Like It Is(n’t)

Telling it like it is? Often nothing more than intellectual dishonesty combined with ignorance

Given the abundance of meaningless political rhetoric that devalues seemingly everything into partisan talking points, and the stifling political correctness that reduces social discourse to insipid nothingness, it’s understandable that at least some people are drawn to others telling it like it is, straight talk about issues and emotional tirades about nothing getting done or fixed. And, yes, this includes the rantings of a well-known wealthy narcissist who wants to be president. But…there’s two versions of this openness.

It’s one thing when John Oliver (HBO’s Last Week Tonight) takes on topics with facts and data laced with humor, but quite another when politicians and other pontificators assert vast generalizations with little or no information, or even disinformation. Unlike Oliver, they simplify complex issues into superficial versions of problems and solutions, typically on the basis of ideological dogma masquerading as values. To low information voters, such “truth”-telling seems authentic and genuine. To the rest of us, it’s a combination of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance.

There are pretend truth-tellers and those who really do speak the truth. The difference is that the latter use fact-checked information and acknowledge trade-offs and realistic limitations. A lot of people, however, don’t really want the truth but only a version they agree with. The anti-intellectualism common to conservatives and their party’s base is real. They disdain data and facts, which are unlikely to support their ideology. They’re convinced intellectuals are all liberals with an agenda — supremely ironic coming from a political party that is driven by agenda. Some want to eliminate tenure and academic freedom in higher education in the belief that they subvert the conservative agenda. All that inconvenient truth.

This is not just a U.S. thing. Ask Canadians about what has allowed a truly loathsome conservative, Stephen Harper, to be prime minister for a decade, with a legislature dominated by conservatives. Widely disliked, and yet elected and reelected. Despite a famed Canadian liberalism, enough committed voters are showing up at each election to keep the other political parties, often inept themselves, from reversing the current arbitrary, secretive government. Low information voters with their own truths exist everywhere. It’s not as if Greek philosophers didn’t warn of this long ago. Ignorance is the bane of democracy.

For a pragmatist, problem solving starts with recognizing an issue that appears problematic, acquiring sufficient information and data to understand how things came to be what they are, and then determining what seems the best likely solution. While this can be a satisfying process, it won’t have the impact of having someone outspoken delivering an issue as title followed by a short, blunt assessment and then a fairly draconian “solution.” For those least intellectually curious and most prone to black and white opinions, the direct approach will have immediate appeal. Nuance is neither appreciated nor of interest.

The reality is that there really are many issues that need intelligent attention but instead are allowed to continue unresolved…and we know why. Partisan divisiveness and dysfunctional governance are obvious. What is less obvious is how to mitigate these. Blunt speech may be cathartic emotionally, but it fails to offer rational, effective, long-term solutions because it is inherently antithetical to these. “I’m mad as hell” might be motivational, but if it doesn’t lead to a commitment toward rational, practical problem-solving; it only makes things worse. We know what’s not working, but anger doesn’t change it.
I notice a lot of telling it like it is focuses on the past — the mythology of how exceptional and successful the country used to be. Setting aside how much of that was an accidental result of being in the right place at the right time in history as a society, the past cannot be replicated nor recreated. And most of us wouldn’t want to. As a society, we have evolved culturally in many ways that represent a better place from which to solve what is wrong or needs improvement now. Note how much of what those looking backward talk about is hostile toward women and those who are not white males.
The complexities of refocusing on the greater good will require far more than simply saying what’s on one’s mind. The space between blunt and obtuse is often very small. In a country with the world’s highest incarceration and death by firearms rates, but with diminished shared prosperity, infrastructure investment and assistance for the disadvantaged, there are many opportunities for solving problems pragmatically instead of simply telling it like it is(n’t).