I don’t know what to tell my sister when she feels isolated from friends that in the past she would have disagreed with yet remained friendly. I’ve known my sister all my life and she has always had friends on both sides of the isle. But things have changed. The isle is now a wall built with ‘alternative facts.’ What can she do, she asked me, when the disagreement isn’t over opinions, but over facts?
As a therapist I have said more than once, “Feelings are not facts.” By the same token, I want to say, “Opinions are not facts.” Even more than that I am reminded of what a professor at Agnes Scott once said to me, “You have to earn the right to an opinion by doing the work that lays the groundwork for your opinion.” At the time I was gob-smacked but a life of learning has proven him correct. Now days I hear opinions propounded by those who haven’t done the work.
I don’t know what to tell my sister when someone tells her that President Obama isn’t a U. S. citizen. It is a fact that he is. One – he was born to an American mom. Our laws state that a child of a citizen is a citizen. For example, Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Junior were born to Ivana who, at the time, was not a U.S. citizen but they are citizens because of their Dad. (Ivana became a citizen in 1988). Two- President Obama was born in Hawaii at Kapiʻolani Medical Center for Women and Children and his birth certificate is registered with the state.
Here is what is absolutely important to remember:
– a fact is a statement that can be proven true or false, based on objective evidence.
– an opinion cannot be proven true or false because it is just what someone thinks or believes – it is subjective.
The difficult thing is that those who believe President Obama is not a United States citizen cite unreliable sources. They disregard the fact of state certified documents and the fact that his mom was a U.S. citizen. Instead, they fall prey to conspiracy theorists, who for all the world, sound absolutely sure of themselves without substantive data. Either these purveyors of falsehoods believe what they are saying or they want us to believe them. And once an opinion is accepted as fact they build a house of ‘alternative facts,’ one on top of the other. Just because someone believes what they think is a fact, it is only a truly a fact when it can be objectively proven.
Here’s the problem: if we remove one card the entire structure collapses. So the Limbaugh’s and the O’Reilly’s are going to hold onto that card with a ferocity that borders on fanaticism. Like gossip, the untruths spread wildfire. And, for goodness sake, something isn’t true just because you want it to be true. None of this really addresses my sister’s concern because opinions can be discussed and argued but facts cannot.
A horrible wrong has been perpetrated on our nation in the name of conservatism. It isn’t the conservatism we have known in the past. The extremist right has stealthily overtaken the Republican Party (beginning with Gingrich and escalating to the Tea Party and beyond)and Republicans has given extremism legitimacy that creates and feeds a chasm between the American people.
So, Sherry (that’s my sister’s name) I don’t know what to tell you. I wish I did.
I know that if we have any chance at all to overcome the divide that was created with both intention and malice, we must be willing to have difficult conversations about objective facts.
I know we can’t be complicit with falsehoods, no matter how well intended.
I know we can’t be complicit with ‘false equivalencies’. A false equivalency, for example, is presenting two sides of an issue as if they are balanced when in fact one side is an extreme point of view. Say one presents a scientific theory as being contentious when more than 99% of scientists studying the topic accept it as being true (climate change, for example) and only a distant and non-authoritative few dispute it. That’s false equivalency.
I know most of this is not about rational thought but about ideas that reinforce emotions, most often fear and hate.
Your friends and neighbors are not, for the most part, evil. They love their children and obey the law of the land, they work and pay taxes. They may be homophobic or racist or sexist or anti-Semitic or anti- immigrant but they not beyond redemption nor do they lack the capacity to change. I must confess that there are times I just want them all to go away. Sometimes the greater part of me. But, as Dr. King reminds us, only light can drive out darkness.
We must overcome sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-immigration sentiments if we are to find our way back to one another. We have to help one another get to the place of acceptance, inclusion, and celebration of our differences if we are ever to be a great nation again.
I just don’t know how to do it but we can’t give up. Keep shining the light, Sherry, keep shining the light.
UPDATE: When first posted this I failed to mention that my sister identifies as an agnostic/atheist and my response was to her from that perspective. For Christians and people of faith I would add that we must also be informed by the vows of our baptism. Those vows include the promise to see the face of God in everyone and to resist evil.
Does it make conversations easier? I think not. Many do not share the sense of urgency I feel about creeping authoritarianism, white nationalism, children housed in cages – the list of evil perpetrated in our name goes on. I vowed to resist those evils on the day of my baptism. I also vowed to see God in people who support those stances. It is a challenge. For me, the hope and the work ahead is to encourage the oppressor to see God in the oppressed. Christ was an immigrant, a person of color, and a person oppressed by the empire. He taught love from that perspective, not from the perspective of privilege. We still have much to learn.
Those of us who stand with the hurting ones, who stand on the side of the ‘least of these’, who refuse to demonize those who are not like us must answer the call to love one another, even our enemies, in ways that are transformative for everyone. Keep shining the Light!