At last Saturday’s sparsely-attended right-wing “Justice for J6” rally in Washington, D.C., a CNN reporter interviewed one of the protesters. After showing this person a video from the Jan. 6 attempt to take over the Capitol, this protester continued to vigorously insist, without evidence, that what transpired wasn’t “violent” or an “insurrection.”
Unfortunately, episodes like this are part of a recurrent rhetorical narrative.
Almost every day the media interview people who continue dogmatically, often belligerently, to buy into and spread Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” — that, because of alleged but unproven fraudulence, the 2020 election was stolen, and therefore Joe Biden is not the legitimate president of the United States.
Watching these interviews is frustrating and exasperating, reminding me that, as long as so many of our fellow citizens are unwilling to recognize the truth when confronted with objective evidence and incontrovertible facts, our democracy is in serious jeopardy. It is incredible that some of our friends, family and neighbors disseminate misinformation and conspiracy theories, erroneously contending that anything they say automatically is true and factual while what others say to debunk their claims automatically is false and ignores the facts.
Such claims are indicative of a pernicious relativism and solipsistic view of the world, where people believe that an existential reality is not “real” in the sense of being independent of their own minds. In this world, the guiding principle of communication is: “You are entitled to have your own truths and facts” and “I am entitled to have my own truths and facts.”
As my research in rhetoric and philosophy spanning five decades demonstrates, this is a fallacious and dangerous view, flying in the face of an accepted Aristotelian law of thought that has regulated rational human interaction for centuries: Something cannot be both X and not X at the same time, in the same way, under the same conditions.
In several books and dozens of journal articles, I argued that reality stands independent of our discourse, i.e., as separate from what we say or write. As a result, reality eventually and inevitably intrudes. Put simply, reality cannot be willed into existence or wished away just because we say so. History is replete with examples showing how what people once thought to be true was exposed as false, leading to a revision of thinking.
Why is this significant? Precisely because it illustrates that the tendency of many Americans to deny an existential reality by buying into and then spreading the Big Lie is not rationally derived; it ignores the fact that reality cannot literally be constructed by the shared opinion of a minority. While it is true that perceptions of reality can rhetorically be created, reality itself cannot.
Failing to understand this not only defies common sense but is politically destructive. After all, a society and form of government based on democratic deliberation, as is ours, cannot long survive when assaulted by such extreme relativism, where all views have an equal epistemic status — an equal claim to truth. Such a state of affairs does not provide a way for debate to produce self-correction and persuasion, outcomes that explain why our democracy — this great experiment — has endured.