Becca Balint: A cancer on the republic
President Trump's Independence Day gaffe — in which he said that the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War seized control of the airports — provided great comic fodder for late night talk show hosts, meme-makers, and my own history-loving children. It was an outrageous slip-up, but most public figures know when to smile, sheepishly admit the mistake, correct it, and then move on. Not so this president. He is incapable of copping to any errors, regardless of magnitude. This scares the hell out of me.
I've written on the horrors and the stark meanness of many of Trump's policies, and I've discussed his fascist tendencies, as well as his admiration for despots and his embrace of kleptocracy. I'm deeply weary from this terribly flawed president and his rampant incompetence. I've expressed my alarm that he surrounds himself with people who enable the abuse of power and continue to prop up a man who has built his career on fetid tommyrot. But this president's inability to admit to and correct a mistake or misstatement terrifies me the most.
What does it say about a man when he cannot admit to any mistakes? And what does it say about our nation that millions of people still support this president after thousands (literally, thousands) of lies, half-truths, and complete fabrications? There's a cancer on the Republic. It didn't start with Trump, but his presidency has shown us — in vivid technicolor — that we have collectively created a body politic that craves a particular kind of leadership; one that's rooted in absolutes and wrapped in bluster. We have little appetite for intellectual humility anymore.
Michael P. Lynch — philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut — has written about the dearth of intellectual humility. He's also the principal investigator of the group Humility & Conviction in Public Life, which (according to its website) is a research project "aimed at revitalizing our fractured public discourse." Lynch exhorts us to balance our belief in our strong convictions with a healthy curiosity about what we might be getting wrong. But he concedes that this is challenging to do when we live in a culture infatuated with arrogance.
Lynch has written several books and many essays, including "Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance," which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in June of 2017. He writes, "Trump is a symptom and not the cause of a larger trend, one that rewards dogmatic certainty and punishes those who acknowledge the possible limitations of their own point of view." He asserts that Trumpism flourishes because of a potent cocktail: technology, psychology, and ideology. And because of this complex set of factors, it's exceedingly difficult for individuals to push back.
The internet's algorithms steer particular information towards us that often reinforces our beliefs. And if we're already prone to believing we know more than we actually do, this is a dangerous pattern that bolsters our ignorance. And then, of course, there is the frightening rejection of any objective truth. As Lynch aptly points out, "Skepticism about truth is really more self-rationalization than good philosophy. It protects our biases" and makes it easier for us to overlook our own ignorance. And, ultimately, it makes the ground fertile for despots.
I have little hope for Trump or his toadies. But the rest of us must challenge ourselves to embrace more intellectual humility. Start from a place of rational conviction. Then accept that your view can be improved and refined by the contribution of others. It is this individual action by thousands of Americans that will help excise the cancer.
Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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