“People are pouring across our borders.” “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” “Unemployment is the worst it’s ever been.” “Refugees are coming in and we have no idea who they are.” “The second amendment is absolutely under siege.” “Islamists want to conquer this country and impose sharia law.”
If there is a single narrative at stake for America, this is it—“they’re coming for you.”
And if you’re thinking “that’s the other guys,” flip the script—don’t just look at the words of one particularly unfiltered and untruthful demagogue, look at the narrative overall.
“Money is pouring into politics and controlling our elections.” “Corporations are destroying our jobs and our health.” “Chemicals are ending up in our food and we have no idea what they do.” “Christians want to take over the government and impose their restrictive beliefs.”
Whether you frame it as a story of fear or a story of heroic resistance, the core is the same: we’re under attack by dangerous, insidious people who have come to take what we have, and if we don’t fight back, we’ll watch our way of life disappear. So stand up and fight, or be prepared to lose your freedom.
Except… every single one of those statements is a lie. Every. Single. One. Some of them are motivated lies, and some of them are ignorant lies, and some of them are exaggerated lies, but they are all lies.
When you look at the evidence—the data, the proven facts, the real numbers—it’s incontrovertible. Immigration into the country is about the same as immigration out of it, so the immigrant population is effectively stable. The immigrant demand for jobs mostly doesn’t affect everyone else. Unemployment has been dropping steadily since the end of the 2008 recession. Refugees are vetted more thoroughly than presidential candidates. Far from the nonsensical “under siege” claim, support for restrictive gun control measures has actually decreased in the past twenty years. And Muslims are about as peaceful and generous a group of people as any other major religion.
And the money in politics has been there for quite some time, and it doesn’t have nearly as much sway as many people think. Big corporations are actually responsible for most of the economic growth in America over the past few decades. Chemicals are everywhere, and we know pretty well that most of them are harmless in the doses we encounter. And outside of fringe Evangelicals, Christians are actually becoming more tolerant along with the rest of Americans.
So why not revise our narratives? Why do we aim for revisionist reality instead?
Because we don’t care about evidence. The story that “they’re coming for you” isn’t a story about evidence—it’s a story that digs deep into our lizard brains and plays on all our most irrational habits. It encourages us to treat our emotional reality as indistinct from objective reality. It encourages us to mistrust the people who look and act different from us. It validates and rationalizes our inherent racism and sexism and xenophobia and prejudice.
It tells us, in short, that we are underdogs. We are heroes. We are the valiant freedom fighters standing between civilization and forces of darkness. We, the awakened, have purpose.
What a drug that is! What a fulfilling story! And wouldn’t it be nice to have such obvious enemies?
Especially when you consider the alternative: America is, by and large, kinda okay. Most people are doing mostly better than they were before, and we still have sexism and racism and inequality, but they’re all better than they used to be and (slowly) improving. Not to excuse anything in the present, of course, but pretty much the only thing getting actively worse is climate change, and we could fix that if we just agreed to do it.
Except there is one other thing that’s pretty bad—it’s that we stick to our narratives despite the evidence. And really, we don’t just spite that evidence; we hew and decry and gnash our teeth and insist that the only evidence worth listening to is the stuff that agrees with what we already think (no matter how bad it is).
If we must have an enemy, let it be our own foolish allegiances. Let our enemies be certainty, haughtiness, and fear. Let our enemies be the lure of the narrative and the rejection of reality.
Because if we do otherwise, the champions of narrative become our leaders. The people who revise history and reality to match their beliefs end up becoming the people we look to for answers. And then the people who claim to lead us become the people who most divide us. We will follow them blindly, full-throatedly, and deservedly into the darkness.
We will be our own enemies either way. So let’s not also make an enemy of the truth.
Image Credit: Warren Rohner