In Partial Praise of Post-Truth Politics

In an odd way, political events of the last few months reminded me of the Cumbrian floods of 2009.  During this episode, news reportage showed endless footage of various political figures looking serious but sounding upbeat as they promised comprehensive relief and future protection.  The visible background of endless unexpected water, and the political background of the recent financial crisis, belied these claims somewhat.  Watching one such display my dad, with uncharacteristic frustration, suddenly exclaimed ‘I just want a politician who says “I’ll do what I can, but just look at it I really can’t do much right now”.  It’s a moment that’s stuck with me, largely because opportunities to remember it aren’t in short supply.

The EU Referendum, the Labour Party Elections, and the popularity of Donald Trump have all developed in somewhat obviously weather-esque manner – fickle, all-consuming, seemingly beyond human control, and altogether just making me just want to stay in bed with a pillow over my ears.  But what struck me was the similar string of endless, visibly, unrealistically over-optimistic promises from all sides.  But this time something was, apparently, different.  So great were the inaccuracies of these promises and the divergence of ‘facts’ presented by each side that we are now, it is claimed, living in a new ‘post-truth era’ of politics.

 

But how new is this, really?

For me (along with, I suspect, many sociologists) the idea and wording of ‘post-truth’ brought to mind the concept of ‘postmodernism’.  Postmodernism is notoriously hard to summarise, but roughly it is as an intellectual movement which rejects any notion of a single universal right answer.  It’s not alone in that,[1] but postmodernism is distinctive in taking a pretty Big Picture view.  Where (for example) moral relativists ask specific questions like ‘how can someone decide ritual murder is universally wrong?’, postmodernist writers talk about how whole societies come to believe notions like ‘progress’ or ‘expertise’ are universally true.  There have been some major difficulties with the postmodernist turn of thinking.  As I’ve written about elsewhere (as have other more interesting people[2]) postmodernism arguably fostered a self-indulgent approach to writing, stronger on showing the author’s erudition than welcoming readers into the conversation.  Following a series of spats across the last few decades of the 20th century postmodernism (or ‘pomo’) has become a dirty word amongst many public intellectuals.  This is unfortunate, given the issues involved; I’ve heard postmodernist writing described as ‘playful’, a worrying description for authors dealing with systemic oppression and the harms caused by our fundamental inability to find common reference points for talking to each other.

But I do think they were on to something. Aside from its more extreme examples of rhetorical or moral difficulties, I think postmodernism does argue something really important for our day and age: you can’t just strip away all the ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they’ or the ