Against certainty

By now, you might have seen the video in which a CNN anchor asks a group of Trump supporters about voter fraud—specifically, their belief that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the past election. The evidence they cite is spurious and unconvincing. The anchor, Alisyn Camerota, challenges them with a tight smile, frustration evident in her voice. She even slaps her forehead after a particularly outrageous claim.

The video went viral, and it’s easy to see why. It speaks to a particular audience: one that’s fed up with fake news, fed up with the “post-truth” society supposedly signaled by Trump’s win. Camerota’s frustration is their frustration, demonstrating the limits of reasoned discourse in the face of a misinformed public. That’s the idea, anyway.

But there is another way to watch the interview, and that is to see it from the Trump supporters’ perspective. It is not the interviewer’s reasoned analysis that makes her talk past her subjects; rather, it is her absolute certainty that she is right. Instead of listening dispassionately to her interviewees, she dismisses their real-life experiences of voter fraud with a scoff. She claims that an interview they cite was deceptively edited, despite never watching the source material herself. She challenges them at every turn while never questioning her own assumptions—a Socratic dialogue filtered through DNC talking points. Condescension is not the way to win hearts and minds, nor is it warranted in an age where mainstream opinion has proven again and again to be wrong.

Indeed, one need look no further than the rest of the interview to see an example of mainstream opinion falling short. When Camerota asks them if they, like virtually every pollster and pundit, were surprised by Trump’s victory, they respond that they weren’t really, that they expected him to win. If she had asked them a day before the election why they disregarded the polls, they would have sounded crazy, irrational, or perhaps brainwashed by fake news. But they were right. Their models of the world were more accurate than those of pundits who followed politics for a living. If they had been wrong, there might have been a spate of articles about the wishful thinking of Trump supporters, of the lack of critical thinking skills they displayed in believing Trump could overcome the infallible polling data.

It’s undeniable that many Trump supporters believe false things, some of which are promulgated by fake or misleading news sources. But I believe the same is true of everyone. Every one of us believes things that are not supported by a dispassionate analysis of the facts. In many cases, the facts are simply unknowable, and we must make judgments anyway. These conditions give rise to errors in judgment, yes, but also a means to correct these errors. The multiplicity of worldviews allows the most accurate to rise to the top. Think of doctors overusing antibiotics and creating resistant strains. Before the threat of overuse was known, a person with a seemingly irrational distrust of medicine might refuse antibiotics for an ear infection—a decision not grounded in the scientific facts of the day but which would, nonetheless, result in a better outcome. Think of Trump supporters predicting his victory based on intuition rather than polls. If every American aligned him or herself with the consensus view, every American would have been wrong. Diversity of thought, including what seems to be irrational thought, is not a threat to society but a boon.

I found the Trump supporter interview on Facebook, shared by thousands of people my age. There seems to be a particular irony in young people sharing these types of videos: we have the least life experience and, as a result, likely harbor the most misconceptions about how the world works. If Camerota asked me to explain why I hold certain views, I am certain I could do no better job explaining them than the Trump supporters in the video. These videos invite us to laugh at the logical inconsistencies of the other side, but they don’t allow for introspection, for considering that our side may have similar flaws. It is easy to throw stones at other people’s errors in judgment, other people’s cognitive dissonance, but it is harder to realize that we’re all in the same glass house. 

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