It’s amazing how many small untruths fly by unnoticed around campus. Take the fibs spewed during corporate recruiting season. “We have a good work-life balance” usually means “We finally stopped requiring our employees to work on Sundays!” “You’ll work on cool projects!” translates to “You’ll get to work on a spreadsheet AND a pie chart!” When we ask one another “How are you?” there is, in fact, a correct answer.
What this reveals is that truth doesn’t seem to matter all that much to Yalies — which is why I find it interesting that pundits and students alike are surprised by the rise of Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t have predicted that a man who claims that President Obama “is the founder of ISIS” and who has perpetuated birther conspiracies would ever be a stone’s throw from the presidency. It’s incredibly alarming to me that the Republican nominee has suggested that he will throw his chief political rival into prison if he takes office. That said, it’s a little disingenuous for politicos to dub this as the first “post-truth” election — as though the truth ever particularly mattered in the first place.
As we are all well aware, lies have always been par for the course in politics. Ronald Reagan was called out for trading arms for hostages back in 1986, despite his vehement claims that no such deal had taken place. Bill Clinton LAW ’73 famously “did not have sexual relations with that woman” — until of course, he admitted that he did. In both situations, nobody cared. Ronald Reagan is still revered as a conservative icon, and Clinton’s poll numbers actually went up during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So in light of these precedents, should it really be all that surprising that Trump can brazenly lie and get away with it?
Part of why Trump has been able to survive lie after lie is because of our innate biases. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it, humans often have a preference for “cognitive ease” — in other words, we don’t like thinking too hard about facts that challenge our worldviews. This is why so many Americans enjoy listening to politicians “tell it like it is.” But the more important reason why Trump has had such an easy ride is that modern technology allows Americans to spend their time in more homogenous social groups than ever before. Avoiding ideas or people we dislike is as easy as pressing the “unfriend” button. Because we have the ability to carefully cultivate our social groups, we insulate ourselves from facts that contradict our beliefs.
We conform to the myths of our respective communities at the expense of confronting the truth. Put bluntly, we’ve stopped questioning things. For almost all Americans, political truth is not founded upon rigorous analysis of the issues, but shaped by social acceptance: if our friends retweet it, it’s true enough for us. To be fair, that is a reasonable heuristic in most circumstances, since Yalies tend to share and retweet information from reliable news sources. You’re not likely to be uttering falsehoods if you parrot facts you read from a New York Times article which popped up on your Facebook feed.
However, other communities are not quite so lucky. According to a recent YouGov/Economist survey, the same people who were apt to believe in “magical thinking” (Think large-scale government conspiracies or rumors of an imminent terror attack) were the most likely to vote for Trump. Why? Because their communities relied on a different set of “facts” than we do.
If we want to prevent the emergence of another Trump, we need to remember that the heuristics we use to define truth are just that: heuristics. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were only a few trusted gatekeepers of information: the big media companies with their armies of fact checkers. Today, every blogger with a laptop purports to be a fact checker in his own right. As such, it is especially important that we question the way we curate our social networks and sources of information. For too many, the truth is relative — but it shouldn’t be.
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs every other Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .