A Deadly Embrace of Ignorance
The post-truth world will be ugly, unstable, and damaged.
Posted Dec 30, 2016
In my book Invisible Nature, I wrote a passage that’s been playing back in my mind recently (pp. 65–66):
Displacing our ethical subjectivity onto organizations [by which I mean losing control of our own lives because we let corporations and governments make a lot of important decisions for us] thwarts ethical practice: it blocks us from fully appreciating the consequences of the actions we may choose and insulates us from actual outcomes. Worse, it opens us to manipulation [emphasis added]. The more other parties, usually organizations such as corporations and government agencies, intervene between us and the consequences of our actions, the more information can be manipulated to influence our actions. Examples abound. Recent decades have seen myriad corporations “greenwashing” themselves, advertising that their practices are environmentally friendly. Some companies have indeed improved their environmental practices—sometimes dramatically….Dissociated conditions make us particularly vulnerable to organizations whose sole purpose is the production and dissemination of information: media companies…Consider, for example, the conservative media outlets in the United States that give their audiences the impression that the main questions about global climate change—whether it’s real and whether it’s caused by human activity—are unsettled. They easily cast doubt by providing equal coverage and consideration (under the guise of “balance”) to the extremely small minority of scientists who question whether it’s happening or whether humans caused it. Or more cynically, they simply ridicule concerned scientists, politicians, and activists. On February 10, 2010, Fox News Channel showed images of US vice president Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth…planted in a snow bank during a snow storm. Actually, an increase in the number and severity of storms, including snow storms, is one of the expected outcomes of global climate change, so the storm was no proof against climate change and on the contrary might have been one of its effects.
Fast forward a couple of years, and here we are today facing an incoming U.S. executive branch that seems hell-bent on eliminating any commonly held notion of the truth and creating its own reality to bestow upon the American public and the world. The unmooring from reality represented by the administration of Donald J. Trump stands as a grave threat to the future. But it’s no surprise—it could be predicted from the alienation of people from the reality beyond their own immediate personal experiences, from the often distant places where climate change, pollution, and animal suffering play out.
The new divorce from reality starts with a breathtaking series of fabrications emanating directly from Trump himself and some of his team (which can be seen immediately from his constant self-contradictions—and just a bit more research reveals the full onslaught of his deceptions).
But beyond this outright denial of actual facts, it involves an outright denial of even the existence of any facts and the claim that whatever the president says is true enough. Thus, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes could say on TV, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”[i] Such a conclusion must naturally arise from any spokesperson for the president-elect due to his outright contempt for any objective, shared reality and his obvious deceptions, which basically everyone acknowledges (the only difference is that his supporters accept his lying either as one of his many flaws that must be overlooked in favor of the advantages he will supposedly bestow or, alternatively, as a sign of his strength).
It’s important not to normalize Trump’s falsehoods as the work of a politician. No politician of note has been as untrustworthy and dishonest. Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, writes that they have never seen anyone approach Trump’s level of dishonesty: he “stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” Politifact.com finds the vast majority of his statements analyzed are at least partly false, and over half are outright false or “pants on fire” false—an exceptional level of deceit.
But, as New York magazine journalist Justin Davidson writes, “Trump does not lie to cover up the truth; he lies to deny the possibility that such a thing even exists. His feints and reversals are the essence of his belief system; he espouses a philosophy of bullshit.” Trump sows doubt about the possibility of knowing anything so that he may create a blank slate onto which his own version of reality, one with power in its sights, can be constructed. Asked about climate change he has said, “I don’t know and you don’t know…We have to find out…We have no idea…” (And if you’re unsure of how much “bullshit” this is, read for instance my previous post about climate change denialism.) But then he demands, repeatedly, “Believe me,” which due to his stream of equivocations becomes impossible to do. According to Davidson, Trump’s continuous stream of distortions amounts to a “war against facts.”
Perhaps Trump's contempt for the truth arises from his desperate need to construct a world in which he is great and good, unique and superior, as demanded by his narcissistic personality disorder.
Are we thus pawns?
This, it must be noted, is the approach of dictators and tyrants. Control the people and obtain their obedience by controlling their understanding of the world. Added to the mix is the classic divide and conquer method of the tyrant—incite hate and violence (based on all kinds of differences—religion, gender, sexuality, race) and in the process gain fanatical devotion from one side. Is totalitarianism on the rise in the early 21st century?!
It’s critical to understand that deception is about manipulation. So the question becomes, is Trump using his supporters as pawns? And under the conditions of the modern world, where environmental and social problems play out mostly out of our daily sight, as I write in Invisible Nature, the door is opened for people to willfully manipulate us, make us their pawns in their game, use us for their own ends because we can’t easily know by seeing for ourselves. We have no direct knowledge, unlike people for most of human history.
Trump is setting up his cabinet to include an array of climate change deniers. Such denial spells disaster, as the world community has only recently achieved the tentative beginnings of a globally coordinated plan to address climate change, to rein it in so that all coastal cities around the world will not be underwater in the lifetimes of today’s infants (among other mind-bogglingly huge problems). Even this small progress is late in coming—some climate scientists say it will barely avert the worst disasters. A setback of only four years in this program, at this pivotal moment, will be devastating to future generations and young people alive today. Eight years is almost unthinkable.
A government and a public operating without a firm grasp of reality will fail to respond to its challenges—climate change and other problems will intensify and more people will suffer.
What will we do?
Taking back control, embracing truth again
Civil society organizations throughout the United States are mobilizing to resist the human rights and environmental damages that they expect from a Trump administration. An unprecedented upsurge in contributions of labor and money to these organizations is currently taking place as people with the deepest knowledge of such problems brace themselves against the new fantasy-driven withdrawal from responsibility to protect people and the environment—and the already-thriving regime of hate and intolerance.
All of that is well and good, but to be most effective, people must go further and attack the problem at its root: become actively informed decision makers rather than passive consumers of whatever the incoming administration and its supporting media dishes out. That means seeking out and using numerous sources of information, looking at them with a critical eye, comparing them, and understanding science—all techniques of critical thinking.
But it also in the long term means bridging the divide—the “gulf”—that has become filled in with fake news, slanted news, and the emanations of a certified liar in power. If and when you can directly and most immediately witness what’s happening in the world, it becomes more difficult for others to manipulate you. We can’t all see climate change in action directly, but we can seek out documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts, and so on that will show us what’s happening. We can visit homeless shelters to see the challenges people in our communities face. We can actively refuse hate and division. We can turn off the TV and get out in the world to see as much as we can for ourselves.
By healing the destructive divide between us and nature and other people, we can build a healthier planet for all, surmounting the obstacles created by willful deceptions and manipulations of science and reality.
Check out my book: Invisible Nature
Read more of my posts: The Green Mind