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#269 Philanthropy’s Role When Facts Don’t Matter

May 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

You may think that this will be another politically motivated post, but it isn’t, although some extrapolation to that arena will not be hard to find.

It is motivated by a recent conversation with a well-educated and successful person that left me a bit aghast. To protect the identity, and frankly to avoid an extraneous discussion, I will provide no additional info on the person or the topic. Suffice it to say that it was a subject about which I have a good deal of knowledge and the other person had only opinion. While there is room for some interpretation about this subject, the essential facts were and are clear. But the person with whom I was speaking dismissed those facts as wrong, for no other reason than his/her opinion differed. There were no alternative facts offered, simply that I am wrong.

I confess that I was on the verge of losing my cool but another person present intervened and insisted we change the subject. I have lost a good deal of respect for this other person but concur that there is little to be gained by re-opening the subject – ever.

In the case of that discussion, there isn’t that much at stake for the world at large. But over the last year, we have seen and many of us have participated in conversations like that where much is at stake. For example, whether or not you like HRC or supported her candidacy, the overt and outrageous lies spread about her were unconscionable. And as in the previous case, when presented with demonstrable facts to the contrary, often dismissed as “well, that is your opinion.”

A more frightening and far reaching issue has to do with environmental concerns of climate change and human responsibility to address them. Every individual has the right to choose his or her own truths, and, within limits, can choose to live within them. But not when those “truths” are counter to facts, and those personal “truths” are a danger to us all. For whatever the motivations, there are those who not only dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus as “opinion” but actively lobby for public policies that are harmful to us and to the world at large. That is not hyperbole and it should not be political.

This little sampling is reflective of a genuine dilemma of these early decades of this century. How one educates, how one legislates, and how one governs, and how one adjudicates are all at stake. Deep seated cynicism about whether institutions, any institutions, really care about people; skepticism about what is said by anyone in a time when self-selected media choices reinforce the anarchy of available information; an unmistakable erosion of civil discourse, and respect for the other reflecting a destructive dystopian world view, and more.

Sadly, I am sure that every reader is more than able to add an ample litany of real life examples. The question is what to do about it.

The stakes are high. The stakes are political to be sure, but not only political. They reflect very deep seated challenges to the state of knowledge, and civility.

It is not a matter of simple education about facts. Whatever one thinks of the current president, his supporters voted for him and many continue to support him despite facts that historically would have rendered political leaders in the USA unfit.

Should we yield and say that we are in a post-fact era, that all truth is relative, and admit to parallel universes within which we find our own support if not comfort? While that approach would work in my personal example above, it hardly suffices when policies and decisions need be made that impact all of us.

One of philanthropy’s privileges is advocacy. Without getting into the nuanced legal differences between advocacy and lobbying, there is no dispute that advocacy for ideas is legal and legitimate. How does one do that, though, when the classic ways of doing so have been to emphasize facts: facts about health care, education, racism, food insecurity, equal access, and much more that used to make clear which policies are more credible and actionable. But what do we do when those very facts are dismissed as opinion, not convenient to an alternative truth?

It seems that there are several mutually inclusive roles for philanthropy in the face of a cynical universe- all of which emerge authentically from our historic and ascribed roles, though none is a panacea in our current reality:

1. We must continue to be society’s risk capital. Only by doing so do we create viable and demonstrable facts on the ground so that when political ethos allows, there will be evidence-based solutions.
2. We must continue to advocate. We must learn to do so in less than friendly media, in modes that are not easy for us. To speak to our friends and fellow travelers can be restorative, but not transformative. If we are to change minds and save lives, we must learn how to communicate with our foes. Philanthropy can provide some of the resources and settings to do that.
3. We must support pedagogy that teaches how to mediate among the anarchy of information. It is shocking how few are taught how to identify “fake news”, to sift through the name calling on social media, to know that one’s personal truth may be ok for you but they don’t become actionable facts, that a civil society must have parameters of acceptable discourse, behavior, and accountability, to know that civil liberties are not the whim of a given political moment but guarantees to all – including to those with views unpopular to the party in charge. And more.
4. We must align our investment strategies with our funding priorities so that all of our resources are directed to public good.
5. We must find partners to provide support to fragile organizations and vulnerable people during a time when continuing removal of such support seems to be politically expedient.
6. We must be the independent beacons of hope in a time of dystopian darkness.

Philanthropy alone cannot restore reason or civility, but we can be the constant and consistent presence that sustains its possibility for the time when it again will define us. And such a time will surely come again.

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