I’ve reached that age where among many of my friends I’m the authority on “the way things used to be.” What I find myself saying over and over is no, our civil discourse didn’t “used to be” like this. I’ve had plenty of friends of different political persuasions throughout my life, people with whom I disagreed over policy. Our objectives were the same—health, happiness, opportunity. Our differences were in what policies we each thought would do the best job of delivering those things. We could talk about differences in policy.
But today we divide over reality. We divide over what is real—facts, data, events. We inhabit different information spheres, curated by artificial intelligence that profiles us and anticipates our feelings, wishes, preferences. I’ve been largely absent on social media for some time because I’m deeply troubled by its effect on humanity, and I’m at a loss for how to engage with it. The window it gives into the state of the world around us is obscured and distorted. Deliberately. And the level of certainty and stridency in any online conversation is a pretty fair gauge of how little the people in it know what they’re talking about. But I know I can’t just dust my hands and walk away, so here’s my shout into the void.
Your reality isn’t real. Nor mine. There’s no human way possible to know enough about everything. At best, what you call reality is a bunch of little truth-beads strung on a cord you wove yourself. At worst, it’s a bunch of falsehoods being worked onto a thread somebody has pulled out of your darkness and fear. For their own profit.
So it’s important to challenge it: Claims that fit with your worldview are not automatically true. Claims made by someone you agree with are not automatically true. Sources that tell you to trust them alone are not to be trusted. Feelings are not facts. Your values are not universal truths. Someone else’s experience is real, even if it conflicts with your narrative for what their experience should be. Media that’s not mainstream is…not mainstream.
Now let’s go a step further, and identify the values we used to agree about and that have gotten muddied, the values we used to use to evaluate our realities: Lying is bad. The law is for everyone. Facts are facts. Racism is unacceptable. We honor our alliances. Name-calling is abusive, and abusers are bad people. Do unto others—all of them—as you would have them do to you. Love one another, which every religion says involves care for the poor and vulnerable. Voting is the heart of democracy. Character counts.
When I see your posts explaining how you’ve carved out a place where it’s okay to throw all that over, I see what you’re doing. You’re working out a way to hammer reality into a shape you can accept. And you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t know that reality, as it presents itself before you start hammering, doesn’t fit with your values.
You know it. You know you know it. And that’s why you’re making those posts.
You’re not doing anything new. Religious apologists have been doing it for centuries, giving the rational mind permission to believe unbelievable things. Girlfriends create reasons to stay with bad boyfriends. Parents reassure themselves that everyone is wrong about their little bully.
I see you. Your fears about the social upheavals and unwelcome change around you have been dismissed and dishonored because liberals suck at believing stories that don’t fit a set narrative. You finally have a president that tells you he’s going to protect your wished-for world. You see all his failings, but you look away from them because in service of the things that REALLY matter, the things you’re afraid of, everything else has to go. Whatever hammering has to be done to knock down the problems and contradictions is just what you have to do.
But there’s a better way. Stop hammering. Vote your damn values. The real ones, and what really fits before you start hammering. (And if one of your values is opposing abortion, keep in mind the reality that abortion rates drop when women have better access to birth control, not with legislation banning it.) Remember that conservatism used to be about moving forward with caution, pumping the brakes on radical action, not about tearing apart everything we stand on and letting the most powerful survive. That’s not conservative. That’s radical.
Our country should not be led by a man who—in reality—is an inarguable liar, grifter, racist, cheat, who declares with every action and word spoken that he embraces corruption, that he seeks the favor of dictators and autocrats, that he covets wealth and personal advantage, that he values power over mercy, that he wants attention more than respect, that he cannot engage with realities that are displeasing or dull, that he expects the office—and the country—to serve him, rather than the other way around.
And then let’s have conversations. Yes, they’ll be hard, but we’ll never have them until we can at least stabilize and secure our democracy. And we must have them—our democracy will stagger again if we don’t. But first, we need a safe democracy in which to have them.
Quit hammering. Then vote.