Friday, February 10, 2017

Post-Fact World

Of late we've been hearing that we live today in a post-fact, post-truth world. Milo Yiannopolis, the conservative bad boy loathed by campus liberals, said “We live in a post-fact era and that is wonderful.” I must politely disagree, not with the first part of his assertion which is, I say it with irony, factual, but with the second. It's not so wonderful at all, IMO.

Facts matter because truth matters, but the subjectivization of truth, most obvious in the frequently heard claim that "What's true for you isn't true for me," has made it difficult to hold onto the concept that there actually is any objective truth about most things that really matter. The conviction that there is is so yesterday.

One manifestation of the loss of a belief that truth is objective, and that it matters, is the apparent eruption in recent months and years of "fake news" stories.

Daniel Payne at The Federalist lists sixteen "Fake News" stories in the major media just since November, all of which were false or misleading, but which were repeated thousands of times on social media before the truth came out. Here are some of them:
  • Spike in Transgender Suicide Rates
  • The Tri-State Election Hacking Conspiracy Theory
  • The 27-Cent Foreclosure
  • The Nonexistent Climate Change Website ‘Purge’
  • The Great MLK Jr. Bust Controversy
  • Betsy DeVos, Grizzly Fighter
  • The ‘Resignations’ At the State Department
  • The Big Travel Ban Lie
You can read the details of each of these stories along with the rest of Payne's sixteen at the link.

Of course, if we're living in a post-truth era, it may largely be due to the fact that our media and our politicians, most notably Mr. Obama and even more egregiously, Mr. Trump, seem to live in a world where facts don't matter at all. As Peter Pomerantsev, in an essay at Granta, pungently observes, what's different today is not merely that we're living in "a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not."

Pomerantsev places much of the blame on the postmodern mindset:
How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).

Maurizio Ferraris, one of the founders of the New Realism movement and one of postmodernism’s most persuasive critics, argues that we are seeing the culmination of over two centuries of thinking. The Enlightenment’s original motive was to make analysis of the world possible by tearing the right to define reality away from divine authority to individual reason. Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ moved the seat of knowledge into the human mind. But if the only thing you can know is your mind, then, as Schopenhauer put it, ‘the world is my representation’.

In the late twentieth century postmodernists went further, claiming that there is ‘nothing outside the text’, and that all our ideas about the world are inferred from the power models enforced upon us. This has led to a syllogism which Ferraris sums up as: ‘all reality is constructed by knowledge, knowledge is constructed by power, and ergo all reality is constructed by power. Thus . . . reality turns out to be a construction of power, which makes it both detestable (if by “power” we mean the Power that dominates us) and malleable (if by “power” we mean “in our power”).’

Post-modernism first positioned itself as emancipatory, a way to free people from the oppressive narratives they had been subjected to. But, as Ferraris points out, ‘the advent of media populism provided the example of a farewell to reality that was not at all emancipatory’. If reality is endlessly malleable, then Berlusconi, who so influenced Putin, could justifiably argue, ‘Don’t you realize that something doesn’t exist – not an idea, a politician, or a product – unless it is on television?’

To make matters worse, by saying that all knowledge is (oppressive) power, postmodernism took away the ground on which one could argue against power. Instead it posited that ‘because reason and intellect are forms of domination . . . liberation must be looked for through feelings and the body, which are revolutionary per se.’

Rejecting fact-based arguments in favour of emotions becomes a good in itself. We can hear the political echo of this in the thoughts of Arron Banks, funder of the Leave EU campaign: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’ Ferraris sees the root of the problem in philosophers’ response to the rise of science in the eighteenth century. As science took over the interpretation of reality, philosophy became more anti-realist in order to retain a space where it could still play a role.
This sounds about right to me. The postmodern view of objective truth - that it's an outdated holdover from the failed Enlightenment habit of placing too much epistemological confidence in Reason - leads us to the place where a postmodern philosopher like the late Richard Rorty can assert that "Truth is whatever your peer group will let you get away with saying."

If one's peer group is the media then there's a pretty broad spectrum of things one can get away with saying, no matter how fantastical, as long as those things are critical of political opponents. Unfortunately for Rorty and his definition of truth, though, his own peer group, philosophers, didn't let him get away with defining truth that way.