Bemoaning our post-truth society

August 31, 2017

By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter

Many readers know that, along with my journalism career, I’m also an English instructor at UAB. During most semesters, I teach two or three classes in the English Department, usually freshman composition courses and/or sophomore literature.

I enjoy teaching, and I’ve been doing that at UAB since 2001.

This semester, however, I’m a “communications” instructor as well, as part of an interdisciplinary course in the UAB Honors College. In my years of teaching, I’ve never taught as a communications or journalism instructor; I stick to English because I love to teach writing, and the UAB English Department has been very, very good to me.

Still, the offer last spring to be part of an interdisciplinary faculty in the UAB Honors College this fall was too intriguing to pass up.

With Donald Trump as president, the interdisciplinary course “Evidence and Belief in a Post-Truth Society” could not be more timely. The 117 first and second-year honors students are actually taking seven courses. Disciplines represented include English, psychology, theology, science, philosophy, literature and communications. This round, I’m the communications dude and one of six full-time and two part-time faculty members.

Throughout the fall semester, students will be exposed to this seemingly post-truth reality we’re living in now. Fake news vs. real news. Shaky belief systems and fact-based evidence. Why believing something is true doesn’t necessarily make it true. Opinion isn’t fact, but fact can be manipulated by uninformed opinion.

Analysis is telling us that much of the information put out by the Trump administration simply is false, but many Americans don’t care. If what’s said lines up with their beliefs, that’s good enough for them.

But in fairness, fake news and politicians misleading or outright lying to the public isn’t anything new. Since people began sharing information at the beginning of civilization, misdirection has been part of the deal.

Perhaps no regime did it better than Nazi Germany beginning in the 1930s and through World War II. Media have been tightly controlled by some governments for devious designs as long as there have been governments.

The United States is somewhat unique in that a free press (along with free speech) is guaranteed by our Constitution.

Yet, with a president who shouts “fake” news practically every day, the issue is before the American public as never before. With various social media exploding across every platform, it’s easy for truly “fake” news to make the rounds and to gain a foothold.

As citizens, we’ve always been responsible for using our own critical and skeptical thinking to determine what news and information is credible, and what is absolute hogwash.

But we have to do the work. We have more information today than ever before, yet we seem more gullible today than ever before.

Just this week, as Texas floundered in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, President Trump did what most every U.S. president does following a major disaster: He visited some of the affected areas to encourage first-responders and those citizens in the storm’s impact area.

And like most U.S. presidents before him, Trump was criticized for his response. In the wake of that criticism, Trump supporters took to social media to defend the president.

“How come we never saw Obama helping the Katrina victims? Oh, that’s right he was golfing at that time,” said one Trump backer on Twitter.

In fact, Obama did help Katrina victims, in person, at the Louisiana Superdome shortly after the storm in 2005. More important, though, is that Obama wasn’t even president; it was President George W. Bush who responded late to Katrina’s devastation. Obama wouldn’t become president for another three years.

“And where was obama when katrina hit. Vacationing and didn’t answer for 3 days? You lefties are all on crack,” Tweeted another Trump supporter. Again, Obama was not president in 2005.

And at least one fake Tweet was credited to @realDonaldTrump himself: “Wow! Worst flood in 1000 years! Amazing! Experts say precedented! Flying to Texas to see myself! Exciting! Then Missouri for huge rally.”

Yeah, it looks and reads like a Trump Tweet, but Snopes.com says it’s a fake.

This may really be a post-truth society, where “belief,” no matter how unbelievable, no matter how inaccurate, is all that matters.

We must become critical thinkers again. We must, as I tell my composition students, evaluate sources. Just because someone in authority says something doesn’t mean we have to believe it. Just because we “saw” it somewhere doesn’t make it true.

Yes, our beliefs can be truth, but our beliefs also can be a bunch of hooey.

Opinion is just opinion; informed opinion is based on research and fact, but with a perspective. Facts ARE facts. Lies ARE lies. Be skeptical — of the government, of media, of your parents and your friends. Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook.

That’s a big part of the message I hope we convey to those 100-plus UAB honors students this semester. It’s the same message I hope to deliver and have tried to deliver to every student I teach.

As one of my UAB Honors College colleagues said this week, “I’m the college professor your parents warned you about.”

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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