Facts, Beliefs...and TRUST.
In an unprecedented period of misinformation, a trend is emerging that facts don’t matter. This increasing disagreement about facts is known as Truth Decay and could have long-reaching ramifications. We can consider the condition of society today through a mindful lens, expanding our understanding of the widening disparity occurring between facts and fiction to better understand each other.
At a time when politicians in the U.S. proclaim that votes are rigged before the voting has even started, or declare that if they lose it’s because of fraud before the election even takes place, it brings into question what can be believed or not. We’ve experienced a plethora of conspiracy theories that have emerged or re-emerged over the past few years over vaccines, climate change, government cabals, pizza shop basement child traffickers, and fake news. And now we’ve witnessed multiple incidents of people being recorded saying something and even with the video playing back in front of them, say they didn’t say it.
Truth Decay, defined by the Rand Corporation as an increasing disagreement about facts, a blurring between opinion and fact, an increase in the relative volume of opinion and personal experience over fact, and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information, is at the heart of the collapse of healthy debate.
We need facts to base our decisions on, to discern which actions to take, to direct policy and to establish societal rules that keep order and serve the public. Without facts, we end up with anarchy, a belief system that rejects governmental authority in favor of self-governing or community consensus that creates chaos and the breakdown of civil order. Truth Decay is not just an American phenomenon but is occurring globally. It’s creating a lot of the anxiety we’re experiencing due to massive uncertainty.
Without facts, we don’t know who or what to trust. We have no common point from which to base opinions or beliefs and without that, trust erodes in our governments, institutions, religions and each other. It’s what is driving the divisiveness and confrontational discourse that is occurring today. I can’t help but wonder if a more mindful approach to these societal woes wouldn’t be helpful.
Let’s start with some basics. A fact is something that actually exists and can be proven through observation or evidence, like a tree is a tree, we can travel by air, rain makes things wet, and the earth rotates around the sun. Truth is defined as the quality or state of being true, which is in accordance with fact or reality. Reality is a thing that is actually experienced or seen. That indicates to me that truth and reality are not always objective facts, but subjective. You and I can experience or see the same thing and come away with different perspectives of what it was. A belief is an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. So now we’re a little further away still from fact, with more subjectivity involved.
I’m describing all of these words because I think they matter if we want to stop the erosion of civility around the globe and start healing the world, because it is our understanding of these words that influences our beliefs about each other. These words can cause real harm, from affecting people’s health to encouraging violent acts to eroding democracies.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we can turn to today’s leaders for answers. Politicians that deny reality or outright lie are clearly seeking power, and while I don’t condone it, I can accept that our system in this country at least definitely needs an overhaul. But this great divide will have to be solved by regular people, and it’s the people that even in the face of facts, choose to believe or follow others who have been shown to be spreading misinformation that causes fear because it calls into question factual foundations of society. The answer, however, is not to dig in our heels and demand that others change. That doesn’t work. Instead, we need to start attempting to understand each other instead of blaming, shaming and judging.
It's not uncommon these days to hear someone ask, “why would people believe a lie?” when it comes to statements made by leaders or politicians. But consider parents who believe that their children are not taking drugs, even after finding drugs in their bedroom, or a wife who insists her husband is faithful despite the lipstick on his collar. Ken Seeley said, “Denial keeps us blind to the things we don’t want to see because our minds don’t feel we’re ready to handle them.”
If someone isn’t ready to deal with an issue, empathy might be a more effective response than judgment. Considering what is lacking for so many people to cause them to be so angry is another good example. Empathy seems to be the key to what is missing in resolving our issues. Empathy first and then discovery. What can we do as a society to address the issues at the core of so much discontent?
There’s a lot of anger and judgment around the conspiracy theories that continue to erode our trust in institutions and people. First, I have to point out that conspiracies do exist, like Watergate, John Lennon under surveillance by the FBI, the CIA testing LSD and other hallucinogens on citizens in what turned out to be the MK Ultra project, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Edith Wilson secretly filling in for her husband after Woodrow suffered a debilitating stroke while President, and many more. There are certainly some conspiracy theories that I believe could be possible.
But we don’t know if a conspiracy theory is true or not until well after it occurs, as facts are revealed. The current extreme theories confuse many people as to how anyone could believe them, however, there’s a very human reason that people believe conspiracy theories in general. Conspiracy theories meet a need for those with a strong distrust of people that are different from us and a great need to feel safe and secure in a world that feels just the opposite. We don’t like uncertainty and we don’t like being unable to make sense of things, so if a conspiracy theory gives us answers as to why something is happening, even if it seems completely bizarre, it can provide a feeling of control through information. Even if it’s misinformation.
There’s also a strong social motive to feel good about ourselves as individuals and in terms of groups that we belong to. One way to do that is to feel that we have access to information that other people don’t necessarily have which generates the rhetoric that everyone else is some type of sheep, but “we” know the truth. That provides not just a sense of security, but superiority which is a salve to feeling powerless or scared.
I think a mindful approach to all of this is to try to stay grounded in facts and to identify what is opinion and belief versus fact. If we could stop insisting we’re all right and everyone else is all wrong, there could be a lot more discussion occurring. My philosophy is that I don’t know. While I did not believe the pizzagate theory, for example, I didn’t jump to the conclusion that it was impossible. It wasn’t plausible to me, so it was my opinion or belief that it wasn’t true. That doesn’t make it a fact. What made it a fact was evidence discovered at the pizza shop, that being, no child trafficking was occurring. If we could all just admit that in most cases, we don’t know for sure, then we could talk about it. But we can’t calm our egos down to admit that if we’re in a state of fear, so the first step is to simply address the fears.
Regardless of religion, skin color, geographic location, or gender, we’re all human beings and over 99% identical genetically. We have a long history of making up stories about how horrible immigrants, or Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims, or people of color, or women, or fill in the blank for any disenfranchised group because we’re all seen as a threat to the status quo.
When people feel threatened, they go into fight or flight response and stop thinking clearly, hence the demonizing of everyone else. Despite the fact that history shows us that this country at least hasn’t ended because of diversity or by providing rights to these “others,” each new wave of different creates the same reaction. That’s a form of ignorance and it never seems to end. I’ve said this before but want to repeat it for anyone who hasn’t heard it, ignorance does not mean stupid. Ignorance means ignoring the facts or reality.
Regardless, until we can figure out a way to speak to each other, this situation only looks to get worse. So we could start by accepting that we don’t really know much. Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely, because again, our brains don’t like uncertainty. But the truth is, many of our government, corporate, and religious leaders have lied to us continuously for a very long time. We find out about some of the lies after the fact, but we have no way to know if what we’re being told is truthful anymore because there’s such a lack of transparency and accountability. Creating conspiracy theories or more lies about what is occurring only stokes the fear. And the more fearful, the more reactive we become.
There is nothing wrong with having a belief or an opinion. But there is definitely something destructive about convincing ourselves that just because we believe it, it must be true. A more productive use of energy could be to investigate and try to determine what is true or not, but at a minimum, we need to be clear in conversations, public demonstrations, in the news and on social media that we are expressing a belief or opinion, not a fact.
Just being more mindful about the words we use is a good start. The next step could be to aim for empathy when encountering someone with an opposing opinion. Enter conversations with the goal of learning, not proving who’s right or wrong. By all means question authority when something suspicious occurs, but not through violence which solves nothing. We could start holding public officials accountable for what they say, work for change by voting or peacefully protesting if that’s your preference and more than anything else, thinking before we act. Take a pause. Check in to see if we’re reacting from fear. It’s understandable because now there are those in power taking advantage of that fear, so they’re stoking the fires even stronger. But is it real? We can ask ourself that question before taking any action.
I recognize that things look a little grim these days, but part of that is because we the people haven’t held those in power accountable. That’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but we can still consider that although we may not know what our governments or big corporations are doing behind closed doors, we can’t allow ourselves to abandon trust. We can trust our intelligence, our common sense, our gut instincts. We can trust information that comes from reliable sources. We can trust each other again, once we learn how to have civil conversations over different ideologies and beliefs. And we can trust that a fact is a fact. Everything else is perspective, belief or opinion. Those don’t make anyone right or wrong. But without facts, we have no compass to guide us.
Perhaps it’s time for us to recognize that we are creating most of our problems and that’s actually good news. That means we can take different actions to course correct and get back to simply disagreeing on topics instead of threatening civil war. Think about your own beliefs. Have you slipped into thinking that they are absolutely true? Or are they just right for you?
We can take a broader perspective on all of the conspiracy theories, misinformation and violence occurring in our world today. They’ve been around since the beginning of time because they’re part of the human brain’s response to fear and uncertainty. But by minding our minds, we can shift out of this destructive period and move forward into a more empathetic and productive society. Mindfulness can help us do that. To be clear, this is my opinion, not a fact. It can only become a fact if we all do it together. We could each start today with our next conversation by practicing listening without judgment and by accepting that our opinions and beliefs are not necessarily facts. It definitely takes courage, but I believe we can do it. I hope you do, too.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.