By Elise Paradis†, Michael W. Freeman*, Michael Kim*, Patricia J. Leake*, and Umesh Poopalarajah*
University of Toronto
† Corresponding author * Equal contributors, in alphabetical order
We, the authors of this text, were brought together in a research methods class taught by Elise Paradis at the University of Toronto, Canada. We are a diverse, interdisciplinary group that includes one American citizen. In this essay, we share a condensed version of our collective thoughts on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, as we experienced it individually on November 9th, and collectively in the classroom on November 10th. We see this essay as an act of resistance against disinformation and the degrading of science and truth, and wish to share our personal and scientific journey, as well as our hopes for the future. This text was shortened to meet guidelines; the full-length essay can be found at http://j.mp/ITT_2016E.
While the confusion, discomfort, and distrust was clear on the faces of fellow Toronto commuters, engaging in conversation about the election, given the jarring result, seemed almost taboo. Sensing this tension and trepidation, Elise decided that conversation “therapy” was not only necessary before learning could begin, but that the analysis we engaged in would also be beautifully aligned with the curriculum of our course. How did members of our class make sense of this election? What themes did we recognize as integral to this election’s result?
This semester, our Thursday afternoon class was a favourite part of my week. Starting graduate studies for a third time, I felt that I was learning a new approach to how I view and interact with knowledge production. I never needed this approach more than that afternoon in early November. Once we acknowledged that the recent election had had an emotional impact on all of us, documenting, analyzing, and interpreting those thoughts seemed appropriate not only as an exercise in learning methodology, but also as a systematic, scientific and therapeutic approach to the rhetoric, controversy, and fallacies of the Election. Whether we made sense from the senseless is arguable, but I do believe that we jointly created meaning through that exercise. While I wish the campaign and results of the election had been different, there may be no better representation of understanding the social construction of knowledge than that offered by the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.
As I entered our class two days after the election, it became very clear that its results had impacted the lives of my peers: facial expressions alone were enough to indicate that confusion and discomfort resonated through each of us in different ways. Elise engaged us in discussions about our feelings surrounding the results of the election to help alleviate any existing tensions, and I found solace in hearing others describe similar reactions. Could it be that half of all Americans are racist and hate women? Did they share these prejudices? Elise jumped to jot our ideas on the whiteboard, hoping to distinguish overlaps that we could further explore (see Photos). Through inductive coding, we came up with several ideas and themes that could be used to explain why Americans voted the way they did. Clearly, there was much more to consider.
That afternoon it was impossible to avoid discussing the election. Our conversations on qualitative research methods and analytic techniques seemed absurdly irrelevant in the face of such a momentous event. What we had felt to be an impossibility only two days earlier had come true: our neighbours elected someone who fundamentally disregards facts and promised policies that we felt would negatively impact immigrants, women, the poor, people of colour, LGBTQ-identified individuals, religious minorities, etc.
We first started with individual responses to the election, listening to everyone as they spoke. Over the next 40 minutes we explored and conceptually mapped issues of class, money, inequality, and the economy; “building walls” as a metaphor; and the blurred distinction between fictions and facts in the election.
From our perspective, neither Clinton nor Trump were particularly well suited to be the darlings of the poor and disenfranchised. Trump, however, seemed to have channelled American’s self-made aspirations better than Clinton, in spite of his wealth being, ironically, inherited. We consequently questioned whether perceptions of both candidates’ undeniable class privilege had been mediated by deep-seated gender beliefs, racism, and a growing rejection of the left-leaning educated elites. Americans seemed to embrace the idea of a Twitter-accessible President, and though Clinton engaged with social media, voters seemed to have seen these efforts as mere strategy. Trump’s imperfect, meandering online rhetoric perhaps rang closer to these experience of his supporters—more human, more American. Indeed, Trump’s position of “saying it like it is” aligned well with the backlash against Washington’s out-of-touch, established “elites”, and what Van Jones called “whitelash”—a rebellion of white voters “against a changing country” and against a “black president”—on CNN on November 8th.
Finally, we brainstormed several words that we could associate with this basic idea of “lack of truth” in the election: fictions, myths, fallacies, lies, and fantasies. We were puzzled by how many outright lies and fallacies had circulated, and contrasted them with facts, science, and evidence. We agreed that the Republicans’ rejection of facts and misrepresentations of reality helped explain the Democrats’ failure to win the Presidential Election. We thus summarized the study we might lead to explore these themes into the following title: “Facts, fantasies, fallacies, and failure in the U.S. Presidential Election.”
Our class has had a profound effect on how I view my own environment. Our conversations about epistemology and paradigms helped me see and try to understand how people’s diverse experiences and knowledge are denied in pursuit of one “objective truth.” The entitlement to disregard others and their perspectives was a theme that I saw repeated in Trump’s campaign. The topic of our class that week was data analysis, and more specifically, thematic analysis. This was real-world learning—teaching us how to be critical thinkers and meaning-makers.
I did not understand how someone who, from my point of view, had no actionable policy plans and who had expressed discriminatory attitudes towards more than half of the population of the U.S.A. (considering race and gender alone) could be elected President. My friends living in the U.S.A. were already sharing their post-election experiences, which included reminders of past sexual and racial violence. Clearly, those in power have an impact on our lives; the intolerance of Donald Trump had reopened old wounds.
As we finish writing this, the United States is a deeply divided country. A majority of Americans have voted for Clinton and yet Trump won. The Electoral College has shown its limitations and once again elected a Republican who has not won the popular vote. Trump’s cabinet is a plutocratic line-up of intolerance, bigotry and climate change denial, which puts us all at risk.
Varied and muddy understandings of ‘truth’ and the broad use of narrative have played roles in politics since the conception of politics itself, but evidence of this discrepancy has never been clearer than during this most recent American election. Through the direct access and repetition afforded by modern media, today’s politicians can readily and frequently manipulate what we believe to be real, verifiable. This brings into question how we can approach knowledge given the fluidity of truth in this modern age of technology and politics—what is our working epistemology in an age that is increasingly wary of facts?
In this context it is easy to be fearful or defeatist; to give up on hope and on some of the key values that have made contemporary Western democracies the thriving places that they are: a focus on equality, freedom and progress. As Canadians, we have weathered the twelve-year storm of Stephen Harper’s conservative anti-science government to re-emerge as a progressive force on the world stage. Our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, identifies as a feminist, and appointed a racially-diverse cabinet that is 50% female. He acknowledges climate change, reinstated the census, and chose to reinvest in science and scientists. As an interdisciplinary group of scientists, we believe that we need to speak up and bring all of our analytical tools to the challenges that lie ahead. We need to continue to resist post-truth politics, and continue to engage in critical knowledge production. We have to listen, question, think, learn, and act upon our findings. We must reassert the principles we stand by—knowledge, integrity, equality, social accountability—and be ready to fight.
We hope that you, our neighbours of the south, will learn faster than we did here in Canada when faced with an anti-science government. We hope that you will protect and rebuild your institutions to reflect the values that have been overshadowed by a barrage of lies and a fear of others. We are in this together; we are stronger together.