I’d mentioned in my recent review of Andrew Keen’s “How To Fix The Future” that I’d mostly burnt out on nonfiction, but I liked Michiko Kakutani’s “The Death of Truth.”
It seems that truth, the concern for it, the search for it, is eroding all around me. A recent example was this dishearteningly common caveat to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in her heroic, self-sacrificial act, which earned her death threats: “Even if he was guilty, and we can’t ever know if he was…” This kind of proviso came from women, from therapists, from mental-health professionals and social workers. I think there are ways we can know for sure, but the only way we definitely will never know is by attacking our ability to even seek the truth, denying it before we even begin to look.
Kakutani tells us the story of how we got to this point. This story is a true one and it reads mostly like a true one until we get to the brutal circus of today. We learn the origins of the current disregard for facts, the flagrant worship of feelings and the right to tweet, post and broadcast opinions whenever we want, and the rejection of a shared set of agreed-upon truths.
We learn how corrosive irony and sarcasm are. We learn why the 45th president is not the self-made man he bombastically boasts to be, and how major cultural changes — fundamentalism, postmodernism, a healthy suspicion of authority — have become turbocharged, thereby escorting Trump along the red carpet to his current position as the world’s wrecking ball. We learn about Russian interference with our 2016 election, and how they interfered with many other elections around the world, by employing social media trolls. We learn about how unabashedly fake-news sites were more effective on conservative-leaning folks than liberal ones, which will likely be decried as an alternative fact, if it’s even granted the status of “fact” at all.
Speaking of social media, we learn about the reinforcing mechanisms of social media, and how the internet, which you’d think would bring us together, has herded us into ideological silos. We learn that, while the patterns of behavior and speech demonstrated by the president should not ever be normalized, this is the sort of leader that emerges from social and cultural conditions such as those that have been snowballing since the 1960s in America, or the ’20s and ’30s in Germany, or various other societies that have suffered bouts of totalitarianism. America isn’t totalitarian yet, but 1920s Germany wasn’t, either. However, it got there in about a decade.
What we don’t learn is how to fix this problem. We don’t even learn how to get people who really need to read “The Death of Truth” to actually read it — for they are often the least likely to do so. And if they were to read the book, would they take it seriously? Probably not.
We exist in a time when lies are labeled with the trope “alternative fact” — no matter how much evidence there is to back up what is actually true. I’m having a hard time imagining Kakutani’s words in the hands of anyone who doesn’t already agree with this premise. And, isn’t that the problem?
Kakutani herself explains why the people who need to read her book likely won’t. She states, “assorted theories have been advanced to explain confirmation bias — why people rush to embrace information that supports their beliefs while rejecting information that disputes them: that first impressions are difficult to dislodge, that there’s a primitive instinct to defend one’s turf, that people tend to have emotional rather than intellectual responses to being challenged and are loath to carefully examine evidence. Group dynamics only exaggerates these tendencies … insularity often means limited information input (and usually information that reinforces preexisting views) and a desire for peer approval…”
The only suggestion I’ve heard for how to combat the insidious feedback loops that deepen our division is that truth and facts, however scientifically proven they may be, don’t change people’s minds (liberal, conservative or otherwise). Friends do. That’s a hard sell, given that, more and more, one’s friends are likely to share views.
Here is my bias: Read Kakutani’s book, then take it to someone who otherwise wouldn’t and start a book club.
Let’s make truth great again.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle. Book reviews appear regularly in our publication. View previous reviews.
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