The Trump administration’s decision this week to exclude news outlets that they deem “fake news” is a disturbing sign of the times. For this reason and others, many are calling this the post truth/alt facts era. Dissent from political narratives, on both the left and the right, results in being personally excluded and/or attacked. Trump and the right by no means have a monopoly on narrow thinking and intolerance for opposing viewpoints.
Conservative speakers like Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, Dennis Prager, Milo Yiannopoulos, among many others, have been banned or blocked from speaking engagements on college campuses, often by violent student protests. Milo Yiannopoulos, was banned from Twitter last year. Dennis Prager’s pro-Israel video was banned by YouTube two months ago. A recent Pew Research study reveals 40% of millennials are ok with limiting free speech that is deemed offensive to minorities. The list could go on.
It seems that the left and right have at least one thing in common, both are deeply concerned about fake news/alt facts and are willing to do almost anything to eliminate it and its sources. And yet, fake news and media bias are not a new phenomenon. While it has most assuredly gotten worse since the dawn of the internet, social media, and 24/7 cable news cycle; we’ve only begun to acknowledge it today because there are so many competing voices to be heard. An event happens and one outlet’s take on it can quickly be compared to many others. Thus, revealing the spin and bias of one or many sources. And while this is a vexing problem, it also provides fascinating insight into the human condition and how susceptible we are to what’s causing it – tribalism.
As somebody who grew up with a strong tribal identity and for that matter, immersed in an ideological system constructed almost entirely out of fake news and lies (Christian fundamentalism), I can say with confidence that what’s happening politically today is nothing short of a religious holy war. Politics is the new religion and defying your tribe’s beliefs is unacceptable. To do so is to be branded “one of them,” and have whatever you say labeled as fake news. One of the results of this is the end of critical thinking and progress.
Sam Harris (neuroscientist, avowed atheist, and definitely not political conservative) recently said, “I’m not the first person to notice that it’s pretty strange that knowing a person’s position on any one of these issues [guns, immigration, abortion, climate change] generally allows you to predict his position on the others. This shouldn’t happen. Some of these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s position on guns be predicative of his views on climate change, or immigration, or abortion? And yet it almost certainly is in our society. That’s a sign that people are joining tribes and movements. It’s not a sign of clear thinking.”
The only way I got out of the oppressive ideology I grew up in was through hearing opposing views and critical thinking. But let’s be clear, it’s really hard and scary to question your closest held beliefs and convictions, be they theological or political. It’s difficult and scary not just because you’re giving up what has provided you with certainty, security, and identity; but it’s hard because you’re probably losing your community too. About thirteen years ago I purchased Richard Dawkins book, “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.” I was working for a church in Nashville at the time and was caught with it at my desk by my pastor/boss. He picked it up, looked at me with consternation and asked, “Why are you reading this?” I said something like, “Cause I want to know how the other side thinks.” My answer seemed to satisfy him but I could tell he was still concerned…and rightfully so. This was fake news to him and my interest in it, even if it was to somehow support “our side,” was seen as dangerous and suspect.
I see a similar kind of rigid intolerance unfolding on social media. While Facebook has both positive and negative effects, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the negatives may outweigh the positives. Social media may be the greatest cause of the balkanization we’re seeing in our society. Early on, the expectation was that social media would cause people to carefully analyze different ideas, hold nuanced views, and becoming free thinkers. This has not been the case. Rather, by and large, the opposite has occurred. Social media has enhanced identity politics, tribalism, and groupthink. There are many fascinating psychological reasons for this, many of which can be found in fundamentalist religious communities too. The solution in either case is to resist the urge to give into tribalism and groupthink. And yet this is always a risk when we are part of a movement or tribe because we’re human and groupthink and tribalism are survival techniques we learned probably 200,000 years ago on the African savannah.
Our identity with a particular movement or community is *always* a threat to critical thinking. Maybe read that last sentence again so it sinks in. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t identify with political or religious communities (good luck not doing it), but it does mean that we should always be skeptical of them, especially if we feel like dissenting or questioning will be met with anger or disappointment. This is always a huge red flag. So, while Trump’s war against CNN and other “fake news” outlets is outrageous, and he may be the worst offender, he’s not the only one engaging in this religious holy war. We all need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we’re behaving in similar fashions.