It is becoming obvious: a large part of our population has been persuaded that all of our systems for establishing facts are tainted, biased, and/or mendacious. This skepticism extends not only to the findings of natural science, but to those of journalism, law, history, medicine, agriculture, and economics. This is an era of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” “phony research,” “hoaxes,” photoshopping and conspiracy theories. Malign intentionality is attributed to uncomfortable statements of fact, and statements of false facts are forgiven if they support our side of the battle. No statement is taken at face value, the personal is the political; objectivity is impossible, so it is a lie when anyone claims it. “Essentialism”—the claim that something is something and not something else—has become a term of abuse. The normal reaction to a statement with which one disagrees is: “he’s only saying it because…”
If one checks Ngram for words denoting veridicality and verification, some very interesting trends reveal themselves. What is clear is that the words for the process of establishing what is the case, irrespective of how we feel about it–“evidence,” “fact,” “prove,” “proof”–have sharply declined in use since the ‘sixties, while the words expressing the personal sensation of the actual—“real,” “reality,” “experience”—have increased. “Truth” and “true”, words expressing personal commitment, sharply declined after the ‘sixties, possibly because of the increasing unfashionability of religion, but in the early part of the twenty-first century there has been a sharp and remarkable rise in the use of both. It’s true for me, they say, and increasingly it’s true for us. “Reason” declined dramatically in the ‘sixties, but has made a slight comeback. Evidently we now think we have some new truths. “Logic,” oddly enough, continued its slow rise: I believe because of the increasing use of the word in the form: “the logic of,” usually with the cynical meaning of a rationale supporting a bad practice. “Logical,” however, declined. The greatest casualty overall has been the word “fact,” which, already in decline throughout the Twentieth Century, collapsed more steeply in the ‘sixties and never came back.
The loss of faith in factuality is not confined to any part of the political spectrum (or to be more exact, the political color wheel or color solid). Denial is everywhere. Here is a loose list I have compiled from recent experience in the Web.
Climate change denial
Racism (as denial of the biological fact of the equality of the races)
Sexism (as denial of the biological fact of the equality of the sexes)
Antisemitism (as denial of the biological fact of the equality of the races and of the huge cultural, economic, intellectual and aesthetic contributions made to the world by this small “tribe”)
The diversity movement (denial that there are better, and worse, cultural ways of regarding the world)
Denial that there are any benefits of the nation state (radical libertarianism, anarchism)
Denial of the systematic inefficiency and/or corruption of any state
Denials of scientific findings by the anti-GMO movement
The anti-immunization movement
Denial of the deterministic causality of many events in the physical universe
Denial of the reductive method as one way of finding the truth
Denial of emergence in the universe, and of top-down causality
Denial of the possibility of different lawful outcomes of physical causes.
Free market denial—the refusal to admit the proven benefits of free markets
Denial of the validity of the legal system, as inevitably a political instrument: skepticism of the validity of jury trial, the rights of the accused, etc
Journalism denial: the belief that there cannot be such a thing as an honest journalist
Denial of the enormous economic benefits of immigration
Moon landing denial
Denial of the value of families and marriage
The refusal by the anti-bank faction to believe in the proven benefits of banking
The gold bug belief system and other denials of the validity of a fiat or illocutionary currency
Philosophical opposition to biological and neurological understandings of human behavior
Misology: the belief that language cannot grasp reality at all
Spirit denial: the denial that the term “spirit” refers to anything
Let it be said right away that reasonable skepticism is essential not only in assessing the conclusions of fact-based inquiry, but also crucially in the discovery of facts themselves. (Scientists love to pick nitpicking holes in each other’s theories and experimental practice, and lawyers love to refute each other’s logic or grasp of precedent. And this practice is constitutive of science and law.) Some of the denials listed above may be more or less justified and may be vindicated by later study. The point here is not the extent to which the denial is itself innocently biased or strategically founded on ulterior motives, which may be the case either for the proponents of a fact or for its opponents. What is at issue, I believe, is something more fundamental: whether the establishment of what is a correct view of things is possible at all, or even desirable if it were possible.
