Scott Hardie | July 24, 2003
Excellent article by law professor Glenn Reynolds in his weblog today: Everyone lives in a reality of their own creation to some extent, but don't liberals seem to take that to extremes? Since it will become old if I link to the site, here's the text in its entirety:

The contention that George W. Bush lied in his State of the Union speech, now spreading through the media and into the base of the Democratic Party, has caused me (Randy Barnett) to think again about a phenomenon I have been noticing since the election of 2000.

As you probably know, the idea that truth is “socially constructed” has been in vogue in academia for some time. I never took it that seriously and only mention it in passing in The Structure of Liberty. I did not think very many people could possibly believe it, or at least believe that, if true, it had any practical implications. Hey, even if the world is socially constructed, if we cannot willfully reconstruct it as we prefer, then it’s pretty much as irrelevant as the old speculations that we are just a brain in a vat or that the universe exists in a drop on some cosmic chemist’s workbench.

Since the 2000 election, however, I have begun to realize for the first time that the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world — a world where “truth” is their own construction. In their world:

Al Gore was elected president. Bush was selected. The Supreme Court “decided the election” (rather than reversed a rogue Southern state Supreme Court and restore the rulings of local, mainly democratic, election officials). Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. Dick Cheney really runs the country. Bush’s energy plan would destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I could go on and on. These are not disagreements about “values” or ends, but disagreements about facts. Once you notice this phenomenon, you see it everywhere. Now the Left is lying about Bush to make him appear to be a liar because they cannot catch him in any actual lies. The question is whether they believe what they are saying. Some do, some may not, but millions certainly believe what they are hearing.

I know that this is nothing new. Alger Hiss was innocent. Barry Goldwater was a neo-Nazi who was looking to start WWIII. J. Edgar Hoover wore women’s clothing. In the Second Amendment debate, the anti’s make up stories about what happened at the founding to fit enough of the facts just the way defense lawyers explain away the prosecution’s evidence. When the fit gets too hard to maintain, they switch stories to another made-up but more defensible version. Evidence is largely irrelevant, unless they are in a forum in which they are directly confronted.

These “constructions” or fabrications are not just ideological disagreements. When the Left claimed, for example, that the Industrial Revolution immiserated the masses rather than greatly improving the standard of living of ordinary people, it was easy to dismiss this as a dispute about a past we could not directly experience.

But what I am now coming to appreciate is that increasing numbers of persons on the Left create in their minds a false world in which to live — a world that better suits their preconceptions. They are not content to disagree with the goals of their opposition or about predictions of future policy results. They must make up facts about the world that fit their theories — like the “homeless” crisis that immediately vanished when Clinton took office. Their world is really and truly socially constructed. In their world Cuba really is a better place, as was the USSR up until the moment it collapsed, at which point those on the Left retroactively became anti-communists who had long struggled to bring down what they formerly claimed was a better and more just society.

On legal historian e-mail lists to which I subscribe, the Left took forever to abandon Michael Bellesiles (of Arming America disrepute), perhaps because his story fit their world. Or perhaps it was because the worst possible thing is to admit the evil right-wingers are right about anything. I raise the Bellesiles affair not because I think he is typical of the Left, but because of the dogged refusal to admit his story was a fabrication when the evidence of fraud was visible for all to see.

This socially constructed reality changes all the time to fit current ideological needs. One day, Bush is a moron; the next he is Machiavelli reborn; the next he is a moron again. Flip-flops don’t seem to faze them in the slightest. They just “move on.”

I could go on and on with more examples, but you get the point. I disagree with conservative Republicans about a lot, but I just have not noticed them making up stories wholesale to bolster their world view. The closest I have seen is some of what they say about judges “making up rights,” but this sort of rhetoric has a genuinely factual basis.

Still, this “social construction” phenomenon, if it indeed does exist, leaves me both disturbed and genuinely perplexed:

(1) Has it always been this blatant or extreme? I do not think so but, if not, what has changed? The perception on the Left that they have lost their grip on power? The access of so many to open microphones? Anger over Ronald Reagan’s victory and popularity? Republicans’ taking control of the House and their impeaching Clinton? George W. Bush winning the legal challenge to the decisions of local election officials brought by Al Gore?

Sometimes I think it is because the format of most news-talk shows now mandates that people take adversarial positions. Producers must therefore find someone to take the other side of every issue, and cognitive dissonance leads these advocates eventually to believe what they say. Viewers then see seemingly authoritative speakers repeatedly insisting on the same “facts,” which they simply prefer to believe because they reinforce their preconceptions. On the other hand the establishment media is not even that balanced and its consumers only get information that fits their world view.

(2) How can intelligent people sustain these false beliefs seemingly indefinitely? This must take some toll on them inside. But what exactly is the price they pay internally or emotionally for living in an artificially constructed reality? Perhaps it is actually easier, rather than more difficult, to live in a world of facts that reinforce one’s predilections.

(3) If this phenomenon is indeed as pervasive as I now think it is, how do I know that I am not doing exactly the same thing in reverse — thus confirming the claim that reality is indeed socially constructed? I know that is what I will hear from readers.

