Saturday, April 23, 2011

The culture of truthiness

By now we're all aware of the way that our "court jesters" like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can often play the role of prophet as well. Nowhere was this more evident than back in 2005 (was it really that long ago?) when Colbert coined the term "truthiness."

Let me say that there is a sense in which I've struggled with this concept. Part of my healing as a human being from the dysfunction of dogmatism was a recognition of the wisdom found in our instincts. I've lived the reality that rational thought based on faulty premises can lead to devastating consequences. It was my own sense of emotional dis-ease with those conclusions that led me to begin to ask questions. I finally decided that neither thought nor emotion alone can lead us to the truth of our lives...its a melding of the two.

With that said, I believe that Colbert spoke powerfully to our current situation when he defined the term "truthiness." Nowhere is that more evident than in the Republican right wing reaction to President Obama. We now know that over half of Republican primary voters don't think Obama was born in the US. How does that happen when we've all seen his birth certificate, we've seen pictures of him in kindergarten in Hawaii and heard from his teachers, and the current Governor of Hawaii (who knew his parents) talks about being introduced to the newborn Barack days after he was born?

I say the answer is found in "truthiness" doesn't "feel" right to those who are uncomfortable with or don't like President Obama. Here's how James T. LaPlant describes it:

The false belief that Obama was not born in the U.S. or that he is a Muslim has been tracking upward with economic uncertainty and individuals' worries about the economy. Plenty of conspiracy beliefs go hand in glove with worries and fears about globalization and unexpected/unpredictable economic shocks...

We often ask why do people believe weird or silly things? It can provide them with comfort and consolation in a world that appears increasingly complex, globalized and difficult to understand.

David O. Sears takes it one step further and talks about the power of racial resentment.

Party identification and racial resentment are perhaps the two most strongly held contemporary political attitudes...

And Obama’s persona is inherently ambiguous. He is multiracial and did not grow up in a traditional African American community. He is associated with Kenya, Indonesia, Kansas, Hawaii, Columbia and Harvard, not Harlem. No one would doubt that Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton was born in the United States. In our research we found that evaluations of Muslims were powerfully associated with evaluations of Obama, even controlling on racial resentment. We interpreted that as meaning that many see Obama as “other,” like Muslims and other unfamiliar groups.

The birther controversy is further evidence of the uphill road that even the best qualified African Americans have always had to traverse.

So we have the unease created by economic uncertainty coupled with a President who is "inherently ambiguous." Next you throw in what Julian Sanchez calls epistemic closure.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

Have you talked to conservatives lately about stuff like this? I have, and it generally comes down to "I don't believe that information because it was written in the New York Times." As Sanchez says, the test is first and foremost the "truthiness" of the information. If it doesn't pass that test - its simply dismissed due to the source.

I believe we all do this to some extent. Witness progressive blogs who dismissed Ezra Klein during the health care debate as a "tool of the administration," but then LOVE him lately when he agrees with them about the deficit discussion. I know I'm much more drawn to writers who agree with my position. Its why I have to continually remind myself to try to see the world through fresh eyes.

But perhaps the most important ingredient is to question ourselves when we're basing our view on our feelings of anger, fear and insecurity. Those are very potent emotions that have their place. But devoid of thinking things through...they can be dangerous.

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