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A Robert De Niro Theory of Post-Truth: ‘Are you talking to me?’

In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, inhabits his own crazy paradigm, yet ultimately events frame him as a hero in the eyes of others too. YouTube

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.

Over two days from November 20, the Post-Truth Initiative will host a series of events, including an evening question and answer session on the 20th with invited guests from around the world. The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.

Many of the commentaries on post-truth have attempted to locate the sources of it. Where does post-truth discourse come from, and who is responsible for producing it?

Looked at this way, post-truth will never be found. It does not exist there. There is nothing new about politicians and the powerful telling lies, spinning, producing propaganda, dissembling, or bullshitting. Machiavellianism became a common term of political discourse precisely because it embodies Machiavelli’s belief that all leaders might, at some point, need to lie.

Lying is not an aberration in politics. Political theorist Leo Strauss, developing a concept first outlined by Plato, coined the term “noble lie” to refer to an untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or advance an agenda.

Questions about the agents of post-truth, and attempts to locate the sources of political bullshit, are just not grasping what is new and specific about post-truth. If we look for post-truth in the realm of the production of disinformation, we will not find it. This is why so many are sceptical that the concept of post-truth represents anything new. Not all haystacks contain needles.

So where is post-truth located, and how did we get here? Post-truth resides not in the realm of the production, but in the realm of reception. If lies, dissembling, spinning, propaganda and the creation of bullshit have always been part and parcel of politics, then what has changed is how publics respond to them.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of post-truth makes this clear; post-truth refers to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

The problem with ‘objective facts’

While this definition captures the essence of the problem, most academics, particularly those working in the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS), will immediately identify one glaring problem with it. This is the concept of “objective facts”. Anyone with an awareness of the work of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, or Ludwig Wittgenstein will know that facts are always contestable.

If they weren’t, public debate on complex policy issues would be easy. We could simply identify the objective facts and build policy on them.

Facts are social constructions. If there were no humans, no human societies and no human languages, there would be no facts. Facts are a particular kind of socially constructed entity.

Facts express a relationship between what we claim and what exists. We construct facts to convey information about the world.

But this does not mean we can just make up any facts we please. What makes something a fact is that it captures some features of the world to which it refers. The validity of our facts is dependent, in part, on their relationship to the world they describe. Something that fails accurately to describe something, or some state of affairs, is not a fact.

Enter ‘alternative facts’…

What about “alternative facts”? The idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most influential academic texts on the history of science. Kuhn’s concept of paradigms has seeped into public debate. But Kuhn’s notion of scientific “progress” occurring through a change in paradigm not only legitimates alternative facts it depends on them.

Each paradigm, according to Kuhn, has its own facts. Facts in one paradigm are not recognised as facts by adherents of alternative paradigms. Kuhn went so far as to argue that scientists from different paradigms lived in different worlds.

Facts, Kuhn argued, are always relative to the overarching paradigm. As such, Donald Trump and his supporters might claim to be simply occupying a different paradigm.

One can derive a similar position from Foucault’s notion of regimes of truth. Truth, according to Foucault, is relative to the regime in which it is embedded. And regimes of truth differ across time and place.

Or one can approach this via Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games”: unless one understands the rules of the game one is unable to take part. Transposed into contemporary political debate, the left and right each have their own paradigm, regime, truth, or language game.

Even if we do not accept Kuhn’s notion of paradigms, Kellyanne Conway could have meant, as she later tried to claim, that the Trump administration simply had a different perspective on the status of the facts, and a differing view of what facts matter.

Kellyanne Conway explains that White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered “alternative facts”.

Admitting the role of academia

Again, most academics will recognise the validity of this idea. There are always multiple perspectives on complex issues. The facts, as we constantly remind our students, don’t speak for themselves. Which facts are relevant, and what to make of them, is always a matter of interpretation.

Thus, post-truth finds intellectual legitimation in the necessary and critical approach to the construction of knowledge that is taken as a given in academia. Academics necessarily, and rightly, take a sceptical attitude to all truth claims.

We encourage students to express their opinion. We teach them that alternative views are to be valued. Nietzschean perspectivism is the default position of most academics, and we are loath to reach definitive conclusions particularly in ethical and political matters. Indeed, the University of Sydney now implores students to “unlearn truth”.

This idea is not as outrageous as it might sound, although taken literally the consequences of “unlearning truth”, as we are discovering with post-truth politics, could be disastrous. But understood another way, “unlearning truth” is entirely consistent with an Enlightenment ethos.

Kant’s call to arms in the service of Enlightenment was Sapere Aude; dare to know. This was a call for humanity to overthrow its reliance on the church, the monarchy and other sources of authority as providing the secure grounds for knowledge claims. Take nothing at face value, and reason for oneself.

The Enlightenment also promoted the idea of inalienable human rights possessed by every individual and revived the ancient Greek concept of democracy; one person one vote; everyone has their say on political matters. In this context, it is possible to view post-truth discourse as the radicalisation of the Enlightenment. Specifically, in the realm of knowledge production, it is the democratisation of epistemology.

While democracy might be a political principle worth defending, there is a tension between it and the democratisation of epistemology. Democracy needs a population sufficiently well educated to be able to sift through the arguments and reach informed judgements.

This was the great hope of Enlightenment liberalism, particularly in relation to the provision of education. Increased access to education would bring progress and peace. A highly educated populace would make democracy function better.

Confronting the post-truth paradox

Despite the fact that by any standards Western populations are better educated than in Kant’s time, we seem to be regressing rather than progressing in terms of democratic practice. This is the post-truth paradox. The more educated societies have become, the more dysfunctional democracy seems to be. The supposed positive link between democracy, education and knowledge appears to be broken.

How can we explain this paradox, and can we do anything about it? Although many have been quick to blame postmodernism for the emergence of post-truth, the problem is much broader than that and infects most of the humanities, arts and social sciences. Postmodernism is only the most radical version of the idea that we should value, and allow a voice to, all opinions.

The political impulse behind this is admirable. Few academics are so arrogant to claim that they possess the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Allowing others, particularly marginalised others, to express “their truth” is seen as progressive.

Although many academics will not embrace the extremes of postmodernism, the ethos behind that approach is understandable to most. This explains why what seems to many outside of the academy to be a lunatic fringe has become so influential within the academy. Foucault, for example, is one of the most cited authors in HASS subjects.

To be clear, I am not arguing that Trump and others in his administration have read the likes of Kuhn, Foucault and Wittgenstein. The problem is worse than that. It is a structural issue.

Increased access to education has suffused these ideas throughout the social field. Few people who have attended universities in HASS subjects in the last 30 years could have escaped exposure to these ideas. The incipient relativism that is the logical endpoint of them is now deeply ingrained in Western societies.

Of course, academics are not the only source of post-truth. But in an important way, they have contributed to it. When measuring our impact on society we only have two options. Either we have some impact, or we do not.

For some time now, those working in HASS subjects have been concerned to demonstrate how their research and teaching matters in practical ways to society. There is a logic to this, as governments increasingly seek to validate funding for HASS subjects on the basis of their supposed impact on society.

As the supposed guardians of truth, knowledge and the commitment to science, universities cannot have it both ways. If academics make a difference and publics no longer seem to care about facts, truth and reason, then we cannot be absolved of all responsibility for this situation. Indeed, if we do deny our responsibility, we as good as admit that have we little impact on society.

What can we do about this?

If universities are the social institutions whose function is to produce and protect knowledge and truth, and if those same institutions are, in part, the source of post-truth, what can we do about it?

First we need to recover our intellectual nerve. We need to situate critical approaches to the production of knowledge in context. We need to go beyond simply introducing students to critique and explore with them the validity of arguments. We need to be prepared to say that some perspectives are better than others, and explain why.

An embracing of multiple perspectives should not lead us to conclude that all perspectives are equally valid. And if they are not all equally valid we need sound epistemological reasons to choose one over the other. In short, we need to re-examine and reinvigorate the Enlightenment impulse.

Second, we need to recover our commitment to objective truth. George Orwell has been much cited as a prescient figure in understanding post-truth. Orwell believed: “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.”

Yet the concept of “objective truth” has not merely faded out of the world; it has been sent into exile. Few academics embrace the concept today.

This well-founded scepticism towards “objective truth” comes from the confusion between an ontological belief in the existence of objective truth, and an epistemological claim to know it. The two are not synonymous. We can retain our critical stance to epistemological claims about objective truth only by insisting on its status as something that exists but which no one possesses.

As Orwell knew only too well, if the concept of objective truth is moved into the dustbin of history there can be no lies. And if there are no lies there can be no justice, no rights and no wrongs. The concept of “objective truth” is what makes claims about social justice possible.

The irony, of course, is that most academics will claim to be doing just this. After all, most academics will have no problem in declaring climate change to be human-produced, that women remain disadvantaged in many areas of life, that poverty is real, and that racism is founded on false beliefs.

The issue is not that we all make these universal truth claims; it is that in embracing epistemological positions that tend towards relativism, we have denied ourselves a secure ground on which to defend them. In which case, these truth claims appear as nothing other than opinions, perspectives, or expressions of the identity we most value. And if academics cannot ground their truth claims on something other than opinions, perspectives or identity, then how can we expect anyone else to do so?

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