Some observers have suggested that we now live in a "post-factual" society. That is to say truth, facts, and scientific evidence are not essential, or not to be trusted, in public dialogue. For example, the ascendancy of the Republican candidate for president was fueled by his promotion of the "birther" movement. This phenomenon is based on the belief that Barack Obama was unconstitutionally elected as President of the United States as he was not a natural born citizen of this country. Evidence had always been available that this was not the case and in 2011 Obama's "long-form" birth certificate was produced. Still millions of people refused to believe the truth. Why is that?
I could discuss concepts like "cognitive dissonance," "confirmation bias," and "balance theory" to explain why this occurred but I don't think it's necessary to get into the psychological or sociological "weeds" for the purpose of this article. What matters is that in a post-factual environment people and groups will often argue the merits of their own political, social, and economic agendas, notwithstanding these arguments are not supported by the facts. They are subscribing to a "higher truth" instead. A truth so vital and important that facts are not necessarily determinative of the situation or issue. Often this is because the proponents of this "truth" believe that the established facts come from untrustworthy sources like the "mainstream media," experts, the "elite," the Federal Reserve, or other government sources.
This, unfortunately, is nothing new in world history or American society. Politicians frequently lied to their audiences in Ancient Greece. What is new is the prominence of this phenomenon in daily life. The mistaken views of individuals and groups are energized by the proliferation of blogs, message boards and social media. Moreover, people all along the political spectrum are susceptible to this refusal to ascertain the truth in an emotionally charged situation- not just the viewers of Fox News. Often the "truth" of your own feelings and world view takes precedence over observable or established facts.
Remember the old parable regarding the blind men and the elephant? Everyone may have some compelling information, or even facts, but that does not necessarily mean everyone has the truth. And when one superimposes their own biases to those partial facts the truth often becomes a victim to emotions. Again, this is nothing new under the sun. What is new is the ability of technology to increase the amount and velocity of misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies. Ascertaining the truth becomes more difficult, and perhaps even more troubling, immaterial.
OK, so what does any of this this have to with us as humanists? We, of all organizations, would be the least likely to succumb to a post-factual environment. Right? Don't we as individuals, and as an organization, subscribe to the virtues of reason and science? Or, like the "birthers" do we have our own post-factual agenda? Frankly, as conflicted human beings, we are not immune to this phenomenon.
Ever since I have been a member of this organization I have heard gentle criticisms that we talk too much. Debate too much. A confession, sometimes I have thought that as well. Action can be more fulfilling than lengthy meetings. But let's not forsake the values that have nurtured us our entire lives. Truth, reason, and wisdom should drive our decisions, even if it takes longer to arrive at. Unpopular opinions should be tolerated as long as they have a basis in fact and are not hurtful to others. We can and should survive a post-factual society. The truth still matters.
And, sorry, George. A lie is still a lie even if you believe it.