WHAT HAPPENS TO ATTENTION IN THE POST-TRUTH ERA??

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This problem is so vast—close to overwhelming—that we’ll try to creep up to it on a personal level. In this non-fake case, half a dozen older adults recently got together for a holiday lunch sponsored by the charity for which they work as volunteers. In this group, a friend of mine we’ll call Lynn found herself seated next to a man we’ll call Ben, known to be active in his church. In their three years serving as volunteers Lynn and Ben had developed a friendly working relationship. What emerged in their lunch conversation, however, was that they’d voted on opposite sides of the 2016 Presidential election. Ben, who earns his living renting and selling apartments in New York, was elated that Donald Trump had won the election. Lynn voted for Hillary Clinton, and thought it was unfair that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, yet was kept from winning the presidency by the unrepresentative tallies of the Electoral College.

“You’re in real estate,” Lynn said to Ben. “How could you vote for a realtor who took out huge loans, declared bankruptcy six times, and stiffed his contractors for the work they’d already done, putting many of them out of business?”

“Yes, I am in real estate,” Ben responded confidently, “and in Trump’s position I’d have done the same thing.”

“But what about all the lies he’s told,” Lynn asked, “all those insults against immigrants, stirring up hatred for Hillary, calling her a criminal and threatening to put her behind bars?”

“Oh, he’d say anything to get elected,” Ben said in an admiring, dismissive tone. “What matters is, he won.”  By that time, the rest of the table was listening, so Ben announced that instead of quibbling over the election everyone should support the new President in their prayers.

Lynn, offended by Ben’s evasive move, said she’d pray for President Trump to stop lying and act like a responsible leader of the free world rather than a demagogue. The group fell silent, gradually finding things to say about the dishes they’d ordered, the relative merits of diet soda, etc.  Afterward, Lynn confided that she no longer trusted Ben as a businessman or a friend, and would have to pretend to be on positive terms with him as a volunteer.

What, I asked, troubled her the most about Ben? “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she replied defensively. “People lie all the time. It’s just that now we’ve had an election where lies carried the day.” She believed that an oddly charismatic but far less capable person had become President by means of hate-mongering, falsehoods, and fake news that maligned the far more qualified candidate. She was frustrated and more than a little frightened.

“What if everyone lied as a means to an end? We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Our whole legal system would crumble if people were not required to tell the truth, and punished for perjury.” It wasn’t that Ben’s guy won the election, Lynn explained, it was how he won it—by deliberate distortions of the truth, he and his supporters brushing aside facts and fact-checkers as irrelevant. The result of this disrespect for truth-telling and facts seemed to be that our country was now led by a poorly informed narcissist who generates fake news as ceaselessly as he complains about it.  Lynn mentioned her deep forebodings that the brains behind Trump’s win was the former head of a white supremacist fake news organization, who might assume the role of shadow president. She did not express those concerns to Ben, though, as she was began to feel it was hopeless trying to communicate with him. “He’s supposed to be religious. Isn’t one of the Ten Commandments not to bear false witness? Isn’t that exactly what Trump is doing?”

According to voter interviews, many said they’d overlooked Trump’s unethical track record, in business as well as molesting women, and set their hopes on him out of anger and desperation. A large chunk, who probably gave him his margin of victory in the Electoral College, were on the losing end of an economy that favors the rich and leaves middle and working class people behind. For them a vote for Trump was a Hail Mary pass that entailed discounting a multitude of falsehoods, bad behavior, and fear tactics that generated hatred and distrust. Such methods, others feared, could ultimately destroy the democracy—or what was left of it after the gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dark money poured into elections by the superrich.

Of course, I only heard Lynn’s version of this troubling encounter, but I’m sure she relayed the gist of it. I do share her concern for our democracy and legal system, but as an attending metaphysician I am concerned for other reasons. When we are giving our best attention to someone or something, are we not seeking—and/or appreciating—truth in some way? There is something deeply jarring about being conned or misled by someone who is using their intelligence to conceal truths they don’t want us to know. Human beings pay attention (as do other animals) in a fluid interactive relationship with feelings. It’s one thing to pause and admire a beautiful sunset; another to scrutinize an inflated cable TV bill; yet another to notice the dark circles under our eyes and realize how unhealthy and old they make us look.

Metaphysical attention is the calmest and deepest kind, based on the richest substrate of care, honesty, and appreciation for the integrity and importance of others. It is the only kind that produces what Pope Francis calls discernment, especially that of right and wrong, good and evil. Throughout history philosophers have warned that strong emotions distort reason, but recent research indicates that even rational decisions are influenced by emotions. The question then becomes, What kind of emotions underlie the calculations and our rational minds—ones tied to respect and concern for others, or feelings colored by fear, enmity and disrespect? The Pope makes a powerful point: that in times of crisis, when people are taken in by populist leaders who stir up fear, anger, scapegoating and hysteria, “discernment doesn’t work.” Wow. In a nutshell, such emotions prevent people from perceiving good and evil. Francis has referred to the hysteria of Nazism and Hitler, which won the votes of the German nation and ended up destroying it.