Perhaps everyone does do this to a certain degree. I do believe that, to some degree, “facts” and even sensory perception are “theory”-laden. The brain is such that you rarely see the theory working in the background, but sometimes it can be glimpsed. Everyone has had the experience of seeing an object on the horizon, in one’s peripheral vision, or across the room that looks like just shapes and colors, or looks like an object you know it cannot possibly be. Then you get closer or view it from a slightly different angle and what it ”really” is suddenly snaps into place. This is your brain “recognizing” the shapes and colors and then defining or redefining it.

Assuming we all do it to some degree — that no one is totally and completely objectively realistic about the facts — is what I am now perceiving on the Left simply a more extreme version of the phenomena, both as measured against how I think the world really is and perhaps also against how even the Left was even a few years ago?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts. Have you noticed it too? Have you noticed it getting worse? How can you know that you are not yourself equally guilty of doing exactly the same thing? And how can we settle our political disagreements if a large number of the players are living in a world of their own making? I really want to know.

Scott Hardie | July 24, 2003
Okay, wait a minute. I took this from Glenn Reynolds's weblog (owned by MSNBC), but the author refers to himself as Randy Barnett. I don't know who wrote it; I just want to give credit to the correct author.

Jeff Flom | July 24, 2003
Absolutely shameless, pot calling the kettle black.

Jackie Mason | July 24, 2003
[hidden by request]

Anna Gregoline | July 24, 2003
I agree - we don't have to "catch" the president in a lie, for example. He does it whenever he opens his mouth. This entire article could be applied the other way. And quite frankly, I think that the left gets upset justly, most of the time. The right seems to be spending it's time saying, "stop getting so excited, everything is fine."

Scott Hardie | July 25, 2003
I was waiting for some conservative authors to get in on this topic, but screw it:

Though I disagree with my fellow liberals on many of the "facts" (I think Bush was elected, the Supreme Court did the right thing, and Dick Cheney is certainly not running the country), I do agree with Jeff and Jackie and Anna that liberals are hardly the only ones who confuse the way the world is and the way they want it to be. It's a simple matter of perception: The conservatives see the facts one way, so of course the conservative author comes to the conclusion that liberals have simply made up their own paradigm. But vice versa, liberals believe their own version of the facts, and so for them, the conservatives are the ones living in make-believe. The author of the piece is obviously intelligent, so I'm surprised he didn't once consider it from the other point of view. And seriously, we can't catch Bush in any actual lies? Does this guy read the news?

Anyway, here's today's follow-up:

Reactions to yesterday's blog have been remarkably civil and fall into three basic groups:

First, a majority of respondents agree that something is up. These people are not of the Left, however, and could simply have the same basic perceptual bias that I have.

Second, a few deny the charge by denying the examples I provided -- claiming either that the false "facts" I mention are really true, or they are not truly "facts." Some of these objections, especially the latter, are well-taken. But I believe even better examples could have been found, and being a blog I had only so much time to invest. They are the sort of things you notice but forget unless you write them down. As a good friend told me, this type of argument will only persuade those who are already convinced, unless you present really compelling evidence, which I readily admit I did not.

Third, the predominant group of dissenters argued that the Right does the same thing. This is the reaction I expected and anticipated when I allowed that everyone does this to some extent, but it seemed that the Left was doing it more, at least recently. I found most of these responses unpersuasive because the "lies" they pointed to on the Right were either not facts (as some in the second group said rightly about some on my list), or were indeed true. In the latter case, I thought the respondent exemplified the phenomenon I was describing rather than refuted it. However, on this point, JB at rting on the wall made a very interesting observation that I must admit really resonated with me and has caused me to re-evaluate my claim:

the radical left bugs me more than before, but i think that's because they're more vocal about their views. chomsky is easy to dismiss when he and his disciples sit down and shut up, but that doesn't mean that the basic set of views isn't there. likewise, the really crazy right is pretty quiet right now as things are going at least sort of well. they have less to complain about, not least of which because the party that they're generally identified with now has a wider platform. also because they have more to lose for shooting off their mouths.

This strikes me as a highly plausible explanation for at least a good deal of what I (and people in the first group of respondents) am now perceiving as a difference between Left and Right these days. It also fits another observation that I had assumed was unrelated but now suspect is not: that in the past 5-10 years, since talk-radio, the Internet, and now FoxNews, the Left no longer monopolizes mass access to factual information. This very new contrast between the two media may account for the perception that the Left is doing this more (when they really are not). The new media is available as a contrast and is itself identifying more instances of this happening on the Left and in the old media. In addition, the very existence of the new media could be both provoking the Left into being more vocal in asserting these sorts of beliefs, and quieting out the Right who feel less need these days to do so because they see their views represented somewhere in the media, making the Left appear more strident by comparison.

Anyhow, though I was very nervous about blogging this topic, I am glad I did. The various responses have helped me to put this perception into perspective and interpret the phenomenon much differently. Thanks to all who wrote. I am discovering you can learn a lot by blogging.

Anna Gregoline | July 26, 2003
I would just like to mention that I hate the word "blog," and I will never use it except for right now. Thank you.This guy is kind of conflicted, since he wants to make serious points but says he doesn't have the time to do so. Weird-O.

Scott Hardie | July 26, 2003
I, too, only wish to mention that I hate the word "blog."

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