Why We Need to Keep Countering Extremists’ Lies with Facts

When accumulated in one place, the number of lies the religious right tells about human sexuality and gender roles is dizzying.  But countering their lies with facts, while important, is more complex than simply insisting on the facts. 

I was lucky enough to spend my holiday weekend in Minneapolis, attending CONvergence at the behest of the lovely ladies of Skepchick.  I was invited to speak on panels about science, sexuality, and fighting the religious right on two separate panels.  The theme that emerged from the panels, which featured a sprinkling of scientists and activists in addition to my journalist self, could be summed up as, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own set of facts.”  Over and over again, the concern arose that lies and misinformation are becoming a more common feature in our public discourse, and the mainstream media was guilty of publicizing lies, pseudo-science, and misinformation as if it were facts on level with actually, you know, facts. This is true when the media publishes poorly constructed studies (with small sample sizes, no controls, conclusions  drawn that the evidence doesn’t actually demonstrate, or all of the above) that “prove” cultural stereotypes about men and women, or when the media reports scientific misinformation concocted by the religious right in order to sow confusion about reproductive rights.

Communications experts and psychologists will tell you that facts matter less in a debate than ideologies, prejudices, and the personal need to believe whatever it is you’re arguing for.  And it’s definitely true that we’re not going to be converting many anti-choicers with insistence on facts; their beliefs about reproductive rights are rooted in a mish-mash of misogyny and sexual hysteria that is impervious to facts. But does this mean facts don’t matter? Absolutely not,  The fact that the religious right is willing to make up lies about abortion and contraception demonstrates that they very much believe facts matter. If facts didn’t matter, they wouldn’t bother lying about them. 

When I sat on a panel and listed the number of lies about reproductive health promoted by the religious right to advance their agenda, I had to finally cut myself off before I went on too long and overwhelmed the audience: that abortion causes breast cancer, that abortion causes depression, that condoms don’t protect against HIV, that contraception doesn’t work, that pro-choice organizations are involved in a conspiracy to promote ineffective contraception to discourage abstinence and drive up the abortion rate, and even that a baby was born clutching an IUD. (Big laugh from the audience with that one.)  I didn’t even have time to talk about the more complex and esoteric lies, such as the claim that women (and only women) get dulled to the sensation of post-coital oxytocin flooding, and that prevents them from feeling love in their marriages if they have premarital sex.  And because I didn’t want to depress the fun-loving audience, I didn’t mention the myth that husbands only beat wives because they’re not submissive enough.

When plainly listed, the number of lies generated by the religious right regarding sexual health issues is dizzying.  So much so that you have to wonder why do they lie so damn much?  There’s two basic reasons.  One is to establish plausible deniability when it comes to policy, and the other is to confuse the issues with the people in the mushy middle.  Both are reasons to insist on the scientific facts, and both shape our understanding on how to wield scientific facts when it comes to discourse. 

On the public policy front, Jodi recently wrote a piece showing how the con works.  Anti-choicers know that the major obstacle to implementing their anti-woman beliefs is that women are considered citizens and full human beings by the government, and so they have to pretend that anti-woman policies somehow benefit women in order to argue for them in legislation and the courts.  So legislation like the TRAP laws in Kansas—legislation actually designed to hurt women by taking away their ability to get safe abortion—is presented disingenuously as somehow protective of women.  During legal proceedings, therefore, the use of actual facts to fight lies can be effective.  In fact, in many ways, it’s the only hope we have when it comes to actually protecting the interests of women.

The religious right lies about sexual health also to appeal to the people in the middle who don’t know much about the issue and therefore are vulnerable to believing dangerous lies—and taking dangerous actions such as forgoing condoms because they believe these lies.  Facts are a critical counter to this.

But, as I emphasized on the panel, it’s not enough to simply counter the lies with facts.  I think many times liberals think that all you need to do is get the correct information out there and people will adjust their opinions accordingly.  In reality, facts that are promoted without a solid ideological or moral framework tend to be dismissed or forgotten.  When promoting the facts, I argued, we have to frame them in terms of the values that our different audiences already have, because this will make them listen to you and it will make it harder for them to dismiss the facts out of hand.  The example I used was the research demonstrating that communities with more liberal values—later marriage, tolerance for abortion, promotion of women’s education and independence—actually have lower divorce rates than communities that promote conservative values.  So, when arguing the facts with a person who has more conservative values about family, emphasize how women’s liberation actually stabilized families, and you’re far more likely to get them to pause and consider your arguments.

How this works when it comes to sexual health is not as easy to see.  We’ll never get the religious right to accept the facts; their hostility to women and human sexuality is too ingrained to ever allow in information that could destabilize that point of view.  But the mushy middle tends to hold a mixture of conservative beliefs about sex (that it’s dirty and/or shameful) and liberal beliefs about sex (that it’s fun and people shouldn’t be punished for being sexual, that the double standard is unjust), and the key to reaching them is to wield the facts in such a way that we provoke them to think more about their liberal beliefs than their conservative ones.