Our high-rise community participated in a neighbourhood garage sale recently, and we were all asked to donate items to the cause. Several residents worked very hard to collect, label, and affix prices to the assorted contributions.
Most people donated cheerfully, but one elderly man offered his two cents’ worth about the enterprise when he, somewhat grudgingly, dropped off his items.
“It’s not right, y’know,” he said. “Rich folks selling stuff to raise money for themselves.”
The volunteer who accepted his goods might have wondered why he was donating, given his point of view. But rather than question it, she chose to explain the endeavour.
“Actually, the money raised from the sale is going to a number of good causes,” she said. “It will buy wood for the woodworking club to make toys for kids at Christmas; it will buy paint for the artists’ club to paint them; it will buy wool for the knitters’ group to make mittens, hats, and sweaters for kids; and a cash contribution will be made to the local battered-women’s shelter.”
“Oh,” was all he said before shuffling away, unmollified. Presented with the facts—details that contradicted his preconceived notions—he had no comeback. There were no further questions, no requests for additional information, no expression of greater understanding. Nothing.
As a witness to this exchange, I couldn’t help but compare it to the same phenomenon we see in the broader public sphere. How many of us, convinced of the legitimacy of opinions we may have formed on any subject, are resistant to evidence that proves us wrong?
“I think…” we might say, as preface to a harangue on some subject or other. “In my opinion…” we may begin, before embarking on a diatribe of some sort. “Everybody knows…” we might say, before expounding on whatever is the topic at hand.
And when we do, we are usually sincere and convinced in our viewpoint. Even if that viewpoint is based on little reflection, born of a subjective opinion, or informed by a group mentality.
There is an election taking place right now in the USA, the country to the south of us, a presidential contest that is rapidly (if not already) attaining farcical status. As an interested onlooker, I am astounded by the shallowness of the debate over issues, the venality of the personal attacks, and the ignorance of large swaths of the electorate.
Lest I be accused of self-righteousness, let me concede that elections in our own country are not models of decorum and honour. But, so far as I can determine, we have never had a candidate for the highest office in the land who appealed, deliberately and recklessly, to the basest elements of our populace.
There is a burgeoning movement in the USA, labelled the alt-right, which festers mostly in the social-media universe. Although loosely-organized (if at all), its proponents focus on a number of major themes, among them: race, gender, immigration, self-reliance and individualism, and small-government. Their major grievance appears to be a sense of disentitlement, a belief that they’re losing their historic, God-given rights to a post-modernist, liberal elite.
Their vociferous body-politic includes racists and white-supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and xenophobes. A large segment of their ranks consists of disaffected white men (and perhaps the women over whom they exercise control)—an alienation founded in the shrinking of the middle-class, disappearing jobs and income, a perceived increase in crime and terrorism, and an assault on their ‘inalienable rights’. They want someone to restore what they have lost.
The alt-right movement, for the most part, has aligned itself behind Donald Trump, a billionaire candidate, who has at various times claimed that:
- the current president was not born an American, and may in fact be Muslim;
- Hispanic immigrants from Mexico are criminals and rapists, expelled from their own country;
- thousands of Muslim-Americans cheered as they watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11;
- an American-born judge of Mexican heritage is not qualified to sit on the bench because of his ethnicity; and
- most white homicide victims in the USA are killed by African-Americans.
Major media organizations have looked into these statements—and myriad others of the same ilk—and debunked them as lies, citing credible data to support their findings. Nevertheless, alt-righters continue to believe them and repeat them, relying on their gut-level intuition rather than evidence.
“Don’t confuse me with facts!” they appear to be saying.
These deluded devotees remind me of the elderly gentleman who brought donations to our neighbourhood garage sale—unconvinced by the truth, unlikely to change his mind, determined to remain in a state of blissful, self-righteous ignorance.
It’s true, I suppose, that all of us could be seduced by a particular version of the truth that resonates with us, whether personal, political, religious, or simply comforting. But to any of us who find ourselves in that situation, I have one piece of advice—
Don’t believe everything you think!