Fake news. Alternative facts. Post-truth politics.
Three issues that dominate much current discussion, all connected to new anxieties about how we can distinguish truth and falsity, and all seemingly linked to the election of Donald Trump as US President. Trump’s election victory was, for many, fuelled by a wave of fake news. His proclivity to lie, for instance about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, has been reframed by his advisor Kellyanne Conway as the acceptance of ‘alternative facts’. And many argue that Trump’s Presidential victory reveals that we live in an age of ‘post-truth politics’ in which, for large sections of the electorate, facts have become irrelevant in the making of political choices.
All three are significant issues. But the ways in which we think about them are often misguided, helping obscure rather than explain the distinctiveness of contemporary politics.
There is, as I argued in an earlier article, nothing new about fake news. From HL Mencken’s invented account of a crucial battle in the Russo-Japanese war, to the publication by Henry Ford of a series of articles about a global Jewish conspiracy based on the forged ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, to the lies about the Hillsborough tragedy, to the stories, published worldwide, about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, lies masquerading as news are as old as news itself. What is new is not fake news, but the purveyors of such news.
In the past, governments, mainstream institutions and newspapers manipulated news and information. Today, anyone with a Facebook account can do so. Instead of the carefully curated fake news of old, there is now an anarchic outflow of lies. Just as elite institutions have lost their grip over the electorate, so their ability to act as gatekeepers to news, defining what is and is not true, has also eroded.
If fake news is not new, neither is the idea of ‘alternative facts’, though its history is much more complex. Donald Trump’s claim that more people attended his inauguration than any previous one was patently false. What was revealing was not just the lie, but also the defence of it. In suggesting that the false claim was an ‘alternative’ truth rooted in ‘alternative’ facts, Kellyanne Conway was drawing on a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals not to lie but to challenge the power of established truths by insisting that what constitute ‘facts’ or ‘knowledge’ is always relative to a particular context or group.
Philosophers call this claim ‘epistemic relativism’: the belief that the distinction between truth and falsity is rooted not in an objective reality but in differing social conventions, and that there are many radically different, incompatible, yet equally valid ways of knowing the world.
Epistemic relativism has gained academic popularity in recent decades, particularly through postmodernism. Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult concept to define, but at its heart is a hostility to the Enlightenment project of creating a universal outlook from fragmented experiences, of giving coherence to our observations of the social and natural world. Since no human possesses a ‘God’s eye’ view, postmodernists argue, so every human can speak only from within a particular perspective, a perspective informed by specific experience, culture and identity. ‘Truth’ is necessarily local, and specific to particular communities or cultures.
As academic theory, such ideas may seem obscure and abstruse. Nevertheless, the idea of knowledge as relative has gained wider social purchase, from the claim that women have distinct ways of thinking to the embrace of ‘alternative medicine’.
One reason for this has been the willingness of many sections of the left to adopt a relativist perspective. Once, the left embraced the universalist vision of the Enlightenment, a vision that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world, from anti-colonial struggles to the movement for women’s suffrage and the battle for gay rights.
Today, though, radicals are more likely to decry universalism as a ‘Eurocentric’ project. Enlightenment ideas, many argue, grew out of a particular culture and history. They speak to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Peoples outside the West have to develop their own ideas and values from their distinct cultures, traditions and needs; and not just non-Western peoples, but different social groups within Western nations, too, from blacks to women to gays.
The acceptance of such views has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of identity politics in recent years. It has gone hand-in-hand, too, with a more subjective view of the world: the belief that how we perceive the world, or feel about it, is as valid as how it actually is. It has, for instance, become widely accepted that racism can only be defined by the victims of racism. Others insist that the ideas of a rainforest shaman are not fundamentally different from those of a laboratory scientist, because, as the philosopher Sandra Harding puts it, ‘All knowledge systems, including those of modern science, are local ones.’
There is nothing progressive in the rejection of universalism, or in the embrace of relativism, or in the elevation of the subjective over objective. Each can be useful in specific circumstances, but each is also deeply problematic as the foundation of a worldview. Relativism and identity politics may have, in recent decades, been adopted by sections of the left, but they are fundamentally conservative outlooks. They emerged in the late eighteenth century in the conservative reaction against the Enlightenment, and were central to the worldview of racial thinkers, who insisted that different racial groups had different cognitive abilities and were motivated by different values.
What is new today is that the right – especially the reactionary right – has begun claiming back its own ideas. The ‘decisive question’ for the twenty-first century, insists Alain de Benoist, founder the Nouvelle Droite in France, is whether people will ‘find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?’ Jean Marie Le Pen, the neo-Nazi founder of the Front National in France appropriated Benoist’s idea, insisting that ‘We not only have the right but the duty to defend our national character as well as the right to difference’. Too many on the left have in recent years been drawn to the idea of the ‘right to difference’ as a progressive value; today they find reactionaries wielding it as an ideological battering ram. The so-called ‘identitarian movement’ – far-right groups openly espousing the politics of identity – now has roots in many European nations, from Austria to France.
Their equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic is the ‘alt-right’ which, in the words of its leading figure Richard Spencer, ‘is all about identity’. Whites, Spencer argues, have distinct cultures, values, beliefs and ways of thinking, which must not be diluted through immigration or mixing. The Trump campaign, according to Spencer, ‘was the first time in my lifetime that an identity politics for white people was on the scene’.
When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard, or that the aim of the postmodern left was, as it is for Conway and Bannon and Trump, to make lies acceptable. It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativised views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas. It is also that, having spent decades promoting relativism and the politics of identity, the left is in no position to challenge the identitarian right.
What of the idea of the ‘post-truth’ age? What is striking about our age, as the historian Daniel T Rogers has suggested, is not that there are no truths, but that it appears saturated with ‘truths’. The trouble is, many of these ‘truths’ have little more meaning than ‘this is what I believe’ or ‘this is what I think should be true’. We seem to be living in an age of myriad truths, each competing with each other, each insisting on its own veracity, the purveyors of each refusing to discuss or even acknowledge any other ‘truths’.
Scientific truths, provisional though scientific knowledge necessarily is, correspond roughly to the world as it is. Political and moral truths are different. These are ways of thinking not just about the world as it is, but also about the world as we wish it to be. Politics relies not just on facts about the world but also upon ideological frameworks through which to interpret facts, frameworks that help define the kind of world we wish to live in. And because these frameworks embody contradictory visions of the world, politics rests also upon a willingness to have a public dialogue and debate, a readiness both to listen to others and to scrutinise our own beliefs, an openness to accommodate others and to change ourselves. It is the erosion of such willingness and readiness and openness that now gives us a sense of living in a ‘post-truth’ age.
In the past, political frameworks were constructed largely out of the ideological divide between left and right. There were, of course, many variants of both. But what each provided was a different ideological lens through which to look at the world, interpret the same facts differently and come to different conclusions about policy.
Today, those political frameworks have fragmented and are shaped more by identity than by ideology. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world is defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘American’ or ‘black’. And when people talk of ‘liberal’ or conservative’, these are seen as cultural identities as much as they are political viewpoints. Political struggles divide society across ideological lines, but they unite across ethnic or cultural divisions. Struggles rooted in cultural, ethnic or religious identity inevitably fragment. What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is true in identity struggles.
As a result of such social changes, Rogers observes, ‘The very idea of politics as an act of deliberation, by which people with inevitably different desires and starting positions must work something out, must find their way to a destination that none may have imagined before, is devalued.’ On issues from globalization to global warming, all sides cling to their view as the ‘truth’, refusing to engage with ‘alternate’ views. Truths, as Rogers puts it, simply ‘slide past one another without contact points’. This is not so much a post-truth world as a world of too many disengaged ‘truths’. A world that is simultaneously both too relative and too absolute.
Fake news, alternative facts and a sense of a post-truth world are all symptoms of a deeper malaise, all linked to a more fragmented world in which the fragments are less willing to engage with each other. Until we begin to address the more fundamental problems inherent in the erosion of universalism, in the rise of identity politics, and in the creation of more fragmented societies, any solutions to tackle the symptoms will most likely only make matters worse.