Opinion

Feelings don’t care about facts

People seem to think the world is falling to pieces. A pandemic, government failures to address it, the economic fallout of lockdowns, massive forest fires, frequent flooding (and drought), and a renewed spotlight on racism all contribute to this sense. But perhaps the most worrying issue is the large portion of people who seem to have opinions that contradict all available evidence, from COVID-deniers to anti-vaxxers to those who say racism doesn’t exist.

Over the past four years, such opinions have suddenly become acceptable to air. Brexit will benefit the British economy; Iran is ignoring the nuclear deal. People of colour are callous criminals and trans people are delusional demons intent on destroying all women. According to liberals (especially those who rail against ‘cancel culture’’), such notions should be openly debated and discussed, because that is the only way to change people’s minds. The best ideas will win out: reason will prevail.

Or not. Have you ever tried debating a flat-Earther, or a climate change or Holocaust denier? No matter how much evidence you have, you will not – cannot – win. They remain unconvinced. Facts do not matter when your position is counterfactual to begin with, or if you think facts are fake.

This flaw in liberalism is far older and more widespread than we might imagine. When the first slave ship landed in America, there were some white people who believed that Black people are humans, just the same as everyone else. Most white people, though, thought Black people were intellectually inferior ‘savages’. Four hundred and one years of liberal society later, Black people are still stereotyped as being criminals whose IQ is naturally lower than that of white people. The words may have changed but the idea is the same. It seems the majority of white people still hold such beliefs (though the specifics vary), even if they are now subconscious.

There was never any supporting evidence for these views, and there never will be. The matter has been ‘debated’ over and over, but minds do not change. Reason did not prevail.

It is possible that reason makes no headway in these cases because it is not reason that motivates these views: it is emotion. Maybe some form of liberalism will still work if we appeal to emotions instead of reason? Appealing to emotions is, after all, how the fear-mongering, lying racists (Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orban, just to name a few) got into power.

I have firsthand experience with this strategy, having attended a transphobic conference hosted in Oxford University’s Exam Schools to try and show that trans people are not, in fact, manipulative monsters. I thought that by putting on a friendly face and engaging in civil discourse, discussing my experience and emotions, I might moderate some of the more extreme views. But how do you build empathy with someone who thinks you’re delusional and manipulative? In fact, how do you convince someone, using any strategy, that you’re not delusional?

I had people tell me – a real-life trans person – that trans people don’t exist. Or that trans people are trying to take away women’s rights. Or that trans people are sexual predators, freaky fetishists, or simply fakes. I had no response, because how do you respond to a claim like that? 

They were ignoring evidence, both anecdotal (the very fact of my existence, the fact that I’m a feminist, and the fact that I’m neither a sexual predator, nor freaky fetishist, nor fake) as well as statistical. They didn’t believe my personal story, and they didn’t trust statistics because they came from ‘compromised sources’ like Stonewall or ‘trans-friendly’ psychologists. They didn’t care that they had no supporting evidence of any kind. How, my dear liberals, do you debate that?

You don’t. Debate is dead. Facts have never mattered, and empathy requires a common ground that most people with counterfactual views do not think exists. The prevailing sentiment amongst humans is, “I am always right, and my priorities are more important than yours”. With such a mindset, convincing people is near impossible.

I have a lot of sympathy for GPT-3, the AI that recently wrote an Op-Ed in the Guardian, trying to convince humans that robots are not threatening. I feel like I am in much the same position, trying to convince people that transgender individuals aren’t a threat to society. It is, I think, rather sobering that I feel such a sense of solidarity with GPT-3: trans people and AI seem to be threats of comparable magnitude in the public eye. Neither of us is likely to make much headway, though, because those we need to convince are the same ones who immediately write off anything we say.

One thing I have noticed that tends to change people’s minds is experience. COVID-deniers usually realise their mistake once they get the disease. Many climate-change deniers have switched sides since the increased floods and more powerful storms destroyed their houses. But not everyone changes. Also, it is unclear how to extend this method (if you can call it a method) to issues like racism and transphobia — cis people won’t (and shouldn’t) experience transphobia; the same goes for white people and racism (anyone who thinks diverse hiring practices are ‘reverse discrimination’ needs to take a long, hard, look at themselves). Liberal ‘debate’ doesn’t work, but it is unclear what alternatives there are.

We need radical action, quickly. The next decade is crucial if we are to have any hope of arresting climate change. It is vital that the epidemic of violence against Black and trans people stop. And of course, we still need to control COVID-19. But there is little hope of such action happening without the vast majority of the population pushing for it, and that, in turn, cannot happen if we cannot change minds.

Reasoned argument and empathy won’t sway those who have already made up their minds, but there are some people who still have weak opinions on these matters, if any at all. This group is rarely talked about in the media. However, the widespread presence of disinformation, as well as a history of government obfuscation of the truth, means that such unswayed people are still unlikely to find or trust legitimate news sources. And the inflammatory rhetoric that usually accompanies counterfactual opinions can prove a tantalising lure. 

A starting point, then, to solve the issues with liberalism, is to moderate it. Prevent the spread and platforming of disinformation (which includes transphobic or racist statements — they are as a rule unsupported, misinterpretations, or factually incorrect). Focus on humanising media and establishing trust and empathy.

I doubt these changes will ever occur, and I do not believe that such changes would be anywhere near enough to solve the problems discussed. But if, somehow, they do come to pass, it might at least start us on the right path.

Zaman Keinath-Esmail

Zaman Keinath-Esmail (she/her) is an Opinion Editor at The Oxford Blue. She studies Physics, sits on various society and college committees, and generally advocates for equal rights for everyone. When not in Oxford, she can be found in Washington, DC.