“I am a slow walker,” remarked our nation’s 16th president, “but I never walk back.”
Abraham Lincoln did march us forward, setting the course for a future in which duty to one another might transcend self-interest. Momentum sometimes waned and our path wandered plenty, but we didn’t often step backward.
Our shared inability to engage in sensible discourse defines the present moment. Once the bedrock of American progress, the barrier to talking it out is today no mystery: tense duopolies of political affiliation and media attention perpetuate themselves through increasingly extreme messages on either side.
Despite total disagreement about business, welfare and our role in the world, there has always been a spit of common ground. At least the idea of protecting women and children was, it seemed, sacrosanct. Nearly all of humanity agrees upon this. To justify sanctions of a country or worse, politicians and media emphasize how women in that country are controlled, how its government fails to ensure that children are fed and educated.
And yet here we are. We’ve reneged on our most innate responsibilities, stepped firmly back. Weapons of mass murder metastasize through the tissues of our towns. Children are shot — as if that were not perverse enough already — in their schools. Women are barred from making choices about their own health care.
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When the goal in mind is votes or viewers, appeal to emotion is the easy path. The parts of our brains that let us think and plan and reason have not caught up with those that once helped us survive through reflex and instinct. So solicitation of fear — for example, that an entitlement written two and a half centuries ago (by people who could not predict the future) might be taken away — is abused as an effective political strategy by those for whom truth is no ally.
The good news of the information age is that emotion need not dictate policy. We’ve got lots of data. When states are free to test their ideas, what arises is a set of natural experiments. Their results are published. Legislation regulating gun purchases and carrying does reduce violent crime — see the Rand Corporation’s meta-analysis. The policies of many countries demonstrate a relationship between limiting access and reduction in gun deaths, and the publications of these findings are numerous. Abortion is an evidence-based health care procedure with legitimate indications — this per the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians. A main effect of policies that restrict access to abortions is reduced safety, not frequency, of the procedure.
We’re each entitled to our own opinions, but none of us has the right to ignore facts. Our newest health care policies and our nation’s incredible failure to effect change around assault weapon access are inconsistent with reality. Their justifications will never see print in professional journals because they are not rational; the evidence shows that they are wrong. Their elected proponents choose to imagine that we live in the waning phase of a great nation rather than in the early days of one much greater, and we need not agree with them.
There is no greater step backwards we could take than to ignore rationality and science. This is the danger of our time, at the root of our gravest mistakes. We participants in democratic society are entrusted to continue the march of generations. Today, this means insisting that laws are based on facts, not on emotion.
John Corsino is an intensive care unit physical therapist.
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