Donald Trump, as both a candidate and now as president, has played so fast and loose with the facts that it has called into question how we as a culture think about important issues of truth. This article is the last of a four-part series that explores the aspects of Truth in the Age of Trump. We examined what information overload does to our ability to manage information and sort fact from fiction, the role of disintermediation where the traditional gatekeepers are pushed aside and we can get our information (or misinformation) from favored sources, and the echo chamber where we only listen to voices that support our own ideas and biases. Today, we explore where we go from here.
Back in 2005, more than a decade before Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote to become President, Stephen Colbert introduced the word “truthiness” on his show. It meant that something was regarded as true because it “felt right,” even if there was a lack of evidence or facts to back it up. At the time, the bit had huge cultural relevance as people wrestled with the decisions of the Bush Administration, especially with the war in Iraq and the aftermath of that decision. The word was named “Word of the Year” by Meriam-Webster. Last year, Colbert, refreshed the term, changing it to “Trumpiness.”
After noting that lying and telling untruths are part of the territory of politics, the website Politico recently said, “But Donald Trump is in a different category. The sheer frequency, spontaneity, and seeming irrelevance of his lies has no precedent. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it.” In their analysis of his statements during the campaign, they found a full 70% were false and only 4% were completely true and another 11% were mostly true. Since becoming President, he has not fared much better, but now the stakes are much higher.
Truth and Trump Supporters
The cultural effect is not so much about Trump the man, but the responses to him. Many of his most ardent supporters have said they either don’t listen to the negative stories about him or they regard his statements as things not to be taken seriously. The common refrain we heard is that the mainstream media took him literally but not seriously as a candidate, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. However, now as President, his words matter more than ever. They affect our allies and our enemies; they sway our markets; they reflect on our character as a nation. Yet, despite that, there remains a huge divide between those who favor Trump and those who do not.
One of the most surprising examples of this is the level of support Trump receives among evangelical Christians. More than 80% of them voted for Trump and most continue to support him, yet for all his prevarications, untruths, and spouting of false information, it seems to elicit barely a sigh from that community. Evangelicals, who for the past three decades have been ringing the bell about the coming “death of truth” in our culture now fully embrace a man who may very well represent exactly that. While they aggressively attacked both Clintons and Obama for any perceived error, they seem to give Trump a free pass for his lies that are nearly too numerous to catalog. This would have been almost unthinkable before, but now in the Age of Trump, it is a sad reality.
In this series, we explored the cultural disintegration of the concept of truth beginning with how information overload fries our brains and makes it so much harder to weed out the real gems from the shiny fake diamonds that catch our attention. From there, we discussed how disintermediation—taking out traditional gatekeepers who vet what is factual with applied standards and instead getting stories and theories straight from our preferred horses’ mouths—makes it easier to believe we are getting better information when it actually may be far worse. Finally, we looked at the phenomenon of the echo chamber, our shared tendency surround ourselves with like-minded individuals (in real life and online) who only reinforce that our own biases are accurate.
So what do we do now?
First, we acknowledge there is no easy solution. We may have slid so far into truthiness territory that it will take years, decades perhaps, to recover, if we ever do. But here are seven suggestions to get us moving in that direction:
- Don’t insulate– It is far too easy to get all our news and analysis from “safe zones.” It’s human to want to confirm or find evidence for what we already believe. It feels good to find support for our opinions, and we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people- but this potentially insulates us from worlds of information, which could influence us toward gaining richer points of view, and more informed/less shallow depths of understanding. Sticking with our favorite websites, apps, or networks is fine, but we need to force ourselves to venture out on a regular basis, just to see what the other side is saying. Here’s a trick: liberals, go to a site like Real Clear Politics, pick an article with a headline that’s irritating, then read it (the whole thing). Conservatives, go to Huffington Post and do the same thing. No harm will come, the world will continue to rotate on its axis. Here’s another trick: change the channel to a news network you don’t like and watch for 5 minutes a day (okay, maybe 5 minutes a week). And here’s yet another trick: find someone reasonable from the “other side” (they exist!) to play devil’s advocate about an important issue. The truth is we need a comprehensive understanding of the other side, and to view it with some openness in order to really be able to defend our perspectives.
- Have “curious conversations”– Political conversations don’t have to be debates. We should spend time with people who are more liberal/conservative, more/less religious, from another ethnicity or socio-economic class, etc. with the goal of listening, not convincing. It’s important to ask others questions about why they have their values and opinions, and how they came to take the stances they do. We all come to our opinions based on lots of factors, including life experiences, personal values, education, family of origin, friends and relationships, exposure to certain sources of information, etc. Think about all the things which have contributed to the development of your value system and perspective and how nuanced and individual many of your beliefs are to you. Remember each of us comes with a wealth of experience which has shaped what is important to us. Try to fight the tendency to write someone off because they hold an opposing belief; once you hear their story it could open your mind or even strengthen your conviction. So talk to people who are different from you. Just let them share where they’re coming from (and they’ll probably return the favor).
