All this happened, more or less.
Truth is a slippery concept.
Never in my life have I heard the nature of truth so widely discussed in the collective conversation around me. We’ve arrived somewhere new, and terrifying. Here be dragons.
I’ve tried to avoid politics in my writing because I usually feel others are more informed and articulate. I feel I haven’t had anything to add to the conversation, and this piece might be just another voice in the buzz. But I feel I need to say this anyway.
Beneath all the soundbites and tweets, there’s something happening right now that eats away at the fabric of truth.
Let’s start with a simple idea. Humans are limited. There’s only so much that we’re able to see, hear, and understand in one lifetime. To complicate matters, these limitations don’t just apply to how much information we can take in, they also apply to the way we process that information.
When Donald Trump signs executive actions that include publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants, he’s preying on our limitations.
Because, that list, whether you want it to or not, will make your brain perceive a higher incidence of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Even if illegal immigrants are committing crimes at a significantly lower rate than U.S. citizens (which they likely are), it won’t feel like it—if you have all those examples in mind.
In cognitive psychology they call this the availability heuristic. It’s a shortcut our brains take when we estimate. We run through all the examples we can easily recall of something, then guess likelihood based on their availability.
This is one reason terrorism elicits such a strong reaction from people. Nobody really thinks about the actual likelihood of terrorist attacks, they think about striking examples of terrorism, and this causes them to overestimate its incidence and threat.
To be clear, I’m in no way arguing that terrorism is anything less than horrifying or real. All I’m saying is that in the 15 years since 9/11, less than 100 people have been killed in radical Islamic terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Now, of course, that number is lower because of 40 billion or more dollars we’ve invested into counterterrorism measures, but Donald Trump regularly describes Islamic terrorism as one of the greatest threats facing the United States. Remember—less than 100 people killed in 15 years—and the vast majority of those attacks, including Orlando, were carried out by U.S. citizens, not immigrants. But Trump used the refugee terrorism threat as justification for banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.
The more Trump and others like him say these things from a position of authority, the more people believe it. Behind the economy, terrorism was the important issue for voters this election.
Here’s the problem. When you provide “alternative facts,” like inventing terror attacks and painting the U.S. as barely hanging on in the midst of constant terrorism, it fundamentally changes how people think.
But if you’ve been paying attention, you know all this. You know the threat posed by this breakdown of trust in information. You know that the discrediting of the media opens the door for those with power to claim more. I hear it happening every day when I turn on my radio or read a news article.
So the question becomes, when we can’t know everything, who do we trust for information about what we can’t see ourselves?
I wish I could wholeheartedly advocate for all mainstream media sources, but I feel powerful forces shape the information they provide us. Nothing arrives to us unfiltered. Vonnegut was right to append “more or less.”
The difficult task we’ve all received is—like Vonnegut—seeking the slippery truth buried in muddiness and mess.
And in some ways this search for truth is irrational. In terms of the effect this all directly has on my life, the payoff of caring is staggeringly slight. I gave to the campaigns I supported and I donated to causes I believe in. Every step along the way I voted “correctly.” And yet we’re still here. I felt powerless watching it all happen.
I believe our generation’s fundamental political challenge is apathy. I know it’s mine.
I wish I had a real call to action here, but I don’t. I don’t know exactly who you should vote for. I don’t know exactly which protests you should attend or which causes you should fight for. There’s a lot of things I don’t have an answer to.
Instead, I have a simple request, one that I often ask of myself of when nothing makes sense. Care about what happens to others. Care about what happens to the environment. Care about what happens to America. Care against cost.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)