On Truth, Subjectivity, and Public Health Academia
By Anthony L. Schlaff MD, MPH
As we witness the violent attack on our nation’s Capitol Building, I find myself struggling with how, as a public health academic, I can have a conversation with my students that is both honest and open to differing opinions and ideology.
Academia values objectivity, and there is value and even an important ethical principle in making sure that as teachers we provide a forum for students of all different ideologies and opinions to express themselves and test their ideas in an open and respectful way. The way to increase their understanding is to give them the opportunity to pit their ideas against those with differing ideas, and for them to do that they need to feel safe and supported in expressing themselves.
But we need to distinguish between opinions and facts. When a political faction promotes and insists on a lie, it is not the proper role of academia to be neutral, because it is the people telling the lie who have chosen to make adherence to the truth partisan. To be silent when this occurs is to agree to silence oneself and remove oneself from debates at just the moment when it is that much more important that the truth be spoken. It is to let the liars set the terms by which we silence ourselves.
We have witnessed violence and likely will again because so many of our people and even our leaders are willing to accept the big lie that our election was stolen. Some have acted on that lie by attacking the very democracy they pretend to defend. In such a moment, silence is complicity, and I find myself needing to be fiercely partisan in support of the truth. All of us need to speak to how one of our major political parties has become so untethered from the truth.
There are both long term and short-term stories to be told here. The long-term story is that the Republican Party has over decades been willing to attach its policy positions to deliberate efforts to deny the truth. They have done this denying climate change. They have done this denying evolution. They have done this denying that systems of racism still exist in the United States. They have done this to protect business interests and to court the votes of people unwilling to accept these realities, and in doing so they have conditioned both themselves and their supporters to lose respect for recognizing and telling the truth.
It is worth calling particular attention to the lie that racism does not exist. In refusing to acknowledge racism while actively engaging in racist policies to limit and disenfranchise voters of color, the Republican Party has not merely engaged in anti-democratic actions, but its very existence is now predicated on a commitment to permanent minority rule. It is no accident that the big lie of today is centered on specious claims of voter fraud in majority-minority cities, or that the lie is used for the purpose of an attempted coup against the majority’s choice of our next president.
The erosion of respect for the truth has conditioned many Republicans and their followers to accept the radical and breathtaking lying of Donald Trump. He told small and big lies, he told them day in and day out, and his voice was amplified by social media and by politicians and people who had long ago become comfortable with ignoring facts to support their agenda. Throughout 2020, Trump and his followers lied about COVID-19. And now, finally, when the big lie that the election was stolen came, too many people had already lost any moral or critical capacity to insist on the truth. So, they accepted the lie, and they acted on it.
Even as Trump departs, we face an uncertain future. We cannot quickly restore the habits necessary to be a free and healthy people—the willingness to search for truth and build our policies and politics in response to it.
Some of the Republican’s big lies—about climate change, about racism, and now about COVID-19—are clearly and causally connected to risks to our health. But all of the lies, and the politics of grievance and hate that have risen from them, ultimately do harm to our society. Public health is society’s efforts to created conditions in which all people can be healthy. One of those conditions is a population willing and able to face and act on the truth. In saying that in the classroom, I will not be acting as a partisan. I will be doing my job.