One of the core issues we currently face in our society that prevents us from bridging the partisan divide is the lack of universally acknowledged truth. This is evidenced with the famous quote from President Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway about using “alternative facts” when confronted about mistruths the administration was espousing.
This idea that false facts are not, actually, false but are simply “alternative facts” speaks to the larger issue where, despite provable evidence, certain parts of the population simply refuse to acknowledge facts. Instead, they typically attack the messenger as biased or try to change the topic to something bad a different party did (this is the premise of whataboutism) in an effort to somehow justify an often unrelated thing. Neither of those responses actually engage with the facts.
The battle for truth versus relativity is one that has to be waged on both sides of the communication process. The message sender shares a message and the message receivers takes it and responds. If either side is not acting truthfully, the entire process of legitimate conversation falls apart because they’re not working from a mutual foundation of understanding.
If I tell you that 2+2=5, you know right away that I’m not a trustworthy messenger, although you don’t automatically know why. I could be an uneducated adult who does not know or understand basic math. I could be a two-year-old child who has not reached a development point to even learn it. I could be intentionally speaking falsehood for one of many possible reasons.
While you know the statement is false, the intent behind it is vital. With each of my examples, you would respond differently. If you know the speaker is an uneducated adult (and I mean truly uneducated if they don’t know such simple arithmetic), you would likely respond with a balance of pity for their lack of intelligence and a desire to not continue the conversation because you likely will struggle to maintain any sort of reasonable dialogue. If the speaker is a young child, you likely will either essentially laugh it off (if they are truly too young to learn) or lovingly try to correct their mistake and give them a solid basis for counting and addition. If the speaker is intentionally misleading you, you must be absolutely vigilant to understand why and keep this in mind for any future messages they espouse. They may be simply trying to be provocative in a one-off fashion, which would not necessarily impact the validity of other messages. Or they may be trying to manipulate you, and nothing they say can be trusted.
Unfortunately, the manipulative messengers rarely speak such blatantly obvious untruths. Doing so should undermine their efforts to get you to believe them, because their statements are so obviously false. Instead, they will do something called “gaslighting.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, “gaslighting” comes from a play from 1938 and movie from a few years later in which an abusive husband psychologically manipulates his wife into doubting her own judgments. One of the ways he does that is by dimming the lights in their home and pretending nothing is changing. Over time, this leads the wife to question her perception of reality. The term has become commonly used in psychology since then to refer to that exact effort: manipulating someone into doubting their own perception of reality so that they rely on you for truth.
This has never been more relevant than in our modern political culture. Since entering the political fray, Donald Trump has repeatedly made statements on virtually every topic that he’s then claimed he never said. He did this as recently as yesterday at his coronavirus briefing, when he told two reporters he didn’t make two statements that he had made just days earlier about not calling governors who are not appreciative of him and not believing governors actually need the equipment they’re requesting.
He’s done this far more than just that one example, including throughout the coronavirus pandemic experience of the past couple months. Two weeks ago, CNN’s Don Lemon put together a segment about Trump’s gaslighting approach to coronavirus, where he repeatedly downplayed it and claimed it was all under control until suddenly saying he always thought it would be a pandemic.
These examples are merely the latest in a long trend of attacking truth that includes his long-running feud with mainstream media sources. The Washington Post put out a story yesterday that highlights just some examples in this battle from over the years. The most dangerous part of this is when he began claiming, repeatedly, that the media is the “enemy of the people” and dismissing any unflattering reports about him as “fake news.” In July 2018, he famously said “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” If you’re a Trump supporter, take a minute to re-read that quote and imagine Barack Obama or someone you disagree with politically saying that. Regardless of who says it, it is a terrifying sentiment coming from any personal with political power.
Each example of this process shows his efforts to sow doubt and mistrust into what people are hearing reported from reputable sources that have provided vital resources to the public for over 100 years. These are the sources that shared the Pentagon Papers to reveal the truth about the Vietnam War efforts to the American people and uncovered the Watergate conspiracy that led to the resignation of former President Richard Nixon.
The free press is absolutely crucial to a functioning democracy, because citizens need to learn the truth about what our leaders are doing. I’ve seen people on social media the past couple weeks questioning the reporting out of China and North Korea (mostly joking about North Korea because of its absurdity) about the impact of the pandemic in those parts of the world. Those countries do not have a free and independent press; their media output is state-sanctioned and only shares the messaging the government wants people to hear. Ironically, it’s often the people I see commenting on that on social media who so openly doubt the media here.
The most terrifying thing (at least from my perspective) about Trump’s gaslighting efforts is how effective they’ve been even though he’s actually terrible at it. As I mentioned above, the key aspect to successful manipulation is not having your words be so blatantly false as to be easily disproven. The example that led to the term gaslighting even included something subjective: two people live in a house and one does not acknowledge a sudden change in the brightness of lights. It’s not easily disproven as 2+2=5 is or “I didn’t say that” in response to being asked about direct quotes you made less than one week earlier.
I hear Trump supporters praise the way he “tells it like it is” and say he’s more honest than the media. But I’m honestly curious as to what message they’re hearing from him? A cursory look through his Twitter timeline or through the transcripts or videos of his own public comments show a seemingly endless thread of contradictory statements on every topic he’s ever raised. So which of those comments is “telling it like it is,” and which are we ignoring?
This pandemic provides us with a historic opportunity to reset. We can truly evaluate the world around us, what we’ve come to value, and see if that’s how we want to continue operating moving forward. I’m planning to write in the future about some of the optimistic ways we can reorient our society based on the key realizations this experience has given us about relative value of certain occupations and the importance of a social safety net.
But none of that is possible if we have 40 percent of the population living in a fantasy world that literally does not acknowledge fact. We must break free from this hypnotic hold that has led to the gaslighting of a significant portion of our population.
Please, if you believe Trump is honest and the media is not, take just a few minutes to step back and read through his Twitter timeline or his public comments. It is simply impossible to take an honest assessment of his words and not recognize that at least half of them have to be untrue since they contradict the other half of what he says. I wish I could put it more kindly or softly, but he’s simply not a trustworthy source. There is tangible evidence to disprove a huge percentage of what he says, and most of the rest of it is disproven by his own comments a week earlier or later.
The mainstream media does not get everything perfect, and everyone has their own personal biases in messaging. We must do our due diligence in everything we read: examine the source and look into their background at sites like www.mediabiasfactcheck.com, www.allsides.com, or www.adfontesmedia.com. Discovering your favorite news source has a certain bias doesn’t mean you have to dismiss everything they say, but it does mean you need to keep that bias in the back of your mind whenever you read their content to consider what phrasing they’re using and what facts they are choosing to include or leave out. And it should absolutely prompt you to look to a variety of sources to ensure you’re not only hearing one side. Further, even more important than bias is reliability/validity: it doesn’t matter what the slant of the piece is if the content is inaccurate.
This pandemic is a chance for us to come together as a country and see what’s really most important to all of us as life and the health of our friends, family and neighbors takes center stage. Even in the midst of this pandemic, we’ve seen the unwillingness of certain groups to accept truth lead to greater spread of the disease. It is in this time that we must step back and really self-assess as to whether our sources of information are reliable or if we’re allowing partisan gaslighting to turn us against entire groups of people based on manipulation. We must do better if we hope to survive as a nation through this period not just of medical turmoil but some of the greatest political division we’ve ever seen. In order to do so, we must start with a firm foundation: a foundation of truth.
Only we can decide for ourselves whether we will continue to allow the gaslighting, the culture of “alternative facts” to continue. We’ve seen the path it leads us down, as an inability to agree on basic truth can only end in chaos. We can do better. We have to do better.