If I claim ninjas are following me, you’ll likely roll your eyes. But you also may, if I seem otherwise reasonable, want to test whether it’s true. So you set up video and infrared cameras to record my daily movements, as well as high-powered microphones and motion sensors to detect anyone in my vicinity. After a week, you inform me that no evidence of ninjas has turned up. To which I reply, “That only proves what good ninjas they are!”
You now know that my initial claim is immune to logic and evidence. It’s unreasonable.
America is suffering a crisis of unreason. Too many of us can’t be moved off what feels true subjectively because we’re unwilling to acknowledge what is true objectively.
For example, the keynote claim of the New York Times’s 1619 Project—that the Revolutionary War was fought because colonial leaders feared England was about to abolish slavery in its American colonies—has by now been refuted six ways to Sunday. It’s been refuted by historians across the political spectrum. It’s been refuted on the basis of sociopolitical context (England had no significant abolitionist movement), logical coherence (if fear of British abolitionism were widespread, why didn’t England’s Caribbean colonies, where slavery fueled entire economies, join the fight?), and first-hand accounts (we have exhaustive records of what colonial leaders actually were thinking). British abolitionism wasn’t a primary, secondary, or tertiary cause of the American revolution. If you listed the causes of the American revolution, concern over British abolitionism wouldn’t crack the top ten.
Yet the 1619 Project continues to be required reading in many public schools. Why? Because it feels true to a powerful political constituency. Their sense that America is uniquely and irredeemably racist is heartfelt, and they’re not going to let a little thing like historical reality get in the way. The widespread acceptance and normalization of the 1619 Project is, in short, proof of Jonathan Swift’s 1721 dictum, “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion which by reasoning he never acquired.” Or, more familiarly: you can’t reason people out of something they were not reasoned into.
But it’s not merely our views of the distant past that have become unreasonable. Four years after Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault back when they were in high school, not a shred of verifiable evidence exists that she and Kavanaugh have ever met. Let that sink in. Yes, they lived in the same town, had mutual friends, and traveled in the same circles. But have they ever been in the same place at the same time? The objective answer is…not as far as we know.
It’s unremarkable that more Americans at the time believed her than him. Public passions often override logical and evidentiary concerns in the heat of the moment. More troubling, and indeed unreasonable, is that four years later mainstream media organizations and respected advocacy groups routinely assert that Kavanaugh was elevated to the Court despite being “credibly” accused of sexual assault.
Nor is our crisis of unreason restricted to historical matters. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, “Identical twins share the same genomes and are always of the same sex.” Yet if sexual classifications are merely assigned at birth, as transgender activists and allies insist, rather than empirically observed, if sexual classifications are fluid rather than fixed, then NHGRI is spreading misinformation. If those activists and allies are right, identical twins are not always the same sex. Are you going to tell the folks in the lab coats, or should I?
Objectively, “transgender women” are men, and “transgender men” are women. Objectively, there’s no evidence Blasey Ford has ever made Kavanaugh’s acquaintance. Objectively, colonial worries over British abolitionism had nothing to do with the Revolutionary War. These objective truths, however, have no purchase. Nobody is willing to bow to reason if it means letting go of what feels true, what their heart tells them is true. It’s ninjas all the way down.
The fact that large swaths of Americans cling to heartfelt, subjective beliefs in spite of objective evidence and strict logic isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s what sustains old wives’ tales, conspiracy theories, and varieties of religious experience—with the crucial difference that traditional believers tend to understand that they’re faith-based. What’s new is the readiness of credentialed journalists, public intellectuals, and elected officials to promote subjectivity over objectivity. Why? Precisely because heartfelt, subjective beliefs are not open to reason. Logic and evidence be damned, I know what I know! Powerful coalitions are forged from such sentiments, empowered by the very fact that they’re immune to logical and evidentiary critiques.
Our current embrace of unreason is a crisis because logical and evidentiary critiques are the prerequisites of civil discourse. They’re the tools with which you hash out differences. The public square is where beliefs get tested; its entire purpose is to shoot down unreasonable beliefs.
To test the truth of a belief, any belief, you have to measure it against something. Traditionally, that something has been reality, which exists objectively—i.e., independently of what you believe. If your subjective belief corresponds with objective reality, it’s true; if it doesn’t, it’s untrue. Thus, there are two partners in the verification process. Your belief and reality. But reality is the senior partner. You have to adjust your belief, no matter how heartfelt, to reality because reality doesn’t adjust. You have to acknowledge reality in order to verify anything.
There are psychological rewards in shutting your eyes and ears to reality, in embracing unreason—especially if your history doesn’t check out, or your accusation doesn’t hold water, or your DNA doesn’t match your self-image…or, for that matter, your guy lost the last election. But the intellectual costs are far greater than the psychological rewards. Time corrodes unreasonable beliefs. Sooner or later, reality will have the last word. It will creep up behind you and whisper that you’re full of crap. The longer you tune it out, the more painful the reckoning becomes.
America’s crisis of unreason is a cultural crisis. Solving it will require a shift in philosophical outlook and a recognition that testing beliefs are what democracies are designed to do. It will also require a collective willingness to be shown the error of our ways—because that is the minimum that reason demands.
Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. His latest book is I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Triumph of Woke Subjectivism.