Last week I ‘unfriended’ on Facebook an in-law from my wife’s large and extended family in the US. I don’t think I’ve ever ‘unfriended’ someone before. It was not, I wrote to her at the time, an ‘unfriending’ in real life: in real life I still loved her as a friend and a member of our family. But what I couldn’t stand was the alt-right messages she insisted on circulating – unwanted, hostile, and deeply distasteful. Nor did I want people I know and like and respect to associate me with this kind of thing simply because of the way we are all immersed, nowadays, in social media.
Let’s be clear: this was not about who supports whom in the American election. I can see that it is as hard for her to imagine how I could possibly endorse Clinton as it is for me to get my head around how anyone with a heart or a brain cell could possibly support Donald. I just don’t get it, and neither does she, but we can agree to differ. Nor is it about our vastly differing opinions on matters like abortion, or racial discrimination, or religion or the economy. Again, we can argue, and disagree, and even question each others’ values, and principles, and take on reality, without any ‘unfriending.’
When it comes to the facts, we’re on different territory. Facts are not opinions, and opinions dressed up as fact are simply ideology. Climate change, to take a particularly egregious example, is not an opinion, or conspiracy, or ‘Chinese propaganda’: climate change is fact, no matter what the Republican Party and the alt-right say about it. Not in the sense of absolute, god-given ‘truth,’ but in the sense that science understands it: objective, verifiable – and falsifiable, too, as Karl Popper pointed out, more than a half-century ago.
Yet if presenting opinion as fact, and dismissing fact as propaganda, were the worst of the alt-right sins, we could probably get by with some insistent fact-checking, a marshalling of evidence, refutations of ignorance and deception and – ultimately – we can simply turn our backs on what are, in a fact-based universe, mere crackpot theories, conspiracies, and delusions.
The trouble is, it’s much worse than that. Not only do the Trumps and Trumperies put about patent falsehoods – Barack Obama is a Muslim, Obama was not born in America – but they put organized falsehood at the service of abhorrent causes: racism, misogyny, bigotry, hatred.
And this is my fundamental objection to alt-right fundamentalism. It’s not just about a difference of opinion – though that difference is profound and undeniable; nor is it only about fact versus falsehood. At its root, it’s about our respect for others. It’s about a thing called tolerance.
One of the enduring mysteries, for me, is how a good Catholic – in my in-law’s case – or a decent Christian who believes in forgiveness and the love of God, or principled and ethical people of any persuasion, secular or religious – can buy into an agenda that is riddled with hatred; that seeks to make itself strong by demeaning, ridiculing, and abusing others; that mistrusts everyone and anyone who looks, thinks, acts, loves, believes differently from them; that is always yelling; whose language is always – always! – shrill, hysterical, condemnatory, apocalyptic.
I mean, really. In the real world, most people, most of the time, are decent, civil, kindly, respectful. In the real world, we don’t go about demonizing and insulting each other. So why create this alternative universe of hatred?
C’mon, people. Life’s too short, you know? Be nice. Relax a little.