- Practice dialectical thinking – Thinking dialectically means being able to see that two seemingly opposing forces can both have their “truths.” In other words, just because things seem to conflict or contradict does not mean they are mutually exclusive or that they don’t each have elements of valid truth. One example is the issue of school vouchers, which on the one hand could undermine the bedrock principle of public education, but on the other could help students and families who are in struggling school districts. Often a solution lies in compromise. We must accept that most people make decisions wanting to better themselves and the world. We have to understand the root of others’ value systems and acknowledge the validity of those positions, rather than seeing something that opposes our perspectives as inherently flawed, malicious, or “evil.” As there is truth to both sides, there are also flaws, and strength lies in weaving the two sides together. Dialectical thinking recognizes the importance of having both sides of an issue and that debate and critical thinking are important to getting to the truth. Rather than finding more and more evidence to support our side of an argument, we must work on generating support for the opposing position. Truth will hopefully emerge out of that crucible.
- Be aware of our biases – Everyone believes they see things for how they really are. During the 2016 Presidential debates, Trump supporters thought it was insane that anyone would vote for Hillary. Of course, Hillary supporters believed the same thing about the Trump supporters. Both sides were convinced they were right and had a hard time seeing the other perspective. Our biases feel like truths much of the time, but they are how we have come to see the world through our unique filters. These filters have been shaped by our individual temperaments and our life experiences—how we were parented, our relationships, our educational experiences, our successes and failures, etc. These filters are invisible to us, so we assume we see things clearly, yet all of us have biases. The framework of this series reveals our own biases as writers; we believe Trump has done damage to our ability as a society to understand and discern real truth from falsehood. We own that bias. Even if you don’t agree with that, you can probably agree that the country is so polarized around what is true and what isn’t that it is harmful to us as a people. You can also probably agree that the best way out of that is for us to all examine our own biases and move toward meaningful and authentic dialogue about it. Yes, it can be painful to admit that we are infallible. But know that being biased is human, and through seeking out counterpoints and exposing ourselves to others’ stories, we can reach more legitimate and worthwhile points of view.
- Check our fears and insecurities – At the heart of all this polarization is fear and anger. Trump supporters are angry they have been overlooked and they are afraid they are losing their country, at least in the form they had previously come to see it. Those who oppose Trump are afraid he will do harm to minorities and those who are politically powerless, that he will favor the wealthy over the poor, and that he will act in his own self-interest. There may be truth in all of this, but when we act out of these intense emotions, they often lead us to poor decisions and they certainly drive us away from those on the other side whom we now have come to see as bad people who want to do us harm. If we can be more aware of our own emotional buttons, we can react and interact in ways that are more constructive and helpful, rather than just being angry and divisive. Be cognizant that intense reactions provide data about what is important to us. Fear is a strong motivational force. We are hardwired for survival, and our weaknesses make us insecure. Hiding from those or disavowing them only makes them more poignant and harder for us to be in touch with fact and reason. Awareness of our fears and insecurities is key in making decisions and interacting with others who may come at things from a different perspective.
- Be savvy about social media – Last week Twitter’s co-founder, Evan Williams, told the New York Times, “I thought once everyone could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to a better place,” then he added, “I was wrong about that.” Nothing perpetuates the echo chamber like social media and the websites that exploit it. We tend to seek out information that supports our beliefs and the internet is like a Pandora play list when it comes to gathering that information. It is catered to our interests and search terms (among other things), so in order to avoid tunnel-vision we have to acknowledge that information can become concentrated or diluted based on who we “like” and associate with online. We’ll continue to think in very polarized ways if we soak our heads in social media feeds. And when we are on social media, we should use it for good rather than just being another source of angry noise.
- Be kind – Whether we think Trump is the worst president we’ve ever had or believe Hillary should be in jail, whether we think conservatives are mean or liberals are loony, whether we think the country is going down the tubes or has many reasons to celebrate, we should be kind. Being kind means respecting that we each come to the table with valid perspectives based on what we have experienced, understand, and come to value. When we can acknowledge each other’s humanity and dignity, we are more likely to create a world we would all want to live in. Please advocate and protest and oppose. Yes, take action. Take a stand. There are important issues at stake. Just be kind humans when we do.
This is just the beginning of the discussion. We’d like to use our social media for good, so please post constructive comments here or on Twitter (Episode 82) in which we explore this topic as well. You can find the Shrink Tank podcast here or through iTunes.
Check out our other articles in our “Truth in the Age of Trump” series: