Many years ago, I went to a staged production of Hairspray. This show was based on a 1988 movie by John Waters about a bunch of teenagers living in the city of Baltimore in the 1960s. In the staged production that we saw, the performance would stop at certain times and the author of the original film, John Waters, would speak from a lectern and tell amusing anecdotes about the movie and its actors. In the movie, the dream of the teen characters is to dance in one of the coolest shows on television, a teenage dance show called The Corny Collins Show. Due to the times, the Corny Collins Show is a segregated show where only white teens can dance except for one day a month (Negro Day) when black teens participate.
The star of the movie is Tracy Turnblad, played by actress Ricky Lake. Tracy and her friends, both black and white, spearhead an effort to desegregate the Corny Collins Show. At one point, John Waters informed us that the show featured in the movie was based on a real teenage dance show called the “Buddy Deane Show”, which ran from 1957 to 1964. This show was also segregated and only allowed black dancers every other Friday. With the Civil Rights movement at its apex, the pressure to desegregate the Buddy Deane Show mounted, but the home station that ran the show was unwilling to integrate the black and white dancers, so it just cancelled it.
At this point, John Waters interjected, “But who needs reality?” In his movie, Tracy and her friends succeed in integrating the Corny Collins show, and all the bigots get their comeuppance. Many years later, this is the moment of that function that I remember best. John Waters saying, “But who needs reality”. Being a scientist, I should, in principle, wince at that statement. After all, scientists are in the business of discovering reality. And we know how important reality is for human beings to live a life grounded in facts and evidence free of the shackles of ignorance and superstition. However, the truth is more complicated.
The are millions of human beings in this world living in societies mired in disease, poverty, disenfranchisement, exploitation, discrimination, repression, and violence. For many of these people, the hope that their condition will improve anytime soon, when viewed from any objective point of view, is nothing but a fantasy. Yet, in these societies, individuals ranging from poets, writers, painters, and filmmakers, to political and social leaders or just regular folks, articulate and visualize fantasies that their trials will end one day, and that that their wrongs will be made right.
Thus, fantasy can actually play a constructive role in our lives. Fantasy allows us to imagine a better future where good prevails over evil, and we overcome the intractable problems that burden us, to be free in that happily ever after ending, where the just are rewarded, and the wicked are punished. From fairy tales to movies such as Hairspray, fantasy can be a powerful motivator for change and a source of strength and inspiration that moves us to dream, hope, and act.
But fantasy can also be a destructive force, and we all had the opportunity to witness this on January 6th of 2021 when a mob of people stormed the U.S. Capitol Building to stop the counting the electoral college votes of the American people, to harm our elected representatives, and to overturn a fair and free election. These people had been told the lie that the election was stolen, and they believed it to the extent that they were willing to risk their livelihood, their freedom, and their lives to contravene the will of the majority of their fellow Americans. I want to clarify here that I am not making a political point. All the evidence we have indicates that the 2020 election was not stolen. This is an objective description of reality. Arguing otherwise is unreasonable.
Now we come to the crux of my argument, which I am presenting here as my opinion. Most fantasies have at their core grievances that are real. But what is the grievance that spawned the fantasy that led to the denial of the election results and fueled January 6th? The people involved in these activities had been told for years that there is a cabal of nefarious entities such as the elites, the deep state, the fake news media, liberal Marxists, environmentalists, atheists, LGBT people, and others who hate them and their way of life. And these entities allegedly seek to control or destroy them by several means including manipulating the laws, the schools, the elections, the government, and other things. This is the bogus grievance which has spawned the fantasy among these people that they are under attack, and thus they need to strike back and defeat those who threaten them before it is too late. And after they do so, they will usher in a new era in our republic where their way of life will be safe once again and the bad people will be punished.
When this fantasy is accepted, facts, evidence, and reason become irrelevant, and trust in our institutions and their safeguards against abuse of power become non-existent. This is how a fair and free election became a “fraud” where their votes were cancelled and their candidate was denied his rightful victory. This is how a call to a protest, where they were told that if they didn’t fight like hell and show strength they wouldn’t have a country anymore, was interpreted as a directive to attack the very heart of our democracy while they risked life and limb in doing so.
