Point/Counterpoint: Truth is in the mind of the beholder
From the column: "We’ve entered an extremely dangerous period where we celebrate, reward, and elect some who are openly working to dismantle the truth."
America has always had a complicated relationship with the truth. From the Vietnam War to the Iraq War, from swiftboating to birtherism to “alternative facts,” and, of course, the whitewashed versions of history being taught in our schools, truth is in the mind of the beholder.
While we have a long history of loose and varied interpretations of the truth, we’ve entered an extremely dangerous period where we celebrate, reward, and elect some who are openly working to dismantle the truth.
Manipulating the truth goes by many names, like “taken out of context,” “misspeaking,” “spinning,” and “misinterpretation,” terms that indicate how subtle and acceptable it can be to chip away at what’s true. This practice has been a basic fundamental tool in business and politics for centuries. But every fracture of the truth weakens our trust as citizens, laying the groundwork for division, loss of faith in our institutions and principles, and the need to seek out alternative answers and guidance that better fit a specific narrative.
It isn’t enough for some leaders to flatly lie anymore. They’re on the offense, actively gaslighting so forcefully that we start to question our reality.
As a leader in the women’s rights movement, I can confidently say that women have never truly been afforded the privilege of knowing what’s true. For centuries, society lied to women by telling them their place is in the home; that their greatest achievement is becoming a mother; and that they need to look a certain way, act a certain way, and be grateful for whatever pitiful concessions they get. The pioneering women who dared to challenge these norms were dismissed as crazy, emotional, undesirable, and dangerous.
In the wake of the Dobbs decision that overturned nearly 50 years of reproductive rights, extremists now have full license to conjure wild and deceptive information about women’s health and abortion care. Women have died and will continue to die because of these lies. For instance, some legislators are trying to push bills to ban medical procedures that simply do not exist . Anti-choice activists rely on the false narrative that abortions are dangerous, despite conclusive evidence proving the safety of the procedure; these groups conveniently omit the fact that abortions are significantly safer than pregnancy and childbirth . And these groups are working to create an environment where the truth is not just unwelcome but where it is a danger to be silenced.
Another way we attack the truth is by assigning a higher value to one truth over another. Just like George Floyd’s murder didn’t suddenly create systemic racism, #MeToo didn’t suddenly create systemic misogyny. Oppression and discrimination against women are so pervasive throughout our society that many women can’t even recognize when they’re being victimized. And those who speak out against abuse are rarely believed.
It took dozens and dozens of women to come forward to speak out against film producer and now-convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein to ignite the #MeToo movement when it should have only taken one. Our society doesn’t believe a woman’s truth because we have collectively decided that a man’s truth is worth more. Like the gender-wage gap, women are on the losing end of the gender-reality gap.
While it’s easy to blame QAnon, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and “the big lie” as some of the primary sources of the war on truth, in reality America has never had a fully stable or consistent relationship with the truth. Instead of allowing this to be cause for alarm, let it be a reminder that in fighting this war, it is our democratic duty to always call for justice. It is of the utmost importance that, as members of our democracy, we must always reconcile what we think the truth is with what it actually is. After all, this is and has always been a war worth fighting.
Christian F. Nunes is president of the National Organization for Women (now.org), a feminist nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C.