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A former NC teacher of the year and member of the State Board of Education on why willful ignorance could start a new dark age. 

I knew we were in trouble on June 27th, 2015. 

That’s when activist Bree Newsome Bass pulled down the Confederate flag outside the State House in Columbia, SC. Ten days before, Dylan Roof had gunned down nine Black churchgoers in Charleston. 

Sadly, given our history as a nation, white supremacist violence is relatively predictable. 

What I did not see coming was the debate over whether or not the “stars and bars”— and the Civil War itself — had anything to do with racism. The fact this was even a matter of discussion signaled the real danger-ahead moment. I could sense something was amiss. 

Media covered the issue like it was unsettled, and gave air to false choice arguments of “heritage, not hate” and revisionist history. It was as if the text of the Articles of Secession from each Confederate state carried no weight in the face of a strident commitment to provide phony balance. 

I was frightened by this. Not by the falsehood of it. But by the ability of so many to entertain something so flagrantly wrong. 

The fear was further inflamed when a surge of videos on social media showed Black men dying at the hands of the police. Time after time, despite the obvious abuse of power and use of deadly force, a significant number of people found enough cause to justify the deaths. 

“They shouldn’t have resisted.” “What happened before the video?” “Obey the law and you won’t have a problem,” they’d say.

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I wondered then: How can individuals be looking at the same set of objective and verifiable facts, and reach such radically different conclusions?

The question foreshadowed what I now consider the greatest danger facing our country — cognitive dissonance.

There appears to be a point at which ideology supersedes any presentation of logic or reason. Where thoughtful coherent arguments are cast aside and replaced with unscrupulous opining. Where statistics and historical artifacts are met with memes and ad hominem attacks. And every unflattering perspective is written off as “fake” and evidence is met with deflective gaslighting.

What is one to do in this environment? How can citizens participate in the economy of ideas when we are not using the same currency? And what is the exchange rate?

Like many of us, I find myself in despair over the COVID-19 pandemic and the political fallout that surrounds this moment. The toxic mixture of the microorganisms, threats to democracy, and xenophobic nationalism has poisoned our institutions. But what it has revealed about American society is far more dangerous — our willingness to abandon truth. 

With millions of lives hanging in the balance, 80,000+ deaths from a novel disease more virulent and communicable than anything we’ve seen in the modern era, the response has been hyper-partisan. 

Whether or not to “reopen the economy” or wear masks in public is not informed by science, but political ideology. With that as a backdrop, it does not matter how polite or civil we are in our discourse.

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When facts and evidence are no longer held at a premium, the exchange is not done in good faith. 

Each American citizen needs to decide now where they stand in such debates. 

Either we commit to a society governed by facts, where the virtue of truth still matters. Or, we enter a neo-Dark Age, crippled by the same features as the last — religious fundamentalism, the rejection of science and plagues. 

Both are possible, but we have to choose.