I’ve been thinking today about the danger of disreason in American politics. Dis, meaning “ to treat with disrespect or contempt” and reason, meaning “to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” It seems we’re awash in it.
Two Montana posts, one from the right and one from the left, perfectly illustrate the politics of disreason. One, from the dark money Watchdog organization, darkly hints that the implementation of Common Core education standards will lead to dangerous data mining of children. The other, from 4and20 blackbirds, uses a source who retracted his own claims and apologized for them to suggest that the Obama campaign used “ National Stasi Intelligence style” tactics to win the 2012 election.
What both share in common is an almost pathological willingness to simultaneously ignore objective evidence and the [pullquote] we’re in a Wal-Mart of terrible, clearance-rack ideas and everyone owns a free megaphone. [/pullquote]conventions of logical reasoning to make wild, unsupported claims that fit anti-government and/or anti-establishment narratives.
Of course, it’s not just these sites. You can hardly search the Internet without finding someone who claims that President Obama was born in Kenya, that 9/11 was masterminded by FDR to cover up his involvement in Pearl Harbor, or that autism is caused by vaccines.
We’re swimming in a sea of not only wrong information, but information so easily discredited by logic and evidence that it distracts us from substantive discussions and engages a growing segment of the population in politics in a way that is more destructive than democratic. Even those who should be models spew this nonsense on the national stage.
None of this is new, of course. We had John Birchers in the 1950s (and still do) claiming the UN and fluoride were conspiracies, Arkansas troopers claiming that Vince Foster was murdered, and those who claimed that HIV/AIDS was a western conspiracy to depopulate Africa.
But the Internet has magnified this nonsense and given it a cancerous growth pattern. It’s just not one farmer with an amusingly paranoid sign on his land about the UN; it’s a whole sub culture of mutually reinforcing bile and delusion. Look no farther than the comment field on any news story and you’ll see demonstrably false, easily fact-checked falsehoods pollute productive conversation. What could contribute to the marketplace of ideas devolves into a scrum of name calling and half-truths.
What’s worse is that most of these ideas are cloaked in a pseudo-certainty that would make a 14th century alchemist blush.
The premise of the marketplace of idea is that, in competition, the best ideas will emerge, bettering and educating society as a whole, but I’m not sure that premise holds any longer, when we’re in a Wal-Mart of terrible, clearance-rack ideas and everyone owns a free megaphone.
I’m not calling for censorship. I’m not calling for government regulation of speech. I am, however, asking if perhaps we can’t show a little restraint.
I admire radicals. I admire those who challenge the norms of their society and uncover unpleasant truths or force to see the world in a new way. But my admiration is limited to those radicals who can prove their claims, support them against often fierce scrutiny. Retreating into sophistic dodges or convenient conspiracy theories might offer comfort, but little credibility.
I was talking the other day with a friend about the WTO protests that rocked the U.S. in the 1990s. Sure, they used radical tactics and challenged authority, but they also marshaled an impressive array of statistics, anecdotes, and economic evidence to make their case. It wasn’t enough to just be loud or just be radical. They made a case using reason as well as political theater.
It is possible for activists to change the world, but they should probably be willing to do the research first.
I’m not sure that I have any solution to offer beyond the trite. Before we post a link or share a juicy story online, maybe we can all ask ourselves to do a little verification and research our claims. Instead of couching every perceived slight in the language of totalitarianism or the death of the Constitution, perhaps we can focus on policy and solutions.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s worth remembering that every discredited conspiracy theory one posts undermines that person’s ability to be a productive critic of corporate and government abuse. Want to show the abuses of the NSA and be taken seriously? Don’t post specious claims about some crackpot conspiracy theory. It will only undermine your ability to be a critic when critics are needed.
The politics of disreason, whether left or right, drive the kind of cynicism and disinterest that is the root of the real problem of American politics today. If I permit myself a bit of hyperbole, it’s those elements that truly pose the risk of losing democratic governance.
I don’t know. But it has to get better. The energy that’s being expended in these discussions certainly isn’t helping.