The Oxford Dictionaries just named “post-truth” the word of the year. They define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The popular examples of “post-truth” culture are the rhetoric used by the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s campaign.
There’s an interview with Newt Gingrich at the RNC that is painfully representative of the “post-truth” era. A news anchor says to Gingrich that violent crime rates are down. Gingrich corrects her that there are some cities where violent crime is up, and the news anchor concedes this point, but maintains that though in some places violent crime is up, nationally violent crime rates are down. Gingrich says that doesn’t matter. He says that when everyday Americans wake up in the morning, they don’t feel safe, and they feel like violent crime rates are up. The news anchor says they might feel that way, but the facts say otherwise: Violent crime rates are down; we are “safer.” Gingrich then says, “No, that’s your view” and she says, “No, these are facts,” these are FBI statistics, and he says, “What I said is also a fact.”
No, what Gingrich says is not a fact, it’s a belief. But we can’t just dismiss the conflation between facts and beliefs as something only done by power hungry, insincere politicians. The distinction between facts and beliefs is increasingly blurred, and not only in the realm of electoral politics. There is, in fact, a legal precedent for the murky and vanishing difference between facts and beliefs, and it’s found in the Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court ruled that closely held for-profit private corporations can be exempt from certain laws that go against the corporation owner’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” if there is another way to enforce the law through means that won’t violate the owner’s religious beliefs. What I’m interested in is the concept of a “sincerely held religious belief.”
The “sincerely held religious belief” in question in this case had to do with contraception. The Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, and the Hahn Family, the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, both rejected having to provide their employees with access (through insurance under the Affordable Care Act) to four specific types of birth control: IUDs, copper and hormonal, and emergency contraception pills, Plan B and ella.
The Greens and the Hahns believe(d) that life begins at conception, and by conception they mean fertilization. They morally reject these four types of birth control because they think they can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, which they consider to be an abortion. The issue here is that scientists who actually study contraceptives and the reproductive system say that IUDs and emergency contraceptive pills do not stop an already fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
IUDs and emergency contraceptive pills will not stop an existing pregnancy. They are not abortion pills. Emergency contraception works by preventing the sperm from fertilizing the egg, either by trapping the sperm in mucus or preventing the egg from being released and fertilized, depending on the kind of contraception you take. If the sperm has already fertilized the egg, the emergency contraception will have no impact. It will not stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus and it will not do anything if a fertilized egg has already implanted in the uterus.
This is all to say: There are factual, biological explanations for how these processes work. But in the Hobby Lobby case, SCOTUS decided that none of this matters: It doesn’t matter if your beliefs are factually accurate so long as they are sincerely held. It doesn’t matter that emergency contraception doesn’t cause an abortion, it only matters that people feel like emergency contraception causes an abortion. In effect, SCOTUS ruled that facts matter less than certain powerful people’s feelings.
The interview with Gingrich and the SCOTUS ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby support Oxford Dictionaries’ nomination of “post-truth” as the word of the year. Objective facts appear to have lost ground in the minds of many people in our country, evident in statements from current politicians, but also extending back to Hobby Lobby and beyond.
What’s also problematic is that this acceptance of subjective facts (i.e., feelings) as objective facts only seems to be acceptable when it’s done by certain powerful people (read: conservatives and Republicans) to support and maintain their political interests. In cases where subjective facts ought to play a larger role in the discussion, such as in the case of sexual assault or when people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims, etc. express feeling terrified at the reality of a Trump presidency, those same conservatives and Republicans mock the use of feelings and emotions in discussions.
What’s apparent from all this is that the fact/feeling distinction operates in lopsided ways. People of oppressed identities and survivors of sexual assault, among other people, are not allotted the same leeway to make arguments based on feelings, to have their feelings taken as facts, as personal realities and truths, as are their white, conservative counterparts. There is an exclusive group of people and movements that is allowed to use feelings as facts, and while “post-truth” is definitely a thing with legal and historic precedent, using feelings as facts is not accessible for everyone, even when it might be necessary and useful.
Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven can be reached at email@example.com.