. I'm not prepared to compare Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Hegel to discuss the relative meaning and definition of truth from a philosophical perspective, and I suspect you're grateful for that. Short of the occasional random academic in Congress, I'm guessing most politicians certainly don't want that to be the case, not least of which Donald Trump, who has shown a deep disdain for academia throughout his tenure as a politician.
No, what I want to talk about are provable, reality-based facts. Things like the Earth being the third planet from the sun, Francis being the reigning pope, and Spotlight being the most recent film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Facts grounded in reality, whether that is scientific, data-driven, or historical. Because the reality is that facts should serve as the bedrock of debate, and from those facts, you should be able to uncover specific opinions, but they should always be informed by the truth, and never the other way around.
Where we've gotten, however, is to a cultural place that we cannot discuss a political issue without veering away from discussing opinions on how to solve that issue, and instead trying to debate whether it's an issue or not at all, or whether it even exists. This has permeated multiple different public conversations around topics ranging from social justice to climate change to (most recently) the truthfulness of the media and the accuracy of our elections results. The reality, is though, that some things are just true-they are not up for debate. They are scientifically, sociologically, or historically proven to be accurate, and by muddying up the question of whether or not a fact is true, you aren't having an actual debate. You're basically just in denial, creating chaos, or lying.
I think where people get most thrown off by facts is that they feel like they hurt their opinions, feel like personal attacks, or they make them angry. This is, it's worth noting, different than denying the truthfulness of a fact. There are facts that make me unhappy, that make me angry, that make me upset, and that I wish weren't true. You can have an opinion about whether or not you like a fact, certainly, but there's a difference between that and whether you deny its truth. Let's dive into an example based on yesterday's news, shall we (it could also be today's news-you know how certain people like to tweet...)?
Donald Trump, in the 2016 presidential election, received 304 electoral votes and won the popular vote of 30 states/districts equaling 306 electoral votes (two Texas electors cast faithless electoral votes for other Republican politicians). This resulted in him becoming the 45th President of the United States. At the same time, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a little over 2.8 million votes over President Trump. While she didn't have an electoral college victory, she did receive more votes from American citizens than Donald Trump did; however, because the Constitution and the law mandates that the electoral college winner become the president, Mrs. Clinton did not become the 45th POTUS.
These are all facts-everything above is a provable, accurate statement. You can have arguments over why Donald Trump won more electoral votes or whether it should matter whether Hillary Clinton got more popular votes or whether faithless electors are heroes or villains of history, but you can't argue with the facts. And yet, repeatedly, Donald Trump has done that. He has stated that there was massive voter fraud in California and Virginia resulted in him losing the popular vote. He has stated that his victory was the largest since President Reagan. He has stated his margin-of-win was an historic electoral college victory.
These are all categorically false statements. Not debate, not alternative facts, no disagreements: just false statements (or as I like to call them, lies). There is no evidence of voter fraud in California nor Virginia nor any state, certainly not on the scale that would swing 2.8 million votes away and change the result of the popular vote. Mr. Trump did win the electoral college vote, but George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all received more electoral college votes than Trump did, and have received those victories since the last time Ronald Reagan ran for president. And in terms of historical landslides, Trump's win is hardly historic-in fact, statistically it's one of the closer elections in modern history, ranking 46th in terms of electoral victories out of 58 presidential races. While this doesn't negate from the fact that Trump legitimately won the presidency, he didn't do so in a landslide way, certainly not compared with all of his past few predecessors save George W. Bush.
This is admittedly a very black-and-white example and I could come up with grayer ones (literally every major political debate from abortion to zoos have a basis in facts that need to be maintained while forming opinions), but it exhibits a larger problem here: we're framing a debate around these statements, and political thought around this. Speakers for the president repeat these lies, and as a result, because we have become so deeply entrenched in our corners of the political spectrum, people see it as their partisan duty to believe these things and argue against them. This is why the debate on issues like social justice and climate change in particular have become so warped-it's because by denying reality and science, we aren't debating the actual ways to address the problem. It's not even a case where we're denying addressing the problem-opponents are saying that it doesn't exist.
This means that we end up not having a debate, because a debate has to be grounded in fact and truth. If you deny reality, your opinion truly isn't valid, because it can't be actionable. I repeat: it's not valid. I don't care what your political ideology is-if you can't build your belief or opinion based on existing facts, it's not a valid argument in a political discussion. You're not being personally attacked, your religious beliefs are not being challenged, and your freedom of speech is not being questioned. You have every right to believe and say what you want, but it can't be part of proper political discourse, because that needs to be grounded in reality. Claiming that climate change is not driven by human beings-that's a lie. Scientific evidence states that this is true. Saying that African-Americans and Latino-Americans receive different results from the judicial system is not an attack against you personally, but it is a fact. Choosing not to do anything about these things seems cruel and heinous to me, but it's at least an opinion. Saying they don't exist-that's a lie. Just like saying that Donald Trump won the popular vote were it not for illegal voters-that is also a lie.
Which puts us in a predicament. The president is either knowingly lying, unabashedly lying, about provable concepts like the electoral college and the popular vote, or he doesn't realize that what he is saying is in fact false. It's hard to know which of these is worse, but both are truly terrible. Either way, we're in a hugely horrifying position here, because at some point POTUS is going to have to inform the country of a major news issue that we're going to have to take his word on initially, and at this point it's hard to believe that his credibility hasn't been completely shot. Which is why you have to stick to the truth when it comes to a debate-there's a lot of room for a politician to lie about campaign promises or fudge their positions on issues, but old outright lying about facts is a relatively new concept in American democracy (save for Joe McCarthy in the 1950's). And it's one we should, regardless of what letter we vote for, be worried about; this isn't an attack on the Republicans-it's an attack on American democracy. And Americans are supposed to be on the same team when it comes to that issue.