There have always been alternative facts. Sometimes we have called it deliberate mis-information, sometimes propaganda, sometimes doctrine or policy. It has always been used as a way of fixing opinion by those who can use it most effectively. Why are we so surprised at its growth in current political situations? We can either swallow it, live with it, or strive against it.
The trouble is, are the facts we are using, our propaganda, our beliefs, and are they subject to correction in the face of stronger arguments? The mark of reason is to be ready, when faced by robust counter-arguments, to re-test our assumptions and change our inner frameworks. There is nothing unreasonable in looking up at the sky, and watching the stars and planets, the galaxy spread across it – and assuming that it is all moving around us. The sun rises, arcs over us and sets. Our ground feels solid and unmoving. Surely we are the centre?
Well, in a complicated sort of way, it is a permissible relativism to all intents and purposes, it’s just that when you look at the detail rather than being impressed by the sheer number of stars, it’s much simpler to work on a heliocentric model, and in which even the sun traverses a cluster, in turn a galaxy, in turn in an expanding universe. Oh, and maybe we are one of an infinite number of multiverses.
Navigation needs some good understanding about the way things move, but we can simplify part of the picture and blot out the additional multiverse stuff, when sailing around the world. We might enjoy the mind-stretch, but even multiverse hypotheses aren’t in the realm of conspiracy theories and alternative facts (until misused, that is).
Similarly, wave-particle duality is not something we have to deal with daily, unless we are dealing seriously in our working lives with quantum physics. It doesn’t matter one jot to most of us, whether we know about it, understand it or calculate with it. And that is why we don’t debate it. The physicists aren’t getting one over on us, and honestly, you can listen to some fierce debates between them about stuff we can’t comprehend. The point is, particle and energy physicists can be heard saying that if their entire life’s work were to be erased by a better theory, it would be wonderful. Because they are always after a better explanation of the way things are.
The problem with people
Can the same be said of social sciences? One would hope so, but the amount of subjectivity that comes through qualitative research means that it is harder to model and less certain. Policies, politics, social structures, all tend to drive rather than reduce inequality, to create privilege and authority in the guise of leadership and organisation, to create stability and order in an advantageous way. However, the history of human civilisation is that we move through cycles of self-destruction and disorder, in a bid to remove what has become corrupted and find something better. In these times, free debate stumbles. Arguments become more acrimonious, the more it matters, and no-one wants to lose. If you’re hanging on at the bottom, you must not lose what little you have. Losing at the top means losing power, privilege and influence. Losing in the middle means losing safety and opportunity to gain privilege. Everyone is scared, so losing the debate is no casual affair. The idea of learning to change your preconceptions and assumptions gets shelved, indeed if you can get supremacy for your ideas, maybe you will be saved from falling into oblivion.
It’s scary to watch a world leader who is clearly incompetent of intellectual leadership of the remotest kind, setting the agenda, spouting indiscriminate and unevaluated nonsense gathered from channel TV news, and getting believed by millions simply because that’s the easiest thing to do.
The arguments in social media are moving now around whether to discuss this situation, fight it, or let it self destruct and try to stand clear before picking up the pieces. There is no straight answer to that.
Testing for legitimate argument
But is Trump the only example? Of course not. ‘Lesser’ regimes around the world have always done it, and all manner of other organisations too. Somehow we distinguish between repressive religious cults and mainstream religions with notorious histories – but why?
Always, groups, large and small, promote their passionately-held views. Some we call crazy, others we respect, providing they aren’t too disruptive. Well, normally; in these times simply being disruptive is lauded as a provocation against an establishment, even without a better replacement.
But we have to ask whether the predominance of any view should hurt any other’s. There are oppressive religious groups with extreme narrow and prescriptive views who would like the whole world to be like them. Yet at the other end, we hope that minority groups fighting for peace, or the banning of bee-killing pesticides, will succeed on our behalf, because we are supportive.
