Modern discourse is marked by challenges to facts and denials of data from even our most prestigious academic and governmental institutions. We’re urged to believe what someone is saying even as it contradicts what we see with our own eyes. How are people’s actions — how they vote, whether they choose to be vaccinated or attempt to disrupt America’s democratic processes — affected by a constant drumbeat of bias and distortion?
This dilemma was explored in the recent town hall discussion, “Truth, Science and Free Speech,” presented by the College of Arts and Sciences Center for Changing Systems of Power at Stony Brook University. Moderated by Charles Robbins, the center’s executive director, the event featured a diverse group of distinguished panelists with vastly different perspectives.
MSNBC journalist Ali Velshi kicked it off with a keynote address describing his experience covering the George Floyd killing in May 2020 and the increasingly hostile treatment of journalists during the past four years.
“We were in the middle of a crowd of protesters in Minnesota and it was very peaceful,” recalled Velshi. “The police and National Guard came down one block, breaking into the middle of a crowd of thousands, and they started shooting tear gas and rubber bullets in either direction. I suddenly got hit by a rubber bullet, and I thought that was strange. We should have been very clearly identifiable to the police as journalists.”
Velshi said the scene repeated itself later that night, at which point the journalists raised their hands and identified themselves as media.
“Their response was, ‘we know,’ and they shot at us a second time,” said Velshi. “Nobody got hit, but they absolutely knew they were shooting at media. That’s an assault on the First Amendment … A journalist’s job is to bear witness and hold people accountable. How can we do that when we are being silenced?”
Velshi said the idea of bearing witness and identifying inequity came to the fore when essential workers, minimum wage workers and immigrants — a group especially vulnerable to inequality — coalesced during the pandemic.
“They realized that things need to change,” said Velshi. “Why don’t we hold everybody to higher standards? Why don’t we hold ourselves as taxpayers and voters to a higher standard as well?”
Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics and public policy in the College of Arts and Sciences, described how modern discussions regarding economic policies have contributed to confusion and distrust.
“Just before COVID hit, we had a presidential race underway, a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls with really ambitious plans,” said Kelton. “We heard big things like ‘let’s cancel student loan debt,’ ‘Medicare-for-all,’ free college, big infrastructure and a Green New Deal. And everyone also had something else — a way to pay for it.”
Then came the pandemic and 2020 became a very different game.
“In March 2020, Congress spun out the CARES Act, its first multi-trillion-dollar package,” said Kelton. “Nobody asked, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ This is where I think the conversation leads back into myths, misinformation and disinformation. There’s a lot of that when it comes to understanding government spending and the deficit. So many people have an inaccurate understanding of these things, and the media and politicians weaponize it.”
John Barry Ryan, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, agrees that political discourse has become a daunting hurdle in having meaningful discussion across the spectrum.
“People on both sides don’t like it when people inject politics into things, especially partisan politics,” said Ryan. “That’s difficult if what you’re trying to do is raise attention to things that need to be solved by both parties. How do you do this without angering everybody? I don’t have the answer.”
Ryan attributes much of this to people isolating themselves in partisan bubbles, something he said also encourages fear.
“I hate flying but I understand from a physics standpoint that it’s completely safe,” he said. “What we’re seeing in some experiments, even among the strongest Democrats, is that when we, for example, say, ‘Hey, do you think vaccines are safe?’ some people will say ‘no’ because of the fear. Even if they trust the science, there’s the fear, and that can stop us. This is our way of thinking about turbulence or vaccines or diseases.”
Ryan said the very nature of today’s communications encourages conflict — something inherently necessary in today’s social media-driven world.
“There’s no media if we’re talking only about the things that everyone agrees on; people won’t find it interesting and they won’t follow it,” he said. “So if we’re going to constantly talk about conflict, which is both reality and something we’re ginning up, people are not going to associate with each other, and they’ll paint these impressions that make them fearful of the other side.”
He cited a recent study done by Stony Brook colleague Yanna Krupnikov, professor, Department of Political Science, in which participants were asked for donations to help people who lacked healthcare.
“No matter how they framed it in terms of millions of people being without healthcare and suffering, they couldn’t move the needle,” said Ryan. “However, when they told a story of a single person suffering, the money started flowing in.”
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, echoed Ryan’s point, describing “commonality” as key to efforts to get a diverse group of constituents working toward common goals.
“I represent flight attendants who were already facing coronavirus dangers before it was something that was well-known,” she said, adding that the former administration was “so different” in how it dealt with a communicable disease outbreak. “We were dealing with misinformation and disinformation and a rejection of science.”
Nelson said that the union — with the collective power of thousands of members behind it — played a critical role in both obtaining and communicating important information.
“The only way that we heard about what was happening in the workplace was through the union,” said Nelson. “Our rights are never absolute and I think it’s key for us to understand when we’re talking about changing systems of power that we have to understand the struggle for people to protect those first words in our Constitution. It’s ‘We the people,’ not ‘we, the corporations,’ not ‘we, the guy who thinks he’s going to build a spaceship and leave all of us on burning Earth.’”
“Eighty percent of our people said the number one place they get trusted information from was their union,” Nelson continued. “This is where people see other people and you can coordinate around those stories and understand how we’re all affected by the same issues.”
Robbins summed up the disparate thoughts presented, describing “trust” as a critical component in bringing people together.
“I think it really does come back to trust at the end of the day, and how do we trust what we’re seeing and hearing?” asked Robbins. “We have our work cut out for us, but our voices together are so much stronger than they are separate. We need all of you to help raise our voices as an ally that bears witness to what’s going on, stripping away the things that separate us and focusing on the things that bring us together.”
— Robert Emproto