You’ve heard of these people. right? They’re the ones who believe that the earth is actually flat, and that attempts to make it look like our planet is a sphere are actually the results of a vast international conspiracy. They’re the ones who even Biblical literalists–people who believe that the earth is 6000 years old, that God killed everyone on the planet (other than Noah, his family, and two of every animal on the ark), and that a guy named Jonah spent three days inside the belly of a giant fish and lived, among other things… even BIBLICAL LITERALISTS are looking at them like, “Settle down, flat-earthers. Get a grip. Let’s try to use a little common sense, huh?”
Anyway, I love flat-earthers. And it’s not because I love their minds. They’re obviously idiots. The reason I love them is because the clear idiocy of their argument makes it clearer–even to those bent toward conspiracy theory–that we need to return to a place where reason and rationality and evidence rule our conversations and our beliefs. It’s like if a climate denier was making her case, and someone chimed in, “I totally agree with you. And this is why it’s so important that make people aware that Obama is a SPACE ALIEN!” And then the climate denier is like, “Whoa, whoa… Let’s not get crazy.” When even the crazies think you’re crazy, maybe the pure stupidity of the conversation that’s taking place can jolt people into a realization that evidence matters… And there are some things we can know… And there is such a thing as truth. I think the whole “flat-earther” thing is just stupid enough to make people realize that there is truth in the world, and that we can look at come people and say with certainty, “You are 100% wrong. And here’s why.”
Google has made experts of everyone. We are living in an age where every single person has the answer to every single question inside of their pocket. It’s a time people refer to as “Post-Truth.” People believe they can’t trust anyone, and concepts like “reputability” have become a punchline. It’s the erosion of evidence. It’s expertise under attack. It’s “Any negative polls and fake news.” It’s “I know you went to medical school for 8 years, but I saw this YouTube video….” It’s 58% of republicans think higher education is a bad for America. It is a direct attack on the truth. And when there is no truth, and every opinion is just as valid as every other opinion, liars and brutes rise to power. This is why this administration–with their “fake news” and “nothing burgers,” and with the full support and complicity of the republican party–is laser-focused on attacking journalism… attacking science… attacking education… attacking evidence.
And all of this coordinated attack on truth fits very nicely with religious fundamentalists who are desperately trying to hang on to the logically impossible story they have been presented. And so, when someone says, “Here is why we know for a FACT that the world is older than 6000 years.” Or when someone says, “There is a mountain of EVIDENCE showing that autism is not caused by vaccines.” Or when someone says, “There is SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS that human beings are causing the planet to warm up,” these statements cannot be attacked in a rational, fact-based way… So instead, people attack the concepts of FACTS and EVIDENCE and SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS.
But there ARE facts in the world. There IS such a thing as evidence. Think about it… Even the concept of “lying” assumes that there is such thing as “truth.” It’s built into our language. We talk about things being “better” or “worse” all the time, and those very concepts of “quality” assumes that there is a “goodness” that we are either getting closer to, or further away from. When we make an “argument” for something, we are appealing to REASON as an authoritative means of settling things. “I believe this because of this evidence.” We break things down into axiomatic building blocks. “If we can know anything, then we can know [X]… And if we can know [X], then we can reasonably know [Y],” right? This is how we function. This is how we believe. This is what human rationality looks like. Words like “Why” and “Because” are as part of us as the concept of language. If we asked someone why they believed the things that they believed, and they answered, “Bleeds peanut butter average pumice,” we would know they are not playing by the same rules of rationality that we are playing by.
Within these rules of rationality, the evidence is overwhelming. So in order to not give in to that evidence, the flat-earther (and many others) must instead give in to Conspiracy Theory: The willing to believe that EVERYONE IS IN ON IT. When faced with evidence that our beliefs are unreasonable, we find it easier to believe that the evidence has been faked (ignoring how unreasonable that possibility is). And this is where things get really dangerous, as far as valuing the truth is concerned. Willingness to believe that “everyone is in on it” at such a grand scale makes ANY lie believable. Consider centuries and centuries of scientific study, all falsified by the entire scientific community in order make people question the factual accuracy of the Bible… Or possibly to set us up for the most amazing April Fools joke ever.
