Touchstones for Living in a Post-Truth World

Something I found remarkable — one of the many things I found remarkable — about last week’s riot/insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was the insistence of the rioters/insurrectionists that Trump had not, in fact, lost the election. These people actually believe that the more than 7 million votes separating Biden and Trump were the result of a vast conspiracy and cover-up perpetrated at the highest levels of government and media.

From where I sit, this looks like sheer denial of reality. And I find myself wondering where these people are getting their information from, since it’s clearly not mainstream sources. Whatever those sources are, I wonder why these people trust them.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about these epistemological questions since last summer, when an acquaintance of mine wrote to a group of us warning us about the dangers of vaccines. This person believes in a whole bunch of things that I find, frankly, ludicrous — things that make their anti-vaxxer beliefs seem mainstream. In spite of this, they are a very nice person, and it’s very easy to talk to them without getting any sense that their beliefs are so strange.

So that got me thinking, how is it that I believe what I believe? Why do I think my beliefs make any more sense than theirs?

We are living in a time of when it is possible to find sources and purported experts to support just about any opinion. And separating the legitimate sources from the illegitimate ones is not easy, even for very intelligent people.

I think we make these decisions about which sources to trust largely based on pre-existing, and often unexamined, ideological commitments and psychological idiosyncrasies. For example, on the issue of vaccines, I choose to trust mainstream sources like the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization. Whereas on other issues, like home birth and pharmacological treatment of mood disorders, I am highly suspicious of the medical establishment.

Of course, I want to believe that my choice of whom to believe is purely rational, but it’s not. I probably choose to trust that (most) vaccines are safe because doing so makes me feel safer, and I choose to distrust the medical establishment in other cases because of my pre-existing distrust of the mainstream medical model (which focuses on treating symptoms and not systems). I recognize that this is not an entirely consistent position, as some of the reasons for the anti-vaxxer suspicion of vaccines overlap with my suspicion of the medical establishment.

I also think tribalism is an important factor. The feminist critique of the medical model of birth and the anti-capitalist critique of Big Pharma are part of the social discourse of the political and religious communities with which I identify, whereas those communities tend to identify themselves in opposition to anti-vaxxers.

I’m not a physician or an epidemiologist. So the science of vaccines is far beyond me. And I don’t have inclination to invest the time to educate myself on this topic to the necessary degree (by examining reports of clinical trials, for example). Instead, I take the shortcut of trusting the communities to which I belong and the discourses with which I am familiar.

I am well aware, though, that these commitments can change over time. At one time, I was a conservative, Republican, theistic Mormon. Now, I am a left-of-progressive, anarchist, atheistic pagan.

In the case of the election, I choose to trust mainstream media, the courts, and bureaucracy about the vote counting. On the other hand, I’m critical of the neoliberal ideology which underlies all of those institutions.

I think the most we can do is to try to be aware of these personal biases and ideological commitments and open to questioning them from time to time.

As I thought about this, I came up with the following list of touchstones that I try to use when really critiquing my own beliefs, instead of just seeking reinforcement for them (which admittedly is what I do most of the time). Here’s my list. I’d be interested to know what is on your list.

  1. Hold your ideas lightly. Be humble. Be curious.
  2. Hold tightly to compassion for the suffering of others, especially others who look, talk, or act different from you. I think every philosophy or ideology that went wrong lost this sense of compassion for others.
  3. Keep coming back to your everyday experience.
  4. But don’t universalize your experience.
  5. Avoid the comfort/satisfaction of dualistic, manichaean, either-or, or all-or-nothing thinking. Truth isn’t black & white — it’s the full spectrum of the rainbow. Strive to see the complexity.
  6. Try to think systemically, rather than individualistically.
  7. Don’t confuse correlation with causation. But let yourself find meaning and beauty in correlation.
  8. Recognize the limitations of the scientific method and the objectivist point of view, but don’t take that as an excuse to ignore science and believe whatever you want.
  9. Be critical of authorities and structures of power, but avoid conspiracy thinking (which assumes an impractical level of intentional coordination).

In my opinion, the logic of the rioters/insurrectionists at the Capitol last week fails a lot of these tests. (If I’m being honest, I don’t always pass these tests either.)

What’s on your list? What touchstones do you use to determine what’s real/true/good?

Originally published at http://anotherendoftheworld.org on January 14, 2021.

John Halstead is the author of the book *Another End of the World is Possible*. Find out more at AnotherEndoftheWorld.org.

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