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A few summers ago, while on a long road trip across America, I visited the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. My girlfriend and I eventually found ourselves at a glass case with three skeletons inside: one Homo sapiens, one Homo erectus and one Neanderthal.
A teenage girl sidled up to the exhibit. She wore a T-shirt with the name of a school or church on it; she seemed to be part of a large tour group. “Yeah right,” she said, looking at the Neanderthal’s remains, disgust in her voice. “That’s fake.” She scowled at the anthropological specimen. The skull grinned back. She was convinced it was a trick meant to deceive her.
More Americans seem willing to dismiss what they don’t want to believe.
In the weeks that followed, I thought of that teenager often, first with my own brand of disgust (That poor dumb kid! Brainwashed with those anti-Darwinian lies!) and then, later, with deeper curiosity. We all have our slants on reality, but it must be strange to live in a world where, at every turn, someone is out to dupe you with made-up theories about natural selection and phony skeletons passed off as real. It must feel like the world is one big conspiracy. But you also must feel pretty special: You know something most people don’t.
In the months before and after Donald Trump’s election, this insular way of thinking seems more prevalent, and not just among creationists or conspiracy theorists. More Americans seem willing to dismiss what they don’t want to believe.
A December poll found that 37 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Vladimir Putin, despite Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections. A more recent poll showed that over half of respondents didn’t know that the number of health-insured Americans had increased under the Affordable Care Act (since 2010, roughly 20 million people have gained coverage). The “secret” dossier published by BuzzFeed last month, which includes salacious details about Trump, is still completely unverified, yet golden shower jokes abound. In online forums, I’ve seen too many attempts at dialogue slapped down with the refrain, "We won."
It’s hard to imagine Trump’s example isn’t a factor here: When information arises that challenges his positions or his ego, his knee-jerk response is denial (along with a flurry of insults). Despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million, he won the election in “a landslide.” Russian cyber-tampering was “so-called Russian hacking” up until his pre-inaugural press conference, when he lukewarmly acknowledged the Kremlin’s role. He “would never” mock a disabled reporter, though a video shows him doing just that. He even revised the weather, saying that “God looked down, and He said, ‘We’re not going to let it rain during your [inaugural] speech,’” when in fact it drizzled throughout his address. Lies! Very unfair! The truth begins and ends with him.
Now Trump’s allies are jumping on the bandwagon, seeming more inclined to cast any critical coverage of the president as “fake news.” Recently on Fox News, Newt Gingrich urged the incoming administration to use Trump’s scolding of BuzzFeed and CNN at his press conference as an excuse to “close down the elite press” and surround Trump with obliging, cherry-picked reporters. In his first official appearance as press secretary, Sean Spicer read a statement accusing the media of false reporting about inaugural crowds, even as he made several false claims about those same crowds. Afterward, in an interview on Meet the Press, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway tried to rebrand her colleague’s untruths, saying that Spicer had simply offered “alternative facts.” To Trump’s surrogates, asking hard or embarrassing questions of the president — no matter how relevant or reasonable those questions might be — is a hostile act. “They are the opposition party,” said a senior Trump official last month, about the press corps. “I want ‘em out of the building.”
Just as troubling, though, is the trickle-down effect: the possibility that the rest of us, adrift in a sea of slippery facts and rumors — regardless of our political affiliations — are finding more license to wall ourselves off from inconvenient truths. Are we all becoming our own propaganda ministers? In the age of data saturation and curated social media, it’s easier than ever to cling to whatever version of reality suits your agenda.
In the age of data saturation and curated social media, it’s easier than ever to cling to whatever version of reality suits your agenda.
There’s nothing wrong with holding passionate opinions. But without a willingness to reach for some objective common ground or admit that an opposing argument could be true, any hope of democratic discourse dies. Our lives become tiny, paranoid echo chambers. We end up scowling at each other through glass; any claim that flits across our screens and threatens the sanctity of our worldview is dismissed and mocked. If we don’t like it, it’s probably a trick. An attack. A heap of fake bones.
The catch is that in this free-for-all informational world, nothing can be sacred. No truth is safe. And the most basic values that we’ve managed to agree upon — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, truths that we supposedly hold to be “self-evident” — can eventually be dismissed and mocked, too.
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