Shouldn’t morality, ethics, override cognitive accuracy? This sounds promising, but put it into concrete cases: Shouldn’t we go on doing what is, according to our moral system, the right thing, even if the facts make such actions totally destructive? Shouldn’t we go on sending food to famine areas in Africa even when it ruins local farmers and provides warlords with a monopoly of the food supply? The experience of Communism is very alarming in this respect: make the peasants equal and starve them to death. Sow wheat in the tundra because agricultural theory is a wicked and essentialist capitalist illusion. Do we applaud or condemn the hung jury in the Cosby case, weighing two centuries of lynchings against millennia of abuse against women—instead of whether he did it or not? Out of concern for the happiness of her students, shouldn’t a professor avoid telling them the truth, lest it “trigger” their traumatic memories? But then, couldn’t one accurately describe education itself as a process of triggering?–that is, the presentation of information that was previously unknown to or denied by the student, and thus at least surprising, often shocking, and humiliating in its implication of the student’s prior ignorance?
More dangerously still in my opinion, aren’t different groups of people entitled to have their own narrative of reality, a hermeneutic system incommensurable with that of others? Why dangerous? Because the only rational behavior for such a group would be war against every other group, since in this view there is no common touchstone for agreement and basis of mutual accommodation. Their narrative might include the destruction of ours—how could we know, not sharing it? Better to get them before they get us. Pure pluralism is great in theory, but a recipe for eternal bloodshed in practice.
Clearly our capacity for compartmentalization saves us, much of the time, from a literal enactment of our denials. The phenomenologist disbeliever in the determinism and quantifications of physical science rides in an airplane which, if an enormous pyramid of scientifically-established deterministic facts were not true enough, even to several decimal points of quantification, would plunge at once to the ground. The believer in strict universal determinism uses a cellphone that would not work without the constitutive randomness of quantum mechanics. The anti-immigration racist watches the bracero fix her roof. The brilliant opponent of the institution of marriage got his clarity of mind from growing up in an intact and functioning family. The ex-Baptist atheist learned independence of mind by rebelling against a corny Baptist Dad who loves her. The closet anti-Semitic opponent of banking cashes her checks through an institution in whose absence no culture has been able to create a society larger than a village. The climate change denier moves inland. The evolution denier gets an antibiotic against a bacterium that has evolved into a new resistant species. The protectionist drives his Toyota to the Trump rally. The American Foucauldian social scientist judges the quality of a fine sake or a correct yoga pose, ignoring his own conviction that cultures are incommensurable. The vaccination denier’s unvaccinated children are healthy because all of her neighbors’ children are vaccinated. The red state’s economy is supported by blue state cities and taxes. The inevitably biased journalist’s “lies” are refuted by another journalist’s courageous hard-hitting ”objectivity.”
No. The problem now may not simply be that we are saved from our denials by our capacity to ignore them in practice, but that we may now have constructed a strange sort of justification for the rejection of any fact we don’t like. We may now be able to practice intellectual hypocrisy not only by human inadvertence, but advertedly and with good conscience.
I first became aware of the peculiar complexity of this problem during the Iraq War. I had concluded, rather late I am afraid, that it was not a good idea and that there probably were no weapons of mass destruction. I was therefore opposed to the policy on what I took to be factual grounds, and was looking for a presidential candidate of either major party—or preferably, a viable one from a third—to correct the grave mistake. What I could not understand was the nature of the accusation against the President and his team: that they were lying. It was now clear to me that many of our Iraqi allies were lying, but I did not believe for an instant that the British and German intelligence services were lying, or that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Powell were lying either.
