When reality trumps good manners: The last frontier of toleranceJun 16, 2022
Smothered in evidence. Floundering in the sea of your own haemorrhaging ego. Repeating the same drivel over and over again. Your game is tired. We’re all bored. We see through you.
When did reality become political?
Over the last five or so years, something weird has crept into cyberspace. Antivaxxers, flat-earthers, climate deniers –- they hate it when you call them that–QAnon disciples, pizzagate cultists, the Big Liars and those who earnestly believe in the Bowling Green massacre are not just flooding forums with angry nonsense, not just pushing a partisan agenda, and not just offering a distorted perspective…
They are beaming in from another part of the multiverse… The stupid part.
The writing was on the wall as soon as the term ‘fake news’ went viral with surprisingly little public scrutiny. Donald Trump had been pushing this line for decades and storming out of interviews like a stunted toddler. What else is a guy to do when his casinos, his steaks, his vodka, his mortgage company, his airline, his hotels and his sham university all flop miserably and hilariously? Awash in the stench of abysmal failure, Trump couldn’t accept that he was the architect of his own humiliation…no, no, reality itself was wrong. It was the creditors who were ‘fake’, the shareholders who were ‘fake’, the students, the reporters, the senators, the UN. Poor Trump was the only honest creature surrounded by his ‘phony’ opponents, his ‘nasty’ enemies, and, of course, the ‘fake news media’. Somehow, bafflingly, we let this petulant approach to life’s hard knocks catch on. We let people decide that their opinions, their egos––their feelings––mattered more than objective facts. We let people say vaccines were a greater threat than a global pandemic, that the shape of the earth was open for debate for the first time since 500 BCE, and that scientists trained in objective methodologies were subject to corruption by…um, NASA, apparently, or the IPCC, or the Club of Rome, or pernicious ‘groupthink’…depending on which conspiracy theorist you’re being harassed by.
We’ve been far too polite about this. There is much to be said for going high, but when reality itself is debated and denied, we risk losing civility, common sense and critical thought, but more than that––the progress of our species. In that context, sparing feelings is counterproductive in the extreme. We need to reassert facts. We need to call out stupid lies.
Among the stupidest, albeit with stiff competition, is the overly literal interpretation of the National Socialist Workers Party. It is––or, at least, it should be––undeniable that the Nazis were a far-right nationalist movement, explicitly and murderously opposed to socialism and communism, and––it’s weird that this even needs to be written down––liberalism. Claiming, as some confused people do, that the Nazis were ‘leftist’, or can be reframed as such, because ‘national socialist’ (German: Nationalsozialistische) appears in their branding, is about as sophisticated as claiming Burger King is an actual monarch or Captain Morgan a serious threat to nautical tourism. If that seems unkind, consider the likely outcry from members of the United States Republican Party if they were ever earnestly paired with the People’s Republic of China. They’d be incensed, and horrified, and they’d have every reason to be.
“But, hang on,” the Trumpkins cry, “it’s all right there in the name. You’d have to be an IDIOT not to see that, right?!!” This is what happens when education isn’t sufficiently funded or valued, and when evidence-based debate is replaced by caps lock and asinine memes. A surface level understanding of a complex issue should never be allowed to go viral in any civilised nation. Teacher Mike Stuchbery became something of an internet legend when he spectacularly debunked this particular strain of stupid and schooled a few confused right-wingers about their place on the political spectrum. We need more teachers like Mike. We need more funding for teachers like Mike. We need––desperately––more respect for teachers like Mike. Perhaps a little less for reality TV stars.
The problem is this: correcting these lies is a constant game of ‘whac-a-mole’ wherein the cultish, circular logic of conspiracy nuts shaves sanity down to splinters of aggressive ‘subjectivity’ on issues that are objectively clear-cut. They don’t respond to evidence, they have no respect for professionals who’ve worked hard to earn their stripes in a particular field, and they flood cyberspace with misinformation in order to pump up their own ego. Often their flood comes with personal attacks, jealousy, tantrums and spite. Their jibes are targeted at the ‘elite’ who live in ‘ivory towers’ (this seems to be anyone who politely asks for evidence), and their assertions–bolstered by their little conclaves of imbecility–-are that it is they who are the bearers of ‘logic’, ‘sense’, ‘intellectual credibility’ and ‘scepticism’. Such rhetorical trickery casts those who trust research methodologies, public health institutions, peer-reviewed sources and scientific consensus as the ‘sheep’. It’s dumb. It’s really, really dumb…But it’s working.
So, what can we do about it?
The quote that headlines this essay is my own. It’s not very nice. I’m not proud of it. Still, what can rational human beings, who pride ourselves on core liberal values such as tolerance and empathy, do when confronted by those who refuse to live in the real world? At what point does intolerance become both appropriate and necessary?
Our former––I love saying this––former Prime Minister shepherded an embarrassing religious discrimination bill to essentially protect belief over fact, which would further open the door to conspiracy theorists, keyboard junkies, basement dwelling egomaniacs, pseudo-intellectuals, stalkers, bigots and trolls, and have catastrophic consequences for Australian society. Faced with this epidemic of reality rejection on political grounds, tolerance may no longer be the noble cause it once was. A little bit of ridicule––a little bit of snark––a little bit of calling a spade a spade, a lie a lie, a dimwit a dimwit––may have to become part of progressive vernacular. As Jeff Sparrow points out in his 2019 piece The ‘Kettle Logic’ of climate denial cultists, the deniers and assorted loons are not engaging in good faith anyhow:
“Though the ideologues of denialism invariably declare themselves truthseekers wedded to facts and logic (so many invocations of Galileo!), the movement has always been more about politics than science. The fossil fuel companies that underwrite denialist thinktanks and conferences want to counter environmentalists and protect their profits. They don’t care how they do so.”
We all accept that, politically, there’s a red spin and there’s a green spin, and thanks to Clive Palmer, there’s a yellow spin…but reality should not be colour blind. Facts should remain visible no matter the lens.
It’s not too late to bring authenticity back.