How to Talk About Politics in a Post-Truth World
Fake news, alternative facts, and the evolution of political conversation
Posted Mar 13, 2017
Recently I was listening to two friends of differing political stripes argue with one another. Specifically, they were discussing President Trump's claim of widespread election fraud and his subsequent call for voter ID laws. The conversation went something like this: One person stated that there was widespread voter fraud, at which point the other party countered that there had not been a single verified case of such fraud in the recent past. Shortly thereafter, the argument got heated and both players brought out words like “falsehood,” “fake news,” and even “lie.” Needless to say, the conversation didn’t last long. Debate could go nowhere once both participants set in stone conflicting claims on what was true and what was false. The problem is that they both believed they knew the truth. Under circumstances like these, nobody ends up learning anything from anybody. The only form such a conversation can take is, "You're lying”; “No, you're lying;” “No...You’re lying."
There's no doubt that the United States is more politically divided than it has been in decades. People of differing political viewpoints are increasingly not living close to one another, not befriending one another, and not even speaking to one another. When they do speak, their conversations are fraught with animosity, all too often devolving into accusations of ill intent, bias, and even lying. Of course, the current presidential administration has contributed its fair share of non-truths, many of which are easily falsifiable by even a cursory glance at the data. There clearly was not a record number of people at Trump’s inauguration, nor did he win the presidency by a larger margin than other recent victors. For now, however, I'd like to leave aside these easily diagnosed falsehoods to discuss a more fundamental problem diminishing our ability to function as a participatory democracy: Even when people are looking at the same set of facts—the same data—we still see vastly different things depending on our values and pre-existing beliefs.
Reality is a little like a Rorschach test. You know the one: A psychologist holds up a card containing an intricate inkblot and asks, "What do you see?” There's also a slightly less-known version, known as the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the images instead consist of realistic drawings of people engaged in a variety of activities. What's fascinating is that different individuals can see dramatically differing things in the cards. One card features a young woman in the foreground looking pensive, with an older woman standing in the shadows behind her. Because it's a rather dark picture, people often see the women as sad. But one person I tested saw a very specific scene in which the older woman felt ashamed and remorseful for all the wrongs she had committed against her daughter. In other words, what people see says at least as much about them as it does about the card.
Our reality is much the same way.
Consider perhaps the most important event of our generation: 9/11. On that horrible day, hijacked planes collided with the Pentagon and two of New York’s most iconic buildings, murdering almost 3,000 innocent people and injuring 6,000 more. The event shrouded our country in grief. But, even 16 years later, it appears we may never understand the full scope of what happened that day and why. Its emotional, political, financial, social, and religious implications continue to ripple through history, affecting us even now. Despite all of this complexity, in the moments after the towers collapsed, people automatically made sense of what they saw: They saw heroes and villains. They saw good and evil. They even saw God and the devil. What's bewildering is that the enemy who committed the atrocity also saw many of the same things. Only, in their case, who was the hero and who was the villain, who was good and who was evil, and whose side God and the devil were on, were all reversed. Even Americans saw different things than one another, with a small portion feeling absolutely certain, even to this day, that our own government was somehow behind the tragedy. To me, such a view is unfathomable. But the point is that, even in events as seemingly clear as 9/11, people see different things. Life is a little like a Rorschach test.
Leaving behind the example of 9/11, this Rorschach Effect is influencing our political climate in strong ways even today. Terms like “post-truth” and “alternative facts” come to mind. Without an agreed-upon foundation of reality, otherwise soluble problems are rendered intractable. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to run a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” because it's almost impossible for the people to communicate with each other. Instead, we end up talking past one another, convinced by our own way of seeing things. If life is indeed like a Rorschach test, it seems we're all doomed.
Or perhaps not.
The Rorschach test has a second, much less celebrated, part. After the person taking the test says what every card looks like, the psychologist shows each inkblot again, this time asking, "What makes it look like that?” Unlike the first part of the test, this can take hours, as the psychologist carefully attempts to understand the subject’s perspective. Although it’s not nearly as much fun as the first part (it can get both frustrating and boring, at times), this is actually the more important segment of the test. Psychologists care much less about what people actually see in the cards than why they see it. The intention is to get underneath initial impressions to understand a person’s beliefs, values, and meanings. In the political arena, we hardly ever do this. Like my argumentative friends, we increasingly just stake out our claim and enter a loop where each side accuses the other side of ill intent.
But if we admit that reality can be a little like a Rorschach test, there’s a way out of this loop. The conversations becomes, "What makes it look like that?”
People on both sides of virtually any political issue have strong opinions. It would be naive to deny that each of us hopes that, in the end, our particular side wins. But politics shouldn't be a contest. It would also be hopelessly naive to assert that there are no facts—there clearly are, and we need to work hard to discover them. But nobody has flawless access to the facts, and accusing someone of lying or of propounding fake news just ends the conversation rather than helping that person realize through continued dialogue that he or she may have the facts wrong. Instead, by admitting that reality isn’t always clear and adopting an open, questioning stance, perhaps we can increasingly come to hear and understand one another, even when we strongly disagree.