Life just keeps getting weirder and weirder. It is very hard to make sense out of the behavior of so many fellow humans. Some say we live in a post-truth world. What does that mean? Others claim that “alternative facts” ought to have superior standing despite contradicting the actual facts for which the evidence is overwhelming.
An entirely corrupt Fake President can proclaim that the election he clearly lost somehow suffered from fraud and that he really won, without offering so much as a shred of evidence. Never mind that dozens of courts threw out his frivolous lawsuits because they were based solely on conjecture, devoid of facts. This resulted, even though he had appointed several of the judges who ruled against his crooked lawyers. For his bootlicking sycophants the word of a compulsive liar was good enough if it protected them from being “primaried.”
Then we have the insistence in the face of a global overabundance of evidence for both the virulence of a pandemic and the remarkably strong efficacy of extensively tested new vaccines to fight the virus that caused it, that it is all somehow just a hoax. Or, some insist that to exercise the responsibility of cooperating in public health efforts to eradicate the virus, would be to take away our constitutional rights to make our own decisions and do whatever we want, regardless of the consequence for others. The collective necessity of action to mitigate the global threat of the climate crisis is readily denied by anti-science ideologues.
Facts as Controversy
I used to teach college research methodology classes. The world did not seem quite as crazy then. Nevertheless, I did experience some similar peculiarities of thinking in students for whom truth is whatever they decide is comfortable for them, regardless of the evidence against what they asserted was their right to believe. Human thought processes are not always well reasoned they are cracked up to be.
One day I was trying to get students to think about how we know what we know and how we can determine whether we are correct in what we think we know. I used the always controversial idea of the existence of “flying saucers,” UFO’s (unidentified flying objects), and alien visitors from outer space. Various opinions flew around the room on the wings of belief and imagined evidence. I challenged the assumption that by naming a mysterious phenomenon one can know anything about it. “Unidentified” means exactly that. Something seems to be out there because people have observed something and some have even filmed it. But we do not yet know what it actually is. I have to admit, I was a bit shocked when one student asserted, “I can believe anything I want,” as if that was an adequate justification for a claim being true.
The Power of the Big Lie Continues
The Big Lie is a long-standing tactic of despots, dictators, and pretenders to autocratic power. It did not start with Trump. In the context of today’s complex of social, economic, and political resentments, we should not be surprised that people believe consistently repeated Big Lies, especially when the story or conspiracy theory satisfies the need to find a villain to blame for one’s woes.
I am less surprised than dismayed that so many Big Lies currently proliferate around just about any issue. Nevertheless, it is still hard for me to understand how such blatant lies as that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax when so many have died, or that masks don’t work, or that the vaccine contains a microchip Bill Gates designed to control your life. It is astounding to note that despite vast troves of evidence that in counties, states, or nations where vaccination rates are low and/or most do not “mask up,” many more people are infected and die from the Delta variant, so many choose to ignore or deny its danger.
However, one other factor that is very closely related to the widespread belief in Big Lies is the most dangerous development for democracy and societal stability: the moral assertion that ‘my right’ to choose to believe a Big Lie is superior to your right to live.
The Moral Universe of Political Illusions of Individualism
I have heard enough people interviewed by TV reporters, who assert their “constitutional right” to refuse to comply with public health recommendations on the basis of their presumed personal right to choose, to know that our culture has reached a severe level of moral decay. As Trevor Noah once put it, “The social contract is broken.”
As the American founding fathers well understood, in any plausible moral universe, we must balance the rights of individuals to choose freely what they will do or not do with the rights of everyone else to safety from the consequences of those individuals’ choices. As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis famously said, you cannot shout fire in a crowded theater.
In the current case of people who assert their right to refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated in the context of a pandemic, it seems as if they live in a separate world. Or, they just do not believe that they have any responsibility to not risk the health or safety of others. It is they who violate the basic principle of the Constitution and the foundation of political democracy.
Unfortunately, too many Americans participate in the culture of “Me first,” or “My rights are more important than your right to live.” This is a consequence of extreme individualism, which boils down to “might makes right.” That is, “I have a gun and I can assert my right to be selfish and you can’t stop me.”
No civil society can endure long on the belief that its members have no responsibility to each other. But that is what it has come to in the American culture of industrial consumerism where corporations and their marketing psychologists have cultivated extreme individualism for over a century in order to focus everyone’s attention on consumption as the ultimate expression of personal freedom. Anyone who might interfere with that absolute vision of individual rights must be part of some conspiracy to oppress us, “take away our guns,” or otherwise reduce our freedom.
We are all interconnected in so many ways the extreme individualists do not recognize. Individuals may (or may not) choose to step up and help other individuals in need or in an emergency. Yet, so many just cannot see the necessity of mutual aid in a larger context, such as public health. They have been well trained by the commercial culture to believe that any effort to help others beyond the individual level comes from some evil conspiracy to take over our lives with “socialism.” American culture has descended into dominance by an atomistic collection of individuals who have no empathy or compassion for others outside of their personal orbit.
That is the true American Tragedy. We have allowed the corporate political economy to place us all in a vacant moral universe to fend for ourselves while we increasingly fear the other. Fear unresolved turns to hate.