Certainly, I was aware that when we want to believe something, evidence in support looms larger than evidence opposed or absence of evidence itself; having been down that route myself a few times, I could empathize with it in others. But I know that I was not lying in the past when I had taken as true an appealing idea that had some decent evidence for it but turned out to be wrong. I had, for instance, taken as gospel the idea that our genes determine our development in partnership with our environment, but did not know the major role that the regulatory genes and other epigenetic factors could play in producing hugely different outcomes from the same set of genes. Lamarck was, after all, partly right. I was not lying when I insisted on the determinative power of the genes: I was wrong.
And clearly Bush, Cheney, Powell, Blair, Chirac, and all the other national leaders were wrong too. But not (necessarily) lying. I felt that it would be ungenerous to the people who were making the accusation of lies that they were simply cynical, that they knew that their enemies were sincere, and wanted to paint them as evil rather than stupidly naïve. If so, the critics would have been lying themselves, on a matter just as important as the original mistake. What had happened, I realized, was that the word “lie” had changed its meaning.
So they must have been meaning “lie” in the (new) sense of “a sincere belief in a wrong fact, motivated by a corrupt point of view,” or something similar. In other words, it is the moral disposition of the person that determines the truth of what they say, not necessarily the evidence or reasoning by which they arrived at it or whether they actually believe it. The moral disposition of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, etc, was evil and thus anything they said was a lie, even if they believed it, with evidence. They would be saying the same thing even if they didn’t believe it, and so we might as well condemn them for lying anyway, even if they didn’t feel that what they were saying was a lie.
But if “lie” had changed its meaning, “truth” must have too. And here, as I tried to work this out in the following years, I had the help of a brilliant comedian, Stephen Colbert. His coinage, “truthiness,” was, I think, profound in two ways, one that he intended and another, even more important, that he didn’t.
The first of the two meanings of “truthiness” is the nature of something that sounds true but isn’t. It describes the attempt to dress up in all the robes and accouterments of truth—apparent evidential support, institutional décor (like the impressive furniture and equipment of the newsroom), the scientist’s apparently innocent objectivity, the power suit, the vocabulary of the blunt policeman, the polysyllables of the scholar, the judicial verbiage of the court system, the more-in-sorrow-than-anger nobility of the patriot, the pose of the hard-hitting honest reporter—something that ain’t so. Colbert hit this perfectly with his new word.
But the point of “truthiness” in this sense is that it hijacks the prestige of the existing system of factual discovery and factual explanation. Hypocrisy, said La Rochefoucauld, is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The truthy liar at least knows that there is a truth and what it might sound like, and may even respect the critical truth-creation process that she mimics. She steals, but she is not under the illusion that she really owns what she has stolen.
The other sense of “truthiness” is more alarming. What if truthiness is truth? Think of a star defense lawyer, whose genuine duty it is to make the most convincing argument possible for a defendant whom he knows is guilty as sin. For a sophisticated jury, he will use subtle psychological or philosophical or sociological arguments; for an ignorant and naïve jury he will revert, like Johnny Cochran, to the ancient authority of rhyme: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” But what if the attorney, winning case after case, has been at it so long that he has now convinced himself that the verdict actually creates its truth, retroactively, so to speak, and he, the lawyer, must disbelieve his own lyin’ eyes? Since the personal is the political, and everything is in framing and context, and framing and context are determined by society, and society is determined by economic interest, and economic interest is determined by the construction of knowledge, and that construction is determined by coercive power, and coercive power comes from the support of the coercer’s followers–the only alternative to something that is truthy is something that is even truthier.
Our defense attorney has now crossed a threshold. He is now no longer a hypocrite. He is a pragmatist. If the appurtenances of truth actually work and socially construct the reality, maybe they’re not fake after all? Maybe rhetoric determines truth, and logic and evidence are the handmaidens of rhetoric, to be used or not according to the moral demands of the moment. The god of the gaps will take care of the holes.
How did we get here? The story I have to tell is one that will not please many people, especially those on the Left who are well justified in their outrage against the blatant contradictions of the Trump regime. For it was the Left in the first place that supplied the philosophical weapons that are now being used against it (and against the old Right too). As Marx put it: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Thesis 11.) Fox News is the perfect incarnation of the idea of the social construction of reality. Its method is deconstruction, and its ideology is the Foucauldian concept of the regime of power and knowledge. And the other network media are now trying to catch up.
Go back to the baby boom and the G.I. Bill, when millions of Americans went to college for the first time in their family’s history. Universities and colleges, forced to expand, were desperately seeking faculty. The humanities and social sciences still possessed enormous prestige, and they seemed easier than “plastics.” So those disciplines went through a wild and sudden expansion in the numbers of their participants. But they only seemed easier than science and math. Many people first entering the arcane mysteries of literature and the foundation-questioning disciplines of historiography and sociology—both students and their new faculty—naturally felt a certain resentment at having to abandon their family and folk traditions of knowledge and belief. I was teaching them myself at the time, and the reaction was clear. In self-defense many adopted the pose of revolutionaries against the dead white europhallogocentric capitalist male hegemony. After all, that hegemony had tried to draft them into that horrible war—what allegiance did they owe to Western Civ? For at the same time Lyndon Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War, using all the rhetorical skills that he was also employing to bring about racial equality in the South. The left, largely (and ironically) imported from Europe, as the anointed victor over Nazism and fascism, provided the intellectual muscle; and the methods of mass persuasion, used so well by Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, all of them self-described socialists, provided the method.
As the new generation matured, its heroes deconstructed, one by one, the traditional sources of certainty. Herbert Marcuse undermined the traditional idea of liberal toleration as a means to reach the truth by debate (see his astonishing essay “Repressive Tolerance”); Ken Kesey trashed our trust in psychiatry; Rachel Carson made farming an ethical problem; revisionist history made us cynical about any kind of history; Timothy Leary questioned our sense of reality; Marshall McLuhan made us redirect our attention from the message to the medium; Evelyn Fox Keller made science relative to gender; Thomas Kuhn historicized science, and Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour undermined the idea of scientific objectivity; congressional districts were gerrymandered to satisfy moral claims against racial inequality; Stanley Milgram showed that rational dissent from evil is a minority trait in human populations; in anthropology departments cultural differences were treated as determinative of reality; race, after having been rejected as a criterion of worthiness in favor of the “content of one’s character,” rose again as the epitome of identity politics, relativizing all speech to the color of one’s skin; and then we had Jacques Derrida, attacking any kind of signification, and Paul de Man with his radical defense of dishonesty.
Now much of this process was probably necessary and even beneficial in the long run: the acid of radical critique, if it cleanses only the dross from the true metal, is of great value. But if it eats the metal, then we are in trouble. We do well to inspect ourselves severely, lest we tell untruths–whether from ignorance, well-meaning bias, a desire to accommodate ourselves to our set, or stubborn hatred of our perceived enemies. But if all we have to give our children is a bunch of negative injunctions against any kind of belief in fact, we should not be surprised if they believe anything they want to believe or that serves them to believe. I speak of the generations who are now coming into power, the children and grandchildren of the boomers. For many of them the éclat of being in on the conspiracy theory and the reputation for originality that comes with lockstep contrarian orthodoxy outweigh any sense of the need to get things right.
The saddest thing to me is the loss of that old western tradition of liberal, playful, and friendly tolerance of opposing views. The free speech movement is now the property of the bigoted right, and the impulse toward enforced fascist groupthink that of the radical left. Instead of the Sproul Hall steps we have safe spaces.
Lacking any veridical and cognitive means of establishing reality, where might one go to find something reliable on which to base one’s actions? Two other means of evaluative judgement exist: the aesthetic and the moral. In fact the aesthetic is defensible as a basis: it is the way that scientists choose to concentrate on one theory over equally plausible and evidence-based one. The fact that the sun and stars rise in the east and fall in the west could, I suppose, be a coincidence—there is no counter-argument against it being so. But the Ptolemaic system is much prettier, and the Copernican system prettier still, and the Einsteinian one yet more so. Einstein maintained that his account of the precession of Mercury was so beautiful it must be true.
But America’s puritan heritage and deep habit of thought would not tolerate the aesthetic as a way of judging what is real. So the only basis left is moral. America is an admirably, even sometimes unbearably, moral nation. Of course—and here is the problem—morality can have the most horrible consequences. Consider Himmler’s speech to the Einsatzgruppen:
Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.
If reality is what the Führer says it is, then Himmler’s morality makes sense. But what if we had a better reality in mind?
And so we had what was called, around the turn of the century, “the political turn” in critical theory. Thinkers such as Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson, building on the ideas of such figures as Jürgen Habermas, Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and the deconstructionist opponents of “totalization,” “essentialism,” and “foundationalism,” argued that objective truth was unattainable, and given that it was, revised the goal of scholarship and pedagogy from what is true to what is socially beneficial and morally imperative. “We see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature,” says Rorty. What if our decision about what is the case were based on the moral sentiments of disgust and tenderness themselves, the “human weakness” of Himmler’s unwilling murderers? Unlike the Nazis, we have the right morality, and why shouldn’t it determine reality, since all attempts at fact are doomed to bias and contextuality?
Naturally, it would be as well at first to clothe this goal in the robes of truthiness and the appearance of logic and evidence. But a whole generation of teachers, as the new gospel filtered down from the elite universities through the teacher training colleges and the high school faculty lounges, gradually eliminated the veridical middleman and taught us that, basically, our judgement of reality and of the correct course of action should be based on two things: a moral “ugh!” factor and a moral “aww!” factor. The “ugh!” factor (now often called “triggering”) applies to anything that does not fit our feeling of niceness, and the “aww” factor applies to anything morally cuddly and sweet and nice. Trump is ugh and baby seals are aww. Racism is ugh and pink hats are aww. Or in the small Midwestern high schools: evolution is ugh and unborn babies are aww.
I do not here mean that racism and Trump and creationism should be respected, but that there are better reasons for disrespecting them; nor that baby seals and pink hats and unborn babies are not good things, but that there are excellent objective arguments for the importance of species preservation and women’s rights and birth control that are not particularly ugh or aww. Nor do I mean that Hume was wrong when he showed that moral distinctions could not be derived from reason, and that moral sentiments (aww and ugh) are an essential part of moral decision. Aww and ugh are the fuel; but reason is the steering wheel, and some objective sense of where the road is and what the obstacles are is, to say the least, desirable. Germans felt aww about Horst Wessel and ugh about Jews. We used to feel ugh about gays, and now we feel it about homophobes—now that we really do know better.
And so here we are, in the midst of a political revolution where lies are systematically promulgated and swallowed with every evidence of pleasure when they support our side—often, I believe, when part of us suspects that they are as much lies as those of our opponents. Perhaps we have even begun to enjoy our own side’s lie as a connoisseur, as being a more ingenious and deadly blow than the one we just received from the enemy. The narrative becomes more interesting than the factual events it recounts, and with a little tweaking the events can be changed if the narrative is attractive enough.
Of course, one side—the Right, or perhaps we should rather say Trump’s strange amalgam of Leninist/Mussolinian/Chavezian/Putinian protectionist oligarchic nationalism—has been distinctly worse than the other: better, that is, at the game of lies. Not that the Left has not struggled manfully to keep up. But the weapons both sides use, and the condition of veridical defenselessness both sides suffer and exploit were, alas, to a large extent the invention of the Left. When the economic and political contradictions of socialism seemed to have been decisively revealed by the great experiment of the Cold War, the Left did not give up but went on to attack the fundamental structures of rationality, evidence-gathering, and factuality themselves, as preservers of white male western straight privilege, in the hope that capitalism, now without factual foundation, might collapse and leave the field free for social justice. Instead, the more monopolistic and nationalistic of the capitalists themselves, and their supporters on the right, merrily adopted the fact-free view of the world and proved themselves more adept at using it than their teachers.