It’s the Information Age, and the most powerful way to earn votes in a democratic society is to channel voters on an emotional level rather than persuade them with factual data or evidence. This is the paradoxical paradigm of our time. How can it be?
While we are replete with easy to access facts, we have a bigger yet surplus of non-facts. Some non-facts are opinions and interpretations of facts, and they present themselves as such (though the audience may nonetheless take them as facts). Other non-facts are presented as facts. They have sinister intentions: getting clicked or promoting an agenda. It’s like we legitimately live in two different realities these days, and non-facts have probably been exacerbating the situation.
I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia that gracefully underlined this point with an allegorical but true story. The reporter-hosts described a heated ideological divide in Eagle’s Nest Township, Minnesota. Some members of the town, lead by a bear behavior researcher, believe that black bears are extremely gentle, non aggressive creatures. He coaches people in the art of feeding them with their hands and mouths; I’ll call these people pro-bear. Other members of the town find this practice irresponsible and dangerous, because it encourages the already aggressive animals to approach people. Let’s call them pro… safety? These two sides live in two mutually exclusive realities. When people report that bears are stalking them or exhibiting aggressive behavior, pro-bearers tell them that they misconstrued the situation. When pro-bearers claim that all black bears are well intentioned and cuddly, pro-safetyers also accuse them of miscontruing reality. The differences are seemingly irreconcilable. What’s the truth?
The truth is complicated. Bears do not eat people, so if one offers them food, they will gently accept the offer with due respect, kind of like they’re bound to a social contract. They eventually start to associate people with food, and may even follow or congregate around us. If people react negatively, the bear will probably get the picture and buzz off, but if provoked, they may blow back. So in actuality, black bears are pretty unlikely to be aggressive out of the blue, but they are powerful enough, and the possibility of attack is existent enough, that many people would rather not incentivize them to hang around.
This story interests me because it shines light on our current partisan problem. Imagine if Eagle’s Nest Township had two newspapers: one pro-bear and one pro-safety. If there was a bear encounter, the two papers would report the story with different victims and villains. They would focus on or omit entirely different details from the story to support their respective agendas. Not only would the two papers report bear stories differently, they might eventually create a divide on multiple issues. Important figures in the town’s business and politics will be identified as either bear-haters or bear-sympathizers. Each paper will do its diligence to make protagonists or antagonists of these figureheads in accordance with that paper’s bear agenda. Eventually, an ideological wedge will bifurcate the town. All issues become bear issues at root, and black-and-white, tribal thinking takes over. From there, it’s not a stretch to imagine the newspapers using tactics like false balance or fallacious logic to help forward a point, or they might just make stories up entirely. The complex reality of bear behavior becomes uninteresting, unpopular, and irrelevant.
Such is the case with so many of our issues today. Maybe having some form of welfare state keeps a society stable and can even help businesses via consumption? At the same time, isn’t the free market a wonderfully efficient way to incentivize investors to help entrepreneurs make great products that improve the world? Isn’t it possible that welfare states disincentivize work for some people? Do we not need leaders and job creators? Maybe abortion does involve an inhumane annihilation of a human life? But maybe that just needs to be weighed against the social cost of unwanted children and reluctant parents? No guns and nobody dies of guns, but maybe if everybody had a gun, nobody would die of guns either?
The point is, issues are mind-numbingly complex, so it’s easier just to pick the side that tugs at your heartstrings the hardest. So many of us get so deep in our post-fact bubbles that we truly believe that our side is totally right and their side is totally wrong about everything. Ironically, “this proves…” is not only a dangerous phrase, it’s probably a tell-tale sign that you’re about to read bullshit.