This is the frightening power of fantasy. When it arises out of the noblest desires of humanity for a better future, it can be a formidable constructive force, but when it arises out of fear and ignorance fed by lies and misinformation, it can become a formidable force of destruction.
The United States Capitol attack collage by Aca1291 is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. The Hairspray movie poster is used here under the doctrine of Fair Use.
The founding of the United States as a nation was based on a number of principles. And one of these principles is the avoidance of the tyranny of the majority. This is the fear that a majority of people would impose their will on minorities and put them at a disadvantage. To avoid this, several checks and balances were created as a compromise. For example, the representatives to the House in congress reflect the number of people in a given state, but in the Senate each state has two representatives regardless of its population. This prevents the most populous states from banding together and imposing their will on the least populous states. Another check and balance is the electoral college, which was conceived as a compromise between two extremes, one being that the president is directly elected by the voters, while the other is that the president is elected by the legislatures.
Some critics claim that this system has in fact worked so well that, enhanced by other phenomena such as gerrymandering and partisan primaries, it has resulted in a tyranny of the minority. However, many of the issues considered in the national debate depend on the political, social, and religious beliefs of people, and often are a matter of opinion. Consequently, many would argue that these issues should not be resolved in one way or another unless there is a clear political consensus involving a majority of people in both the more and less populated states manifested through their elected representatives. But what about issues that are not a matter of opinion?
What if a majority of people, or even a minority of people empowered by the checks and balances of the political system, embrace a notion that runs contrary to facts and evidence and seeks to impose this notion on others? This would not only be a tyranny of the majority or the minority, it would be a tyranny of fantasy. If individuals are going to be subjected to political, social, and legal norms, don’t they have the right to demand that these norms be based on facts and evidence when applicable? Many would contend that what constitutes facts and evidence is itself a matter of opinion, but this is not true. That is why they are called facts and evidence. They exist regardless of what we want them to be. The interpretation of facts and evidence in a given context can, of course, be subjective, but how well any proposed changes in the laws or norms tally up to facts and evidence should be a prerequisite for their acceptance, no matter how many people vote for them or how many elected representatives support them.
Some would argue that that’s what the courts are for. If you don’t agree with any law or local norm, you sue and have the courts deal with it. However, the courts do not necessarily deal with what is aligned with facts and evidence. The courts often deal with what is legal. Thus when creationists tried to impose their views regarding the teaching of evolution, they were denied their wish, not because what they wanted to do was at odds with facts and evidence, but because it was unconstitutional. It violated the principle of separation of church and state. Our methods of governance seem to be designed not mostly around facts and evidence, but rather around the law and the will of the people tempered by the checks and balances of the system. A given law or norm may be approved not because it is moored in reality, but because it is legal, a majority of the people want it, and their elected representatives push for it.
Thus what are we to do when, for example, millions of people swayed by QAnon beliefs or 2020 election denial beliefs pressure their elected representatives to pass laws that affect others? The QAnon belief system or the notion that the 2020 election was fraudulent are not supported by facts and evidence. This is not an opinion. It can be demonstrated to be true. Is it therefore fair for people swayed by these unfounded beliefs to impose laws or norms upon others based on these beliefs?
I want to suggest that our political, social, and legal system is missing the most quintessential check and balance of them all. We should not only be asking whether the majority of people want it or voted for it. We should not only be asking whether it is legal or constitutional. We should be asking whether it is supported by facts and evidence. Now, I do not mean to imply that everything in our society should be viewed through these lens. There are clearly a lot of aspects of the way our society works that depend on local practices and values, which in turn impact the political and legal realms in our communities. But when important changes to our laws are considered which are based on specific notions or assertions about the nature of reality, then whether these notions or assertions are supported by facts and evidence should be a litmus test for their approval. And this test should trump the will of the majority or of that of their elected representatives.
I claim that I, as a citizen of this country, should be free from the tyranny of fantasy. I claim that this is one of my fundamental rights, and no majority of people, or minority of people empowered by the system of checks and balances, has any right to impose on me laws that make or are derived from specific claims about the nature of reality which are not supported by facts and evidence.
In this so-called “post truth” era, where large numbers of people with political and economic power refuse to yield to reason and accept reality, I consider that this new right is vital to preserve individual freedom.
What do you think?
The image, which is not related to the topic of this post and is a free download from pixy.org, has been modified and is in the public domain.