Humanists and the Rise of “Post-Truth America”

DONALD TRUMP SAW THOUSANDS of Muslims dancing with joy in New Jersey on September 11, 2001.

Carly Fiorina watched a video of Planned Parenthood staffers plotting to cut up a live baby and harvest its brain.

Ben Carson is right—the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain.

There are certain things you can say about these statements: they’re alarming. They’re strange. They’re shocking.

They are also not true.

Yet they are being recited, over and over again, by men and women seeking the highest office in the land—the U.S. presidency.

What on earth is going on here?

As the American Humanist Association celebrates its seventy-fifth birthday, it’s time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. But it’s also time for us to face a hard truth: any group that promotes the use of reason, science, and evidence-based inquiry now faces a daunting challenge—the continuing growth of what I call “post-truth America.”

Post-truth America is an America where lies are spouted by politicians and their followers brazenly and openly with little or no consequence. And I mean it when I use the term “lies.” I’m not talking about nuances, little fibs, or differences of opinion. In post-truth America, people claim that certain events and things happened when, in fact, they did not happen. Furthermore, it’s easy to prove that these things didn’t happen. Yet prominent people continue to say that they did—and their supporters do not care. In fact, they applaud it.

Don’t confuse post-truth America with eccentric beliefs and strange obsessions. Your neighbor’s insistence that Bigfoot lurks in the woods upstate is probably harmless. But many of the assertions heard in post-truth America are anything but quirky.

Robert Lewis Dear muttered “no more baby parts” to police after he was apprehended for allegedly killing three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on November 28. Dear was likely referring to a series of deceptively edited “sting” videos produced by a radical anti-abortion outfit—the Center for Medical Progress—that accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue.

Planned Parenthood hadn’t done anything illegal, and the video Fiorina claimed to have seen about the ghoulish plot to harvest a baby’s brain simply doesn’t exist. This was pointed out to her more than once, but she continued to tell the story. In the wake of Dear’s attacks, Fiorina was incapable of self-reflection and blamed “the Left” for demonizing her because “they don’t agree with the message.”

Similarly, Trump’s assertion about Muslims who danced on 9/11 fuels Islamophobic trends that have accelerated since the horrific terrorist assault on Paris. Just a week after the November 13 attacks, a band of men armed with assault rifles marched in front of a mosque in Irving, Texas, in a clear attempt to intimidate congregants. The men said they were concerned that Islamic law would be imposed on their community.

Islamic law in Texas? The idea is ridiculous to anyone who stops to think about it for a minute. But in post-truth America, even implausible tales gain currency because some irresponsible politicians, eager for votes and cash, spread them. What’s disturbing is the fact that these claims’ implausibility doesn’t slow them down. In fact, despite their implausibility, they are accepted by some who are then spurred to action—in some cases, violent action.

I’ve monitored the religious right for nearly thirty years, which means I’m no stranger to post-truth America. I’m kind of a permanent visitor. I hear the lies over and over again: President Barack Obama is a Muslim. The Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians who founded a “Christian nation.” There’s no scientific support for evolution. Climate change is a hoax.

We all know that politicians have lied before. Lies, distortions, and vicious personal attacks are, unfortunately, a regular feature of U.S. politics. Yet I sense a shift in the landscape of post-truth America. We’ve crossed some kind of frontier. These new lies are different.

In the past, outrageous claims were challenged, often successfully. It’s becoming harder and harder to do that. Trump and other demagogues simply shout, wave their arms, and continue to repeat the lie, which is perpetually given new life through various avenues. An entire infrastructure now supports post-truth America. It has its own websites, its own publishing empires, and even a twenty-four-hour “news” channel.

Humanists, who place a premium on fact finding, knowledge, and discovery, can only look at these developments with dismay. Many times at humanist gatherings, I’ve been approached by well-meaning people who, having heard me give a speech debunking religious right claims, express great enthusiasm for spreading the information. They often say something like, “We just need to get the truth out!”

But the information is out there. It has been out there for a long time. One of the hardest things for many humanists to accept is that for many Americans today, facts simply don’t matter. They do not sway opinions or change minds. Post-truth America creates another narrative. In a pinch, a conspiracy theory will do. Just one day after Dear’s arrest, commenters on news websites began claiming that the whole thing wasn’t really an attack on Planned Parenthood, but a bank robbery gone bad.

Obama birth-certificate cranks, 9/11 deniers, and Sandy Hook “truthers” may seem like bands of disaffected loons. But a strain of their thinking runs through our nation’s political discourse with more power than many care to admit.

The situation isn’t hopeless, but it must be faced square on. Too many humanists cling to the notion that simply being right or having the facts on our side is enough to win the “culture war.” It’s not. If it were, we’d have won it long ago.

I won’t pretend that there’s an easy answer to overcoming post-truth America. There isn’t. But the first step is to acknowledge that it does exist and that many Americans live there. Once over that hurdle, humanists can work to start bringing people out of post-truth America and into reality. It’s going to take some time. One can only hope the cultural and ideological landscape will look better in another seventy-five years.

  • GenePreston

    This commentary is very important. Thank you Rob for posting the truth.

  • BobbyV

    This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.
    Thomas Jefferson, On founding of the Univ.of Virginia

  • Cynthia d’Este

    Powerful article. I’m keeping a copy of it in my “cure-for-modern-insanities” pile, which I browse through often. Thank you Rob Boston. You’re clear-minded and courageous for staying the course for us.

  • Rick Heller

    Yes, people are not convinced by arguments, even those that have the truth behind them. The principles I learned through Nonviolent Communication suggest that you need to focus on making an emotional connection first before trying to persuade. In other words, people need to first think that you care about them before they are willing to listen to you.

    It seems to me that a lot of persuasion works through emotional contagion. A person sees another person who inspires them to feel confidence, and then when that person says something with apparent conviction, the confidence that person has in the speaker causes them to believe the speaker, no matter how outlandish the statement. This is the art of the ‘confidence man’ and it seems to be working its charm in the current political season.

    I speak in a rationalistic style, emphasizing that knowledge is provisional, and encouraging listeners to be skeptical and doubt even of my own statements. I feel that this is a responsible approach, but I’m sure it undermines my ability to persuade compared to the person who speaks with certainty.

  • StevenJB

    Do you mean to say, sir, that hope is the only remaining defense we have to counter post-truth America?