The big discriminator has to be the notion of testable truth: can this view be fully supported by investigation, research and be subject to constant examination? Nobody promoting a point of view, even in a pub of a Friday night, should be shy of this. And the investigation has itself to rely on layers of testable truths. So you can’t test whether LGBTQI rights matter against an argument of a religious faith-literature, unless you are prepared also test the validity of that faith-literature against history, society, contemporary purpose, its own evolution, the evolution of ideas, and scientific research.
I will never forget the awe in a expression I was given long ago when I was still professing christianity but studying its history and literature as a post-graduate: ‘Wow! Your faith must be so strong to ask that!’ In effect, not many believers would dare to ask a question that takes you close to the edge of invalidating the belief/doctrine/dogma. I departed religion very soon after.
Between trust and suspicion
We are most of us very poorly equipped to test truths. We do not have resources, time or scope to examine everything, when most of the time we have no need to. But if you solely read The Daily Mail, or Breitbart, or even the BBC or The Guardian, you are not going to arrive at truth. I just try to go places where there is a reasonable level of debate, where ideas are challenged.
Being ready to change your world view, opinions or beliefs in light of good and verifiable information, is a mark of mature humanity, but this concept divides the world. Somewhere between trust and suspicion, we must locate ourselves and ride the waves. At times like this, however, so many people fly to implicit trust or total scepticism, like reaching one bank or other of a river in spate.
We should have learned that at times like this, banks collapse.
Propaganda, heliocentricity, wave-particle duality, clutching at simplicity – what is this all about on my blog? I’m not a political animal. It isn’t just Trump, Brexit, Turkey, Da’esh, Syria … No. It’s the Church of England debating whether being LGBTQ (I sincerely hope the intersex ‘I’ is left out of the morality question) is a matter of morality and religious belief, or of genetics and the inherent human condition. It is whether hate-mongers against minorities should grace academic institutions, any more than climate change deniers should lecture on an equal footing with the 90+% of academics urging immediate and escalating action. It is whether Christian groups in the USA should move the new administration to permit religious discrimination as an exemption above the current law, at the expense of minorities or vulnerable people. It’s whether people in power should engender fear as a means of achieving their ends.
If only the first rule of being human were Hippocratic: first do no harm.
I look not only at the political right stirring up race hatred and xenophobia, but those who create and frame a cause that justifies the harming of others. From where I am, a vast number of people are on the brink of being harmed by the unchallenging of propaganda. Nothing new: except the scale in recent times.
LGBTQ are no longer up for debate
People like me (choose your aspect) are already in fear of very real consequences all over the world, it’s just that where it was getting better, it looks like getting a whole lot worse again. We are not up for debate, we are not any more ‘immoral’ for being LGBTQ. We simply are, like everyone else.
I wrote this blog weekly for years, not to explain with clinical facts of being transgender (though these are here too), but to be the evidence, in context of very ordinary living. I should not have to fight back, to justify or to explain. It’s tiring, it’s pointless and it doesn’t persuade. It maybe increases tolerance, but tolerance is not what I want. I may improve acceptance, but that isn’t what I want. Do you need either to justify your humanity? This isn’t a point of view, an opinion or a choice.
Enough has been done to test the truth underlying gender and sexual identity to show that we have always existed and always will, simply as part of the diversity of being a creature of planet earth. Ethics and morality are not a part of it, there is no debate.
We don’t need to debate heliocentricty in order to navigate. Those who create a debate about it are not helpful. Likewise it protects no-one in society to erase LGBTQ identities and forbid their expression, any more than to debate the legitimacy of red hair among those who don’t understand genetics. We all live, we all love and we are all equally human.
If we can grasp why we create ‘alternative facts’, propaganda, doctrine and dogma, then we have a chance of doing our best to find the real facts. But we must first be willing to learn – and change. And there’s the rub.
As a footnote, this week I began a new job. It is the first in which I have not been ‘protected’ by being announced on arrival as trans. Nevertheless, my LinkedIn profile, Facebook, this blog, my poetry all speak clearly and openly. Here, now, I have no need to fear a backlash. It isn’t being ‘stealth’, or discreet. It just isn’t important in order to navigate. It just isn’t up for debate. Anything else would be an alternative fact.