Inspired by Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema, and his 2017 addendum to that 1999 manifesto, this essay is part of a four-part series of commissioned writings addressing the question, “What is truth in an age of ‘alternative facts’?”
The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic—the sensual—those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love in its deepest meanings.
Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase “It feels right to me” acknowledges the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify that knowledge, deeply born.
—Audre Lorde, The Uses of the Erotic
Emotional and physical reactions can be powerful tools for identifying truth, but when ignored they can be used to manipulate and paralyze us. Anyone who has come to the end of a relationship has experienced the friction between emotion and logic. When we are with someone who we love, but who is not right for us, our hearts tell us one thing and our minds tell us another. This tug-of-war between what gives us knots or butterflies in our stomachs and the rationale we apply to our lives is most obvious in the romantic sphere, because in that area we are taught to cultivate love. But our emotional bodies do not simply power off when we are at work or watching the news. We are constantly processing information through an emotional lens, but we are told that emotion has no place in our professional lives or political decision making. We go along with this numbing process to protect ourselves from the psychological stress of our lives. How else can we drag ourselves, day after day, to unfulfilling jobs? How else can we rest, knowing that outside of our doors someone is going hungry and without shelter? How else can we wear our clothes and use our phones knowing that women and children suffered to manufacture them?
Emotion does not disappear simply because it is neglected. Our feelings search for outlets, which they often find in the form of distraction, substance use, and, in extreme cases, abuse of those less powerful than us, including our own children and families. These activities add to the shame of not “controlling our emotions” and push us even farther away from all that we feel. The result is that we are disconnected from one of our most powerful tools of perception, leaving us deeply vulnerable to propaganda.
There is nothing new about “fake news,” and the alt-right is not the only group that consumes and believes it. We have all been the subjects and consumers of fake news. I remember years ago, when I still watched TV, seeing a story about people using food stamps to buy organic foods. As far as I know this story was true, and many taxpayers were appalled. In January of 2016, a fake news article stating that people were using food stamps to buy legal marijuana in Colorado went viral. Many taxpayers were appalled. Though one was true and the other false, these stories target the same emotional register: disdain for people who are poor. This feeling can be traced back to early American identity formation: the idea that white male property owners are most deserving of power and respect, that black people are three/fifths human, that women are property, that the playing field is level. These and other lies were accepted into American political discourse through the most official channels.
This deception serves to justify the exploitation of labor for material gain and power and numb us to the catastrophic results. The keystone upholding these structures is fear. Fear of retribution by the exploited and fear of losing access to the material comforts this exploitation provides. For those who are surviving (no easy task) it is easier to believe that poor people deserve nothing than to question whether or not we deserve what we have. Though scientists have tried for centuries, there is no factual evidence to support the theories of superiority/inferiority that we believe about ourselves and others. On the contrary, study shows that we are generally more similar than we are different. These hierarchies. then, are logical tricks which allow people to avoid empathy. By empathy, I mean the process of recognizing our sameness and feeling the emotions of others as though they are our own. It is a process which makes it painful to rely on exploitation. In fact empathy motivates us to take action in defense of others, because we realize that when we defend our fellow humans we also defending ourselves.
Cultivating emotional understanding is key to resisting the logical manipulation that causes apathy and paralysis. I cannot think of anyone who isn’t overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information being presented to us daily. Everything seems believable, or unbelievable, because we feel incapable of determining what is right without the help of facts. We do not understand ourselves and others well enough to discern what feels right, which facts are important, which are irrelevant and which are fictional. Through the numbing of our emotional bodies we have a failed to create a shared moral compass pointing towards justice. We face more emotional and psychological stress than ever. Depression and anxiety are as common as the flu. The cost of living requires such constant effort that we barely participate in any endeavor besides paying bills.
It is time we begin to unplug. The way out of the information spiral of “alternative facts,” “fake news” and the terrifying reality of our time, is to start paying attention, not just to the experiences of others but to our own psychological and emotional states. Only after acknowledging the tragedy we have allowed and relied on, and allowing ourselves to feel that pain, will we be able to tap into the emotional reserves of love and courage that we need to act on what is right.