Olivier Le Moal via Shutterstock
(Olivier Le Moal via Shutterstock)

My media literacy class was watching the documentary “The Social Dilemma” recently as part of a unit called “Our Digital Lives.” I had already previewed the film shortly after its release last September, but this quote struck me anew when I heard it again:

“If we don’t agree on what is true, or that there’s such a thing as truth, we’re toast! This is the problem beneath other problems because if we don’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”

The speaker was Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and the current president of the Center for Humane Technology. His words hit me hard because I realized he had spoken them before the presidential election of 2020 and before the Capitol insurrection in January – two events that so vividly illustrate conflicting “truths” in America right now. 

On one hand, “a huge majority of Democrats, a solid two-thirds majority of independents, and a solid overall majority of Americans believe Joe Biden’s election victory was legitimate,” according to an SSRS/CNN poll. On the other hand, “two-thirds of Republicans either believe or suspect that Trump’s victory was somehow stolen.”

In addition, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found “about half of Republicans believe the siege was largely a non-violent protest or was the handiwork of left-wing activists” – beliefs that have been debunked, respectively, by actual footage of the insurrection and by FBI investigations.

So, there you have it:

The 2020 election: One event, two separate “truths.”

The Capitol insurrection: Another event, two more separate “truths.”

Tristan Harris’ words echo in the brain: “…if we don’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”

Even members of the same club – the Republican Party – can’t agree on truth anymore.

“House Republicans began Wednesday by quickly ousting Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership post because she continues to challenge former president Donald Trump over his false claim that the presidential election was stolen,” reported the Washington Post last week.

The national GOP now finds itself at a crossroad. In one lane are the major players in Washington who hold fast to Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was “stolen” – a claim that has been discredited repeatedly. In the other lane are a handful of Congressional Republicans and more than 100 former GOP governors and legislators who threaten to form their own party if the GOP does not disavow Trump.

Many describe the situation as a “fight for the soul” of the party. A recent Hartford Courant story explored where Connecticut Republicans stand in this fight.

“Let me say clearly that the presidential election in 2020 was fair and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was a blow to our democracy,” said West Hartford’s Dr. Larry Lazor, the Republican running in 2022 against U.S. Rep. John Larson in the 1st District. “Leaders who say otherwise damage our country.”

“I would not give a dime to somebody who wasn’t a moderate like me – because it’s a waste of money‚” added Rob Simmons, a Republican and former U.S. Congressman from Connecticut’s 2nd District. “If you run as a Trumper, you can’t win in Connecticut. Republicans seem to have lost sight of that.”

Taking their displeasure further, West Hartford Town Council member Lee Gold, West Hartford Town Committee Chairman Mark Merritt, and two other local Republicans – Roni Rodman and Rick Bush – announced late last week they are leaving the GOP. The four politicians plan to revive A Connecticut Party, the political party initiated in 1990 by former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

But even as many state Republicans question the direction of their party, Connecticut GOP Chairwoman Sue Hatfield said Republicans should accept alternative viewpoints: “I believe we need to embrace those that have different opinions and learn from each other and recognize that we as Republicans can agree on many things, such as reducing taxes and making our state and nation more affordable.”

But does “having different opinions” now mean “believing different truths”? Quite possibly.

A new study by Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan finds that people often choose social acceptance over “corrective information” such as fact checks, especially when they feel threatened.

“In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups,” explains a New York Times story outlining Nyhan’s research. “And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.”

In other words, “Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring.”

Who cares if something is true or not? In today’s Wild, Wild West of Misinformation, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, as Tristan Harris says, we’re all “toast” when that happens.

I think I smell something burning.

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and in his 15th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Email Barth here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.