Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Living In Post-Reality America

I’ve recently been enjoying noodling on Whisper, the smartphone-based social media app where every status update is anonymous, and everyone's in everyone else’s network. It’s mostly been playful and uplifting, and I’ve had a few really heart-warming conversations. But occasionally I get some class-A weirdos, as demonstrated in this exchange from earlier this week:
MEPHISTOPHELES: I believe the younger generations widespread introverts, social anxiety, and crippling shy people are a direct result of technology. When you don’t have to socialize, you don’t learn the skills.

ME: Or, alternatively, technology provides a means of communication for the introverts, shy people, and thinkers who were already there, but you previously got bullied by self-righteous jerks like you.

ROWAN: Anyone would become an introvert by picking technology over social situations. It’s common sense

ME: Duncan J. Watts proves “common sense” is often wrong. Susan Cain proves introversion is caused by having a large amygdala, not social choices. You prove being loud doesn’t make you right.

ROWAN: And because you’re quoting one man doesn’t make you right lol. This generation is pitiful
I stopped the conversation here because I saw no purpose in going any further. “Rowan” dismissed evidence altogether. Since Rowan had already decided reality works according to “common sense,” a remarkably slippery criterion, nothing I could say could possibly matter. Citing sources was a cause for laughter, because sources aren’t real evidence; truth comes from inside, not from accord with facts.

Welcome to post-reality America.

On Tuesday this week, New Jersey governor and Republican presidential aspirant declared, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, that global warming, euphemistically called “climate change,” isn’t an important issue today. This despite his state’s economic dependence on sea-lane shipping, which may be imperilled by warming, acidified seas. This despite near-unanimous scientific consensus. When questioned on his evidence, Christie replied: “That’s my feeling.”

We’ve reached a point in American public discourse where common sense and feelings are considered more valid than evidence, including evidence that common sense is unreliable. People considered legitimate candidates for nationwide office can nakedly abandon facts, dismiss expert testimony out of hand, and mock anyone who disagrees. And ordinary citizens, seeing this behavior greeted without consequence in public, mimic it in private.

Common sense is, in essence, a projection of individual experience outward. Global warming hasn’t inconvenienced me personally, Governor Christie thinks; therefore, even if it’s real, it’s small beer. I see introverts poring over their smartphones, and many Whisper users bonding over social anxiety problems, Rowan thinks; therefore, “technology” causes introversion. No further argument matters. Your evidence, ipso facto, is ridiculous.

Donald Trump, who should probably legally change his name to “Republican Frontrunner Donald Trump,” has become low-hanging fruit in this regard. His tales have become legendary: I made myself rich (he was born rich, and Bloomberg places his wealth at a third of his claims). Mexican border-crossers are rapists (first-generation immigrants have lower crime rates than the general population). President Obama wants to welcome a quarter-million Syrian refugees (twenty-five times the real number).

Politifact has rated Trump’s stump speech claims “Pants On Fire” a whopping sixteen times. By contrast, after nearly seven years of presidency, it’s given Barack Obama that rating only nine times. Trump lies so often, and so outrageously, that it’s hard to determine whether he even knows what truth and reality are. Most importantly, the more outrageously Trump lies, the higher his poll ratings climb. He has no incentive to make friends with reality.

Sadly, whether from social network users or presidential candidates, common sense is deceptive. The fact that introverts use digital information technology doesn’t mean tech causes introversion; it’s equally or more likely that introverts find tech’s relative quiet and asynchronous communication appealing. And high crime in immigrant neighborhoods doesn’t make immigrants criminals; if we force immigrants into impoverished areas where criminals prey on the populace, some get caught in the crossfire.

Then, when caught with proof that their claims don’t reflect reality, people belittle reality. My ability to cite evidence proves “this generation” is pitiful. If journalists cannot find evidence of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City, then journalism is a massive leftist conspiracy. Private behavior reflects public examples. Reality has become an optional appendage to truth, which we comprehend only internally.

Maybe my status as former academic colors my opinions. Maybe my belief that claims require evidence reflects my experience grading papers. But it shouldn’t. When reality places second to feelings, it permits powerful people to ignore issues, peoples, and problems. We all suffer from optional reality.

Addendum: only as I was preparing this essay for publication did I notice something about that final Whisper. In mustering evidence, I quoted two sources; Rowan mocked me for “quoting one man.” The misogyny in that statement, though glaring, is huge enough to deserve its own response. Later.

No comments:

Post a Comment