But what’s so genuinely gross about this way of looking at things is what it says about our view of human nature. In some dark corner of the internet, someone is convinced that science has already discovered that all it takes to cure cancer is shoving a whole clove of garlic up your butt while sniffing vaporized lavender oil before you go to bed… But the “scientists” and “big pharma” don’t want you to know about it, because that’s how they get rich. “Follow the money, man,” they say. But what they’re REALLY saying is that everyone who is involved in cancer research is the sort of despicable human being who would rather withhold a cure–watching kids and parents and grandparents die miserable, painful deaths–than tell the truth about a cure that would save countless lives, all because there’s money in it for them. Not one or two greedy, immoral scientists. ALL of them.
And that same level of evil conspiracy is what it would take to pull off something like trying to convince everyone that the world is a sphere when it was actually flat. Everyone who works in GPS, everyone who works with satellites, every astronomer, every astronaut, every meteorologist, every person sitting at a computer photoshopping pictures of the planet–taken from space–to make it LOOK like the Earth is a sphere, countless others… Every one of them is in on it. Conspiracy theory is a disease of the mind, and it’s a disease to which only those of us with the very lowest view of humanity are susceptible.
The PROBLEM comes with the fact that liberals and progressives aren’t very well-suited to combat this disease of the mind. We like to pat ourselves on the back for “seeing both sides of things.” Many us have landed where we have landed as a reaction to fundamentalism… And anything that feels even remotely close to the “I’m right/You’re wrong” brand of certainty (that was forced on us in our youth) sets off a sort of PTSD reaction inside us to the fundamentalism we rejected. We rejected their intolerance. We rejected their exclusion. We came to think of tolerance and inclusion as virtues.
And what happens (and what many of us have seen happen and experienced many times) is that people throw those words right back in our faces. “Oh sure… You ‘liberals’ are really ‘tolerant.’ You don’t seem very tolerant of my desire to use the N-word! And as soon as I want to pass legislation taking away rights from gay people, all of a sudden I’M the bad guy. Some ‘inclusion.'” But tolerance and inclusion are not the goals. The goal is getting closer to Goodness… The goal is the Truth. People functioned for a very long time under the belief that intolerance and exclusion were Good and True, and you thought we were attacking Goodness and Truth. But what has happened is NOT that we have rejected the idea that there is Goodness and Truth in the world… What has happened is that we have encountered a better argument.
I mean, is anything settled? What this comes down to is an ideological battle between Truth and Moral Relativism. But if reason is of any value at all, then moral relativism is a self-defeating ideology. With it, we land in a place where the only thing that is “wrong” is to tell someone else that they are wrong. And besides the self-evidence of that logical paradox, when we land there, we can’t “know” anything… And who wants to listen to the opinion of someone who believes that we can’t know anything? Not me…
Fundamentalists and conservatives think young adults are getting “brainwashed” when they go to college. We’re not getting brainwashed… We’re getting exposed to better arguments. We’re having conversations with people who think differently than us. We’re learning that much of the certainty we inherited as we grew up was misplaced, but this realization doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the ability to KNOW anything. Our rejection of old time religion does not mean a rejection of spirituality. Our intolerance is not for you… It’s for your irrational and immoral arguments. And as far as “inclusion” is concerned, we’re not saying that you’re not allowed at the table… We’re just saying that you’re wrong. We have to be able to embrace those words: You are wrong. We’re so afraid of becoming fundamentalists, we are afraid to say, “I am right about this. And that makes you wrong.”
And this is why I love the flat-earthers. They are so CLEARLY wrong that it allows us (some of us, at least) to overcome our liberal sensibilities and say, “That is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard.” Because sometimes that needs to be said. Telling someone they are wrong is NOT dehumanizing. Sometimes it is the process by which we protect something as precious as The Truth. You want to see a “Snowflake?” Watch what happens when a progressive tells a fundamentalist they are wrong… It’s like, “Wait. I thought you were supposed to accept me as I am! What happened to inclusion?!?” Inclusion doesn’t mean that we have to include your bad arguments with our better ones. Tolerance doesn’t mean tolerating lies. I’m sorry if we gave you the impression that we don’t believe in Truth. We are not saying that no one can KNOW… We’re saying that our argument is BETTER than yours. Progressive doesn’t mean “There is no Truth.” Progressive means that we are getting progressively closer to the Truth than we used to be.
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