By Chris Finnie
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is widely reputed to have said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
Increasingly, it seems people want both. And it seems to be tearing our country apart.
In a BBC interview, former president Barack Obama said, in order to address a polarized nation, we need to first agree on a “common set of facts” before arguing what to do about them. He blamed media outlets and social media for amplifying “the kinds of crazy conspiracy theories—what some have called truth decay.” He added that, by the time claims are fact checked, “falsehoods had already circled the globe by the time truth got out of the gates.”
While he’s right about this, I don’t think it explains everything.
Psychological studies have shown that people will reject provable facts if they contradict beliefs subject already hold. In fact, being presented with contradictory facts will often make people hold their previous opinions even more strongly. So it may not help to point out to people who think that wearing masks is dangerous, that dentists, hygienists, surgeons, and nurses have been doing it for years without evidence of any harm. They don’t want to wear them. And they’ll continue to believe anything that “proves” they’re right. Even if they can’t actually prove it.
Developing an Opinion
People who have belonged to extremist groups or cults describe a feeling of belonging that they’d lacked in their life before joining. I suspect people get the same feeling from belonging to any group. And, in order to maintain that feeling, they’re likely to go along with what group members believe.
Another motivator is fear. If somebody tells people who just lost their farm, business, job, or home to blame people who don’t look like them, it can be reassuring in a frightening time. They don’t want to believe they did something wrong. And, often, they really haven’t.
But, because giant corporations control our media, people hear that government sent their jobs abroad. Not that another giant corporation did it so it could richer. They’re more likely to hear a pastor blame god’s wrath than to say that giant corporations are paying politicians so they can destroy the environment; and that their home is more likely to be burned or flooded because of it. Nobody tells them that it’s the rich who are making money off of their lack of healthcare. Or jacking up college tuition by defunding state governments so the already wealthy can get another tax break.
Once they’ve grown up not hearing the truth, it’s hard to speak to them in ways that overcome a lifetime of propaganda. It’s difficult to overcome the proven psychological desire to defend long-held beliefs and double down on them.
My Own Private Norway
My mother is one of these people. She insists that college “turned me” from the things she and my father taught me. This is despite the fact that all three of us went to the same college. That fact does little to dissuade her from what she’s heard on right-wing radio about the effects of a college education.
Mom and I both went to Norway with my son. My son met some firefighters traveling to a soccer tournament. One told me at some length about how valuable their national benefits were to him and to his family. He was pleased with the education and healthcare they got. My mother didn’t talk to the firefighters. She talked to wealthy people onboard who complained about how high their taxes are. And that’s all she’ll hear about Norway’s political system.
I know taxes are higher there—though high earners in Norway pay less than they did here when mom was first married. But I don’t know how to get her to see my Norway, where people get something valuable back for the taxes they pay.
Just the Facts
Whether or not you like it, Donald Trump won more votes in 2020 than any other presidential candidate in history—except one. And that one was Joe Biden, the guy who beat him by more than 7 million votes. That’s not a narrow victory that’s the result of a faulty vote count. That’s bigger than the population of Massachusetts and an overwhelming verdict of the voters.
More than 600,000 people have died from covid-19 in the US. Some analysts think the number is actually much higher than that, as this official figure only counts people who died in hospitals and often doesn’t count people who died of something else that was aggravated by covid. But people continue to insist it’s just a bad flu and that new vaccines don’t work. However, The Los Angeles Times reports “A Times analysis found that the counties with the lowest vaccination rates were likely to have higher recent case rates per capita. Counties in rural Northern California and the greater Sacramento area fared worst, while Southern California and the Bay Area have fared best in terms of higher rates of vaccination and lower daily case rates, the analysis found.”
Of course, these aren’t the only examples of the broad and widening disagreement on common facts in the US. But they serve well enough to illustrate the point.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Abraham Lincoln said this a long time ago. And political scientists are increasingly proving his point.
Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, explains that, as voters and politicians “sort” into ideologically consistent camps, they increasingly see the opposition as enemies and will no longer work with them. She also cites one study saying that this sorting also increases the anger level of these polarized groups.
Another political scientist, Shanto Iyengar from Stanford, wrote a 2019 paper, The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States, along with four colleagues. This section struck me as a great description of the increasing divide: “As partisan and ideological identities became increasingly aligned, other salient social identities, including race and religion, also converged with partisanship. White evangelicals, for instance, are overwhelmingly Republican today, and African Americans overwhelmingly identify as Democrats. This decline of crosscutting identities is at the root of affective polarization.”
In addition to identifying how we got here, political scientists tend to agree with president Obama that more communication across these polarizing lines holds the key to healing our deep divides. But few have explained how to communicate with people who don’t share key facts, how to stop broadcast media from repeating “alternate facts,” and what to do about a social media profit model that creates the opportunity for all of us to live in our own private Norway.
Chris Finnie has lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 25 years. She has contributed articles and columns to several local newspapers before happily landing at the San Lorenzo Valley Post at its inception.