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writing for godot

Yes, We Are Entitled to Our Own Facts

Written by Carl Peterson   
Tuesday, 31 January 2017 10:00


Yes, We Are Entitled to Our Own Facts


You may have been hearing more and more frequently, as I have, that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  This self-contradictory statement means, in a political context, that since we live in a democracy we can think what we want, but to any public question there is only one truthful answer, and all the others are false, or at least there is one answer that is more truthful than all the others.  But it also says that we are not entitled to believe anything but the most truthful answer, and if we don't know what that answer is, we can find out, not by investigation because that might lead us to our own truth, but by asking someone who "knows."  But one truth is that we, not just you or me, but all of us, are, so far anyway, entitled to believe as we see fit, and for that reason we are necessarily entitled to our own facts.  Indeed, and this may be a hard truth, but by the nation's founding law all Americans are entitled to their own facts.

Now, American facts are at often at cross-purposes, and tending to crossed swords.  Is there a way back to a place where, in a general way, Americans share a set of beliefs about what is true, a more or less common reality in which American differences of opinion and belief can be negotiated productively to solve our national problems?

This claim about not being entitled to our own facts was probably a rhetorical flourish when it was first made; it probably was not serious, and not really believed even by whoever coined it.  If taken on its face, the claim of no entitlement means that we have no right to make our own determination of what the truth is, and suggests that we should be denied the use of our own truth, which suggestion, if implemented in law would make it illegal to refer to truths other than the official ones, which in turn would conjure the visage of totalitarianism.  So, given its democratic context, the statement that we are not entitled to our own facts was never a serious one, but its deeper connotation is that for a democracy to work without tearing itself apart, there must be at least a rough consensus on what the truth is.

Before going any further, I need to make clear how I am using the words, "opinion," "belief," and "fact" in this discussion.  When I use the term "opinion,", I mean the attitude of a person regarding the truth of an answer to a public question.  It is opinion when a person holds that the answer is probably true, or a person holds that it is probably false, but has no expectation regarding strangers' (people in the abstract) evaluation of the answer.  If the public question is, "Is the global climate getting warmer?"  and the answer to be evaluated is "Yes,"  opinion would respond with something like, "I think "yes," is probably the true answer but I am not certain," or "I think "yes," is probably not true but I am not certain."

A person has a belief when they hold that a specific answer to a public question is definitely true, or that a specific answer to a public question is definitely untrue. but has no expectation regarding strangers' evaluation of the answer.

However, when a person has a belief that they are certain of an answer's truth or of its falsity and that all sufficiently informed, reasonable strangers of good moral character ought to concur with them in their evaluation of the answer, what would have remained a belief becomes a fact.  By "fact," I do not mean that which is indicated by a necessarily correct evaluation of an answer to a public question, only that it is an answer about which one has a belief, coupled with the expectation that all strangers with the attributes indicated above must agree with this belief.  In this case, to the answer of "Yes," in the example above, one option would be that belief responds, "'Yes," is definitely the true answer to the question.  And all sufficiently informed, reasonable strangers of good moral character ought to agree with me."  Thus is a fact created:  The global climate is getting warmer. In the example above, if a person believes that "Yes," is definitely not a true answer to the question and that all sufficiently informed, reasonable strangers of good moral character ought to share their certainty that the answer is not true, this person creates an opposing fact: The global climate is not getting warmer."

It follows from our definition of a fact that in that case those people in the abstract who we perceive to evaluate the answer to a question in a way diametric to our own, we assume to be missing one or more of the qualities of knowledge, reason or good moral character.  For their sin of disagreeing with us, we think, "All of you are one or more of these: ignorant, stupid, bad."  In this way we assign negative qualities to millions of strangers at a time.

As noted above, belief is distinguished from fact in that it is not attached to the assumption that there is something wrong with every person in the abstract who does not share this belief.  By this definition a belief does not entail any requirement about what strangers ought to believe regarding the answer to a public question.  Belief is transmuted into fact by its coupling with a specific expectation about what strangers ought to believe about the answer to a public question.

Why have I stipulated in the definition of "fact" that expectations are applied only to strangers, that is, people in the abstract?  Of course it is not because we have no expectations of the people we know, but these personal expectations are of a different order; they are expectations of acquaintances, co-workers, friends, lovers, and family members.  Expectations of this kind are colored by individualized personal knowledge and emotions, and cannot be uniform as it is possible for expectations regarding strangers to be after we have ourselves have their pertinent qualities.  Thus, even when we have a certain fact, we usually do not think that everyone we know should have that same belief about the truth.  It is even possible that while we expect all sufficiently informed, reasonable strangers of good moral character to have the same beliefs about the truth that we have, we do not necessarily expect anyone we know personally to have the same political beliefs we do, even though we believe that at least some of the people we know are sufficiently informed, reasonable people of good character.  This is because we have other information, personal knowledge and emotions about the people we know, beyond the conclusions we have drawn about strangers who don't share our facts.  This additional information provides context that could emotionally soften or even set beside the point any basis for ill feeling we would otherwise have for someone who holds to beliefs that are not in accord with our own facts.  On the other hand, personal knowledge or emotions about certain people we know could intensify any ill feelings we might have toward them for having failed to share our belief about a truth.

At this time of political polarization, the most important difference between applying judgments to people in the abstract, as opposed to people we know, is this: Judgments regarding people we know are limited to the relatively small number of people it is possible for one person to know.  Even these few judgments are individually colored and are therefore more humane than assumption-based judgments about people we do not know.  One person's judgment about strangers who diametrically disagree with them about a matter of public truth is likely to apply to tens of millions of people who cannot be adequately described by the assumptions used to draw the conclusion triggering that judgment.  Also, since people on both sides of the polar divide draw similar conclusions about those who disagree with them about matters of public truth, any major public question generates millions of negative judgments made by and about Americans.  For this reason, tidal waves of negativity have been washing from one coast of the continental United States to the other, and across Alaska and Hawaii too.

Now in the United States we have a kind of civil war of antagonistic facts, initiated by the currently widespread habit among us Americans of concluding that there is something wrong, perhaps even morally wrong with those who have facts different from ours.  This is true even when the question on its face has little discernible moral content.  Important public questions produce, on an astounding scale, mutual incrimination on both sides of the answer.  Although this condemnation--or, in its mildest form--disapproval, is directed at people in the abstract, most adult Americans know that they themselves meet the criteria for inclusion in one or more of these groups of people in the abstract; they know that they have facts that millions of other Americans disapprove of or even condemn.  It is a kind of sad joke that if everyone in the United States who is disapproved of in the abstract were compelled to leave the United States, the country would quickly empty.  Being the object of disapproval, even in the abstract, and even when one also disapproves of others in the abstract, is often felt as a burden, and as a cause for resentment, and works as a stimulus for a round of recrimination.  But in the first phase of this vicious cycle, when people assume and then feel that there is something wrong with those who do not share their facts, they also feel a burden in the form of that peculiar unpleasant emotion associated with unfavorably judging people in the abstract.  It is a negative emotion that never finds its object, because although it is meant to be directed at real people and in fact is felt by real people; it is really directed at unknown strangers, who are therefore in a sense imaginary--people in the abstract.  Because the emotion cannot attach to its imaginary object, it is never satisfied, but remains with the person where it was born, as an obscure, nagging burden.  Thus, the expectation that people we don't even know should agree with us, is--contrary to the quality of mercy--twice-cursed.  It curses those strangers who are the objects of our judgments, and it curses us for judging them.

According to an ideal that supports the claim that we are not entitled to our own facts, truth is the only solid foundation of belief.  Further, according to this ideal, truth has an independent, objective reality, and not unlike Plato's eternal forms, it is impervious to subjective interpretation.  A truth describes a certain aspect of reality and it can only be properly grasped in one way. It has no rivals, no other truths that somehow also accurately describe the same aspect of reality.  This places the burden on human beings to recognize the truth when they encounter it, and to accept its authority.  However, what should be clear from the definitions above, individual belief determines what the individual's truth is.  Different beliefs determine different truths.

Even scientific belief is at its root individual and subjective, though disciplined by the rigors of Science and deemed probative only in its consensual form: that is, when the relevant scientific community believes.  Because belief determines the individual's truth and because truth does not have the power to compel unanimous belief, we do not all operate from the same set of truths, and never have.  Of course, if we don't have the same set of truths, we cannot have the same set of facts.

In its first amendment the Constitution protects freedom of religion, speech and press, without specifying that these three are free only as long as they adhere to an authorized set of beliefs.  The Framers would have recognized that any such requirement, if it were possible to implement, would have meant no freedom of religion, speech or press.

It is especially clear when considering freedom of religion that the Framers knew that the government of a free society must allow citizens to have not only their own opinions, but their own beliefs.  Do not most Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead after being executed by the Roman authorities?  Yet this is not necessarily a belief for Jews, Muslims, atheists, or indeed, anyone but believing Christians.  Christians in America are entitled by the Constitution to their own beliefs.

Many Mormons believe that the angel Moroni led Joseph Smith to where the golden plates of the Book of Mormon were buried in a hillside.  Yet this belief is not necessarily shared by anyone but Mormons.  Mormons in America are entitled by the Constitution to their own beliefs.

Many Muslims believe that one night Muhammad flew to Heaven on the back of a winged creature.  Yet this belief is not necessarily shared by anyone but Muslims.  Muslims in America are entitled by the Constitution to their own beliefs.

This is not to say, of course, that citizens are entitled to their own beliefs only when they pertain to religion.  In America, political questions create many more beliefs than religious questions do.  Each of us creates a belief whenever we deem ourselves certain about an answer to a public question, and there are far more opportunities for belief-creation in the large, disputatious public arena of our democracy than are enclosed by the smaller public arenas within the doctrinal fences of the various religions.

However, the examples above show that Americans can have beliefs without transmuting them into facts.  In the sense that I have defined "fact," the beliefs cited in the examples above are not facts in the United States in any significant way.  There may be facts counter to these beliefs; in other words, some Americans may have facts that include rejection of one or more of the beliefs above, but in general Americans who hold religious beliefs do not assume that all worthy strangers should also hold these religious beliefs.  History, and current events in the world have shown that insecurity of religion has bred hostility among the religions, while on the other hand the tendency of the religious in America to hold religious beliefs without transmuting them into facts appears to be the result of religious security afforded by Constitutional protection.

Yet, while there is relatively little religious hatred in the United States, and relatively few religious facts, we now have a proliferation of political facts.  This indicates political insecurity on both sides of the main political divide, a divide well represented by the vote in the most recent presidential election.

Now, we in America have awakened to find our fellow citizens subscribing to facts that diverge wildly and bewilderingly from our own.  But we should not be so surprised and frustrated.  It has been the case since the founding that Americans have different beliefs and therefore sometimes have different facts.  The Constitution in its protections of free expression, press and religion ensures, at least so far anyway, that this is the case.  But beyond that, by not allowing governmental suppression of opinions, beliefs and facts, our founding law has encouraged us to have them, in the same way that leaving open the corral gate encourages the horses to run off.

And why would anyone assert (I assume that any such assertion is wishful) that we are not entitled to our own facts?  Perhaps it was born out of frustration and worry that if we cannot agree on the nature of our problems, that is, the truths that describe our problems, we will never agree on appropriate solutions.  Worse, unless we can agree on what our national problems are, we will never be able to begin to work together to solve them.  However, it goes even deeper than that.  Many Americans now feel that our national essay in democracy may be slipping away, as more facts are in contentious public dispute, some  that were just non-controversial opinions and beliefs not so long ago, within the memory of many people still living.  Also, as the political battle lines have grown longer, new facts have appeared at all the possible points of conflict.  The disagreement now is not just between acknowledged differences in opinion and belief, but often about differences in crucial facts--about reality.  Americans are moved by their separately held facts into separate countries.  Sometimes, radical differences in the facts make it seem that Americans are being moved into separate worlds.

We have seen that the Constitution promotes the birth and expression of a variety of beliefs, and that these beliefs can lead to opposing facts, but we have seen too that apart from the assumptions that are its own basis, the Constitution takes no sides in the rivalry between facts.  It is notable that regarding the current nation-wide disputation of reality, the Constitution is silent.  It makes no judgments about the knowledge, intelligence, morality or other defect on either side of a public question, but continues to affirm the value of free thought.

However, we citizens are not now so equitable in our attitude toward strangers' beliefs and facts.  Regarding political questions, we like our own freedom of belief, but not the free belief of others.  We seem to lack the Constitutional spirit of equality and tolerance that has worked as a national ideal--certainly not always the national reality--for nearly 250 years.  This difference between the attitude of the Constitution and the current attitude of much of the American population highlights a vulnerability in the American political system, a vulnerability that is now frighteningly apparent.

Where can we go from here if through our intolerance of beliefs and facts other than our own we disaffirm the Constitutional ideals of liberty, free thought and free expression?  The Constitution won't make it on its own.  It needs us.

Our political system has no explicit feature that will guide us back to a generally shared reality.  The liberties that it ensures also allow space for a disputatious divergence in perceptions of political realities.  We do not have authoritarian recourse to government suppression of opinion, belief and fact.  The diversity of our population, spread across a large land mass, and fostered in part by our relatively open political system, does not inherently tend to homogeneity of outlook.  No, when our Constitution looks at the choice that often must be made between liberty and unity of outlook, it chooses liberty.  But in making this choice, it has accepted a liability to a certain kind of chaos, centered in the putative sovereign of the nation--the people--where it shows itself now as a War Between the Facts.

The Constitution has been the American reference point for the way government ought to work, but it has nothing to say about what we have to do to get beyond the place where we now find ourselves.  In this sense, the Constitution, like all political frameworks, has a flaw; it has allowed and even promoted the conflicting facts that we now have to work our way through, like a minefield, but it has no constitutional remedy for our separate realities.

What can we as citizens do to bring back a more or less shared American reality?  We have a role, probably the major role in finding our way back to each other.  Our national leaders and institutions are not going to do it for us, and could not do it without our participation even if they would.  In some sense they themselves are a reflection of citizen dispute about the crucial facts of reality.  Some of our media, political leaders and "opinion-makers" have opportunistically promoted the rift in American perception of public reality for what they saw as personal advantage, but on the return side of the feedback loop these leaders have been disordered by what they helped to create.

No.  American citizens will need leaders on the way out of this, but we have a responsibility that no one can fulfill for us.  We ordinary citizens may have to throw off the habit of allowing ourselves to be acted upon, and instead act upon ourselves, change ourselves and change the way of the country.

Rancor is never going to be part of the solution to our problem of diverging realities within the people.  If in a democracy the people are the sovereign, then our sovereign is now decidedly of at least two very different minds, and each mind decries the other.  Let the rancor cool, so that at least the minds might begin to have a reasonable conversation.

Might I suggest that the beginning of the solution is that when we as individuals have beliefs, even strong beliefs about an answer to a public question, we do not transmute our beliefs into facts, even though we are constitutionally entitled to.  We should stop expecting that all worthy strangers should concur with our evaluations of the answers to public questions.  As we have seen, when this expectation is not met, disbelief, frustration, disapproval and mistrust follow.  Multiply this by what is happening now as public facts are continually formed by the millions across the country, and you will get some sense of the amount of ill will that is being created by our expectations about what others ought to believe.

This is not to say that the solution ends when we have learned not to draw negative conclusions about millions of people we don't know.  That is the start, but after that, the Constitution points the way in its protections of free speech, assembly and in the right to petition the government.  Obviously, the Constitution does not require the sovereign, the people, to be passive and silent, and that is not what is required of you now.  Rather, believe as strongly as you will, struggle to make this country better, but do it in the spirit of the Constitution, which entitles us all, yes, to our own facts.

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+2 # John Escher 2017-02-01 16:40
An absolutely fallacious and sophomoric premise near the beginning of CPeterson1816's article is, in a psychological projection into the common man who supposedly can't think straight: "to any public question there is only one truthful answer, and all the others are false, or at least there is one answer that is more truthful than all the others."

That is not what an old-fashioned newspaper editor means when he orders his reporters to "stick to the facts."

This article, YES, WE ARE ENTITLED TO OUR OWN FACTS, later becomes more sensible than its title when it asks if there is a way back to a place where we Americans can agree on some kind of common reality.

Of course there is. You go by the old Appalachian saw, "Walk a little plainer, Daddy." Or as veteran journalist Dan Rather said, "Water runs downhill."

Build a latticework of very simple facts on which everyone can agree. And place y9ur fancier and more easily challenged thoughts elsewhere, perhaps toward the end of the article.

The question then becomes, as it should have been in the beginning, "What is a fact?" It is something on which non-cantankerou s and clear-thinking individuals can willingly agree.
0 # Pikewich 2017-02-03 00:04
Very interesting discussion. The rage of facts from simple to complex is vast.

A simple fact we can all agree on is that the sun rises in the east and water runs down hill.

When you get into the realm of complex facts such as an event witnessed from physically different perspectives, each witness may have seen something different from the others, but they remain facts when reported truthfully.
+1 # kyzipster 2017-02-04 12:11
Yes, we're entitled to our own facts and our own delusions but I don't see much value in always framing both sides as exactly the same. The issue here is the power of propaganda and the elimination of regulations that used to keep publicly owned 'airwaves' much more balanced.

It's becoming obvious that Trump actually believes much of the alternate reality created by right-wing media, perhaps his blatant rejection of some basic, undeniable facts will finally expose the stack of lies the Conservative Movement is built on.

I think conservative voters are basically members of a cult. There are so many that we can't discuss this way, we call them half the country. They have their own religion, history, 'science', economic theories they will not let go of despite some obvious failures, etc. The left is also tribal but to a lesser degree, 'the left' is basically everyone else and we've been in a defensive posture since the Reagan years and the onset of extremist right-wing propaganda in the media that has become completely normalized today. Today we only question the most blatant falsehoods, 30 years ago we were shocked at the extremism of Reagan who would be kicked out of the GOP today for being a RINO. If we don't critique 'both sides as equally guilty', we're labeled partisan. One side is far more delusional than the other imo, Trump is the end result. They're entitled to their delusions but these delusions could destroy the country.
0 # Paul Bunion 2017-06-28 17:53
I didn't make a "both sides are equally guilty" argument. I have my own strong beliefs, and I don't abandon them because someone else has opposing strong beliefs. My point is and I think it's there in writing, you can maintain your strong beliefs without condemning the other side. I've been much happier since I thought this through. By the way, the plutocrats are only too happy to have us hate each other.

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