When Your Political Tribe and the Facts Collide

By Harlan Garbell

Unfortunately, one of the scariest developments in American politics over the past several years has been the ascendance of the far right in the Republican Party. I don’t need to go into too much detail here. This has been well documented and we have all recently witnessed how a major American political party has now degenerated into a fantasy world where climate change is a hoax, Covid vaccines are dangerous, and Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

Trump’s election in 2016, and his continual dominance over the Republican Party, is evidence of how dangerous this development is. When millions of people are delusional enough to unquestionably believe and follow a corrupt, sociopathic conman, then you can appreciate the danger lurking in this country. No democracy can be healthy if it is built on a foundation of “alternative facts,” misinformation, and outright lies.

Although many Republicans may be anti-science, or even demonstrably delusional, they do not hold a patent on distorted or magical thinking. There are those on the political left in this country who, at times, have the same inclination to distort facts when pursuing their agenda. As politics in this country is becoming increasingly “tribal,” where compromise is equated with weakness, there have been troubling signs that some “progressive” Democrats may be turning off their critical faculties.

As many humanists identify as progressive Democrats, it is incumbent on us to be skeptical of any person or political party that puts forward policies or agendas that are contrary to facts and reason — even if they are cloaked as “social justice.” Groupthink is groupthink regardless if it emanates from Republicans, Democrats, Greens, or Libertarians.

Although people can have multiple identities in our society, if there is a conflict between the comfort of your political tribe and demonstrable facts, humanists are much better served standing up for the facts. For example, recently I wrote an article in this space about how students in the United States were lagging behind students from other developed nations in basic academic subjects (i.e. reading, math, science). These findings were determined by cross-national standardized tests. Although they are not determinative for any individual student, it is fair to assume that unless U.S. students reverse this trend, they will be at a competitive disadvantage with their peers as they enter the global marketplace.

However, the San Francisco school board, dominated by progressives, appears to be going in a different direction. The board vice president, Alison Collins, claimed during a public meeting in October 2020 that “When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing…those are racist systems.…” (as reported by Newsweek on Feb. 4, 2021). Last February, Collins voted with the 5-2 majority to turn the merit-based admissions policy at Lowell High School into a lottery system.

Reviews of certain standardized tests in the past have indeed revealed built-in cultural biases that have often worked to the disadvantage of minority students. However, the appropriate remedy would be to systematically eliminate these biases so that every student is tested fairly. The existence of standardized tests, per se, should not inherently be stigmatized as ‘“racist.”

The San Francisco school board also made headlines in 2021 by renaming 44 schools in the public school system (a move that was later suspended). Proponents claimed that many of these schools were originally named after racists or other culturally objectionable people (e.g., Indian fighters). The list included schools named after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Revere. One of the more curious names on the list was that of former San Francisco Mayor (and current U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein. Her sin: a Confederate flag was displayed 37 years ago at City Hall when she was mayor.

Unsurprisingly, considering the crusading zeal of the school renaming committee, it was subsequently determined that the process it used was arbitrary and its historical research questionable. For example, a closer review of the Confederate flag incident revealed that the Parks and Recreation Department, not Feinstein,  was responsible for the decision to display the flag. Paul Revere was reinstated after further research revealed that the claim that he sought to colonize the Penobscot people was baseless.

Rush to Judgment of Al Franken 

Another example of liberal/progressive tribal groupthink was the forced resignation of Al Franken from the United States Senate. Franken’s downfall was precipitous and occurred just three weeks after conservative talk-radio host Leeann Tweeden accused him of inappropriate touching and kissing during a 2006 U.S.O. tour. A few other women also accused Franken of similar behavior and a photograph emerged of Franken and Tweeden together which, on its surface, seemed to corroborate Tweeden’s allegations.

The timing of these allegations was particularly unfavorable for Franken. In October 2017, just a couple of months before they became public, the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine published articles about several women who accused Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of rape and sexual assault. Eventually, over 80 women in the film industry accused Weinstein of some form of sexual abuse over a 30-year period. (He is currently serving a 23 -year prison sentence for first-degree criminal sexual acts and third-degree rape.)

Although the #MeToo movement predated the explosive revelations of that year, the furor over the Weinstein stories catapulted it into prominence. Stories of women who had been assaulted by powerful men went “viral” on social media and captured headlines in major publications.  “Believe Women” became a signature phrase of the #MeToo movement.

Franken first appeared confused and bewildered by the allegations. He apologized profusely but demurred as to the specific charges. He then called for a full investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.  Led by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the majority of the Senate Democratic caucus instead demanded his immediate resignation. Under substantial political pressure, Franken resigned his seat on January 2, 2018.

Because there was never a full (or any) investigation of Franken’s alleged sexual misconduct, it has remained unclear whether the pressure to remove him from his Senate seat was justified. To be clear, it could very well be that Franken’s conduct was sexually abusive and not befitting a U.S. Senator. But the lack of any definitive proof would suggest that there was an unfortunate rush to judgment.

Seven Democratic Senators who called for Franken’s resignation have subsequently admitted publicly that they made a mistake. Heidi Heitkamp, the former Democratic Senator from North Dakota, said she would take back her decision to call for  Franken’s resignation. “It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.”  U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)  in 2019 stated, “We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.”

It is not a revelation that humanists can be just as tribal politically as anyone else, if not more so. And if indeed we want to call ourselves “humanists” we need to “walk the talk.” At our organizational website you will find a page that lists “Our Purposes.” One purpose on the list is to “cultivate personal growth and ethical decision making.” I’m not sure who is responsible for authoring this, but the two concepts coalesce neatly. You can’t really grow personally unless your decisions and choices are ethically based. And if you choose to ignore or distort facts, or become indifferent to them, then you cannot claim that your choices or decisions are ethically based.

Seeking social justice is a laudable goal for those of us who consider themselves humanists. But making choices or decisions without fully determining facts often lead to the absence of justice. And if the “tribe” you identify with puts pressure on you to make politically convenient decisions without a basis in reality, that is when you need to step out of your political tribal identity, assume your humanist identity, and embrace facts.

Yes, sometimes it’s not easy being a humanist. But that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.




    • Paul Heffron on November 8, 2021 at 5:52 pm
    • Reply

    Very well-reasoned and so relevant. Thank you, Harlan.

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