Student Voices
Nov. 11 2016

You Cannot Bring Facts to a Culture War

The Politics of 2016 and the Role of Public Health

A lot will be written about 2016, the year that tolerance for others and respect for facts died a grisly death. As a holder of both a UK and U.S. passport, I was hit doubly by my kinsmen’s rejection of what I thought were the foundational values of our society when they voted to leave the European Union and to elect Donald Trump to the world’s highest office. Brexit sounded the alarm. But despite the amplified farce, greater disregard for expertise and more brazen bigotry in the U.S. election, the alarm wasn’t heard–a foghorn sounding into the abyss, the ship already on course to crash to shore.

It wasn’t a shock for me the second time around, but I felt a great sadness along with the realization that a time of long and deep reflection is due.

How do we in the public health community respond? My first thought is that we must apply this conversation to the same rigor and nuanced thinking with which we understand the complex dynamics in health. It is not enough, and nor is it scientific, to simply put this result down to ignorance, or to one demographic group dominating the vote, or disenfranchisement driving a backlash against progressivism.

We all have vitriolic Facebook feeds and an instinct to voice our anger in the most emphatic terms. But there are many factors at play here that must all be weighed, and by informing ourselves and committing to a measured understanding, we can set the tone for a more rational and intricate examination of events. Even if this means just challenging friends and family to think again over the Thanksgiving dinner table, through discussion in our social networks we can all contribute to a shift in thinking.

Further though, each of us in our different fields of interest can prepare for how a Trump presidency (or a British exit from Europe) might impact the issues we care about and those who we serve. Particularly we should be prepared to push back against the ways in which the most vulnerable in society will be affected–regardless of how they voted–and inequality further entrenched. Access to abortion, reform of the health system, a stop to the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police–these are all things that could be jeopardized. We should be advocates at whatever level we operate–internally within our organizations to gear policy, research and funding to groups at risk; or externally, to lobby against the defunding of important services, the passage of regressive laws and the perpetuation of discriminatory institutions.

I know that many fellow students and professors at Mailman are already intensely active in these issues. But now all of us, including those of us who might have thought these weren’t our fights, need to channel our response to this election to limiting the damage and changing the coming narrative.

Outside of our friends and our field, we also need to recognize how our training as public health professionals might have influenced our perspective. For me, a defining characteristic in these two political events was our relationship with information. On both sides of the pond, political campaigns intentionally, and to great effect, used lies to stir up support. Boris Johnson lied to the British public saying that if we left the EU, 350 million pounds would be redirected from our contributions to Europe to the National Health Service. Within hours of the result in their favor, the Leave campaign admitted it wasn’t true (or even possible). In the U.S., Donald Trump has repeatedly plucked falsehoods from the ether to damage Clinton and to stoke support for his xenophobic and racist rhetoric.

And the media played a crucial part too, being too late to scrutinize Trump. I know I wasn’t skeptical enough of polling that confirmed my worldview and wasn’t vigilant enough against a possible upset.

All of this is to say that as professionals in a field where data and evidence are so important, we need to confront the shifting ground and limitations of a fact driven argument. I heard a political commentator, in trying to explain the election result, say that in the same way you can’t bring knives to a gunfight, you can’t bring facts to a culture war. And this hit home. The disregard for truth and honesty in these political events is surely shocking and saddening.

But combating this reality with facts and championing expertise–maybe this wasn’t the right weapon for this fight. Facts and figures won’t rid people of their sense of fear and anger or their perception of things changing in a way they don’t like -- because this result wasn’t just about misinformation. In fact, our dogmatic adherence to measurement and information is part of the system of elitism driving these feelings. So while I think that better information is readily available to the public, and properly utilized by those in power, we must also step out from behind our data and try to better understand the forces that are so difficult to measure, and our roles individually and collectively in driving them.

Finally, one thing that I will personally take away from this year, is a resolve to be more involved as a citizen, particularly when it comes to local elections and decisions at the municipal and state level. I now feel the importance of taking greater interest in and responsibility for what is happening in my community, and in so doing, perhaps I can counter some of the larger swings and trends at the national level.

It is easy to say all this and much more difficult to act. But I know that I need to do something, and I’m hoping that by starting this conversation here, we can galvanize the Mailman community in which there is already so much energy, creativity and commitment, to stand even more firmly against injustice.

Prudence Jarrett is a medical doctor from London, UK, and a second year MPH student in the department of Epidemiology. She has conducted research and clinical work in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi, and aims to apply her combined clinical and public health training to future work in humanitarian assistance.

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