Welcome to a New Kind of Tension

From Newsweek — August 24, 2010:

Silly Things We Believe About Witches, Obama, and More” by David A. Graham

Orwell taught us that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.  How much simpler and profound does it get than that?  Depends on how deeply you value your belief set.

There are a few ways to cause people to deny that two plus two make four.  The most basic of course is to cause them to suffer so much physical or psychological pain that they will say anything to make the pain stop.  In Orwell’s anti-Utopian 1984, that was the most expedient, effective, and predictable approach.  With power-based fear as a means of control and the ability to inflict pain, an autocratic society can not only write its own rules, it can divine its own science and history.  We know the parable of 1984 is extreme, but we also know the context and landscape from which it emerged.  Thus far, our core values have largely prevailed, at least within most of our own sphere of influence.  The fact that I can freely type these words and publish them globally without restriction or anticipated retribution suggests we have collectively heeded the warning and fought reasonably successfully against the absurd.

Yet there is a more subtle and gnawing mode of drowning in Orwell’s soup without tangible restraint or any violence.  It’s called repetition.  If enough people say enough times that our President was not born of Constitutional privilege to hold his office — and that his true religion is something other than what he does choose to practice — the echoes will resonate, first slowly with skepticism, then with snowballing strength, and soon enough with mystical authority.  Can the untrue be perceived as true without fundamental questioning?  Why certainly, if there is no agenda to question the rhetoric which most suits a listener’s taste.  When we test the waters for the tides, we refer to the methodology as opinion polling.  Opinions are entirely products of freedom, they are shared freely without legislative filter, and they contain the power to be as impactful if not more so than facts.  Is this a game?  Indeed, it is a well-played game where the stakes transcend all that we hold to be sacred.

We teach our children not to gossip.  Why?  Because gossip is hurtful, it is beneath us as educated, civilized, felicitous members of intersecting communities.  So how do we get the strange beliefs assembled in the August 19, 2010 Pew Poll cited in Graham’s Newsweek story?  It’s not conspiracy, that requires sophisticated orchestration well beyond the bounds of random lunacy.  We get there because people “pass it on” in ways that suit their tastes, it’s just that simple.  Without respect for the truth, opinions can too easily become shared and replace truth with equal detriment.

This is a very simple corollary that precedes the more recent Newsweek story on why 38% of Americans can’t pass a citizenship test.  They can’t pass it because they don’t find it important enough to be able to pass it.  Likewise, any number of individuals don’t find it important enough to validate their opinions by referencing a fact base before they pass them on; it’s inconvenient to fact check, and may not align with deeply held biases that will always be more resonant than facts.

Integrity is the only path beyond the metaphorical Orwell.  We can abolish torture by law, then practice and praise ourselves for preserving freedom, but if freedom is the freedom to teach and evangelize that two plus two make five, have we really come as far as we should expect of ourselves?  Education must be at the core of our debate and discussion, allowing us always to differ on opinion, but when we entrench the unreal in a parade of support, we do no one any favors.  Instead we betray the trust of the very freedom that allows us to say what we will, and we exploit the gift of open exchange by blowing wind rather filling the air with choice words.

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