Could President Trump’s chaotic scapegoating, false accusations, and animosity toward Muslim immigrants and minorities destroy the U.S.A.? Let’s not forget that pre-Nazi Germany was considered a highly civilized nation, full of scholars, artists, and scientists who, surely, would not be fooled by a demagogue.  Precious few, who were paying serious attention, resisted. But as we know, far too many succumbed to his charismatic rants. Their country, and the world, paid a terrible price. Attention to truth obligates us to defend it, to insist upon truth and justice.  The survival of our democracy and our integrity as a nation is at stake.

WHEN ATTENTION GOES DARK

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So far, this attending metaphysician has focused on positive, life-enhancing aspects of attention. But after the 2016 election, much of our country, and the world at large, has had a bitter taste of what could go wrong when attention, facilitated by false information, anger and fear, can lead to dangerous choices. In itself, fear is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance are forces that can derail whatever is civilized in human civilization.

To estimate the vast range of the power of attention we have to look at its dark side. As this election has demonstrated, when people let their thoughts and feelings be manipulated by others, or base their decisions on appearances without backup information, or trust a charismatic personality without taking into account his previous life history, or allow any other factor to prevent them from making informed decisions, then their choices can endanger our entire culture.

Normally we do not look for the dark side of attention, but we do feel its effects. Especially in the past year or so, we sense it in our deeply polarized political climate, when people who voted differently became enemies or former friends.

There’s reason for recent talk of tribes, information silos, fake news, and the growing distrust of facts even when presented by traditional sources of expertise such as responsible journalists and scientists. If not a sickening awareness, there is at least a justified fear that we live in a post-truth era. In order to discredit the most pressing issue of our time, the reality of human-caused global warning, a handful of ultra-rich, conservative industrialists and politicians—represented most recently by Donald Trump—have called global warming a hoax. Doing so requires ignoring enormous factual evidence. Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches have been so rife with falsehoods, and so many fact-checkers have called him out on them, that he and his allies have retaliated by denouncing facts and truth in general.

A telling detail emerged soon after Mr. Trump was assured of winning the election—despite losing the popular vote. He no longer insisted on some of the key premises that brought him victory. The most obvious was calling his opponent crooked, corrupt to the core, probably a murderer, and if elected he would put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Instead, in his victory speech, he insisted (rightly) that the nation owed her a “major debt of gratitude” for her many years of public service.

That statement alone revealed how cynical were the false accusations Trump and associates had hurled against Mrs. Clinton, stirring up hatred to the point where many of his supporters were dismayed to hear that their hero was not going to “lock her up.” In a thank-you speech to his supporters, bewilderment showed on their faces when he brushed aside their chants as having “played well” during the campaign, but were of no further use to him. Were they not, sadly, the ones who’d been played?

This revelation also exposed how easily Donald Trump had built his campaign upon decades of hate-filled smears against Hillary Clinton by far-right talk radio and Fox TV News commentators. Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” After years of angry, fear-mongering diatribes against Mrs. Clinton in right-wing media silos, many people were ready to believe that she actually was a criminal. They primed to accept fake news that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President, and that the Clintons were operating a child molestation ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor–inspiring a father of four to drive 20 hours on a weekend and fire his assault rifle in deluded defense of those imaginary children.

I am reminded here of a long neglected warning from a great but little read philosopher, Bernard J.F. Lonergan. In his classic work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1978 [1957]), Lonergan dared to claim that what people accepted as “common sense” was often the result of mental laziness, received ideas unredeemed by individual reflection and intelligence. If he were alive today, Lonergan might well identify the widely accepted but unfounded assumptions and suspicions about Mrs. Clinton as examples of what he called the “social surd.”

Lonergan borrowed the term surd from mathematics—surds being numbers such as the square or cube root of 2, that cannot be reduced to a fraction of two integers, and are called irrational numbers. Both surd and its better known cousin, absurd, come from surdus, Latin for deaf, dumb or stupid. The force behind Lonergan’s idea of an irrational social surd lurking within “common sense” was his identification of the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and emotional bias as components of cultural evil.

Why evil? Because received ideas—such as someone’s being “crooked” or a murderer without evidential proof—distance people from their personal responsibility to consider someone’s character in light of verifiable facts. Innocent until proven guilty remains, despite too frequent compromises, the basis of our justice system. As in a court of law, if jurors/citizens accept the opinions of others without looking into them, or assume that news items on social media or the opinions of “talking heads” are true when they are not supported by credible evidence, we leave ourselves open to mental and emotional manipulation. And small manipulations increase injustice in a society, distort “common sense,” and can end in tyranny.

How tyranny? Think of the rise of Goebbels’ boss, Hitler. As a society accumulates unfounded judgments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, etc.—it can fall under the sway of charismatic leaders who are amoral sociopaths. But even without a demagogue setting the tone, biased reasoning can rip up the social fabric and undermine democracy, which stands or falls on the basis of citizens’ commitment to vote thoughtfully and fairly.

This gives new meaning to the old adage, Constant vigilance is the price of virtue. Today we must be more vigilant, to protect ourselves and others from the dark side of attention. More on that later.