Fake News, Sense, and Sensibility

The September issue of the The Atlantic magazine includes an article by Kurt Anderson titled “How America Lost Its Mind.”

In his article, Anderson tells of the American “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.” Anderson surmises that “maybe a third” of Americans are “solidly reality-based.” After all, Anderson points out, two-thirds of Americans believe in angels and demons. Half believe in a personal god who is active in the universe and half belief in the existence of heaven.

Anderson writes,

. . . being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

As someone who has lived through the cultural shift that has brought us to this moment — as someone who became a Unitarian Universalist and a Humanist in the late-1970s — I think Anderson’s critique is spot-on. Furthermore, I think we of a liberal persuasion need to face up to the fact that we invented the new reality.

The Enlightenment Period in European thought is much maligned today for overemphasizing reason. That’s a cartoon version of what happened. Yes, many thinkers in the France of the 1700s prized reason, raison. But the most popular writer at that time was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man who did not read books; a man who cultivated individualism and emotion; a man who abandoned each of his five children to orphanages because they cramped his style; an man who taught that the meaning of life is found in sensibilité. “Sensibility” as in Sense and Sensibility. Feeling.

It is Rousseau who invented the concept of the Social Contract that fed the making of the Declaration of Independence. It is Rousseau and his sensibilité, not Voltaire’s raison, who is the grandfather of the United States.

Donald Trump and the Neo-Nazis are the epitome of sensibilité. It is raison that is lacking.

We can deploy those with a left-leaning sensibilité to battle those with a right-leaning sensibilité in the streets and at the ballot box. But that won’t get us anywhere.

What we liberals back in the sixties and seventies didn’t understand is that if the only creed is “if it feels good, do it,” sure, that will destroy the old up-tight social strictures; but eventually it will also corrode and destroy all social connections . . . until feeling and greed and individualism rule.

Sensibilité corrodes everything.

In the US today, clearly, many if not most people believe that it is their right as US citizens to say and believe anything they want.

We need only reflect that this phrase has been a constant cliche about Unitarian Universalism since the 1970s — “you can believe anything you want.” The unfortunate fact is that US culture today does not reflect the stern old Presbyterians or Lutherans or Methodists. It reflects Unitarian Universalists and our interpretive dance and insistence that all paths lead to truth, and everyone has a right to personal opinion.

Sensibilité.

Here’s the thing: that much-maligned reason used during the Enlightenment . . . that’s not where individualism comes from. It’s where individual rights come from. Prejudice is a feeling. Constitutional rights are a product of reason. Disability rights are a product of reason. Universal law is about reason. You have to step back and think about those things.

Community exists outside of families and clan groups because of laws developed through reason, not feeling; not prejudice.

You don’t feel your way to believing that someone who disgusts you has human dignity and human rights. You can only think your way there.

Yes, postmodern thinking opened up new ways of seeing things. It allowed us to see that most of what we call “truth” is a social construct. A social construct coupled with social power that forces conformity to dominant social norms.

Bad. All bad.

But the fact that it’s so hard to think; so hard to reason; so hard to be in community . . . the difficulty does not absolve us from trying. The difficulty does not absolve us of trying to think beyond our preconceptions and prejudices.

Quite the opposite. La condition postmoderne requires us to be rational adults who are suspicious of our gut reactions and intuitions.

As Kurt Anderson rightly says in his essay, we live in a time and in a nation that has a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.” We liberals bear much of the responsibility for creating the conditions that created the promiscuity.

It’s time to do a little reasoning together . . .

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