Thursday, December 1, 2016

Feel Checking

Here's a question that's been raised by the recent Presidential election: Can an incorrect statement of fact be a correct statement of emotion?

A lot of people have been talking, and writing, about President-elect Donald Trump and his penchant for untruths as well as the torrent of "fake news" stories that popped up during the election cycle. And this has lead to quite a bit of discussion of how to inoculate the public against potential lies, to prevent people from being taken in by attempts to sway them with deceit. But I'm not sure that this is the right approach.

To the extent we were making a mistake, it was one of strategic misassumption, as opposed to tactical failure: This fight had nothing to do with science. It was being fought out on an entirely different frequency. That frequency was the one that transmits emotion, blame, anger, ratings, and money, not “the facts” that had been so carefully packaged in press kits.
Eric Dezenhall - Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal
I kept a journal in my twenties, and when I go back and read through it, I find a number of statements that were, by any measure, factually inaccurate, but were spot on to my emotional state at the time, and if someone had parroted them back at me, they would have met with my enthusiastic agreement despite the ample physical evidence of their falsity. I think that such things are common for young people, because in our youth, many of us have yet to develop a broad enough understanding of the reality of the world around us. I'm going to quote something I read from the internet, without attribution this time, because this isn't about drawing attention to the person, but to make a point about the statement.
[N]o one has invested in incorporating me into their life, in distributing their care, in any meaningful way such that my absence will create a gulf.
This is, in reality, an incredibly difficult thing to know with any certainty. And for most people, it's absolutely untrue. But many people go through that feeling of being alone, and for them, it's so present in their lives that it's impossible to convince them of its inaccuracy. I've been there, and I've tried - and failed. Fortunately, things didn't end in tragedy, but it's the basic dilemma of Push-me-pull-you. The game can never end with the puller overpowering the pusher. It can only end with the pusher agreeing that the puller is sincere. And when you can't be in another's mind, your own mind fills in the blanks in a way that creates a coherent worldview, regardless of the contradictions that it leaves.

When we focus on the specific words, it's often possible to find obvious disconnects from reality as we understand it to be. So it's easy to find the flaws in a story about how Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President, or a claim that President Obama was going to find a way to extend his time in office.
But if you look at the emotional content behind them; the belief that a Trump administration would be good for the poor, and the belief that President Obama was interested in the personal power to undermine American capitalism, then they make more sense. And that also become the explanation for why they were so hard to debunk, because the affirmed a worldview that people wanted to have faith in, and one that they were deeply emotionally invested in. And while facts a subject to checking, feelings aren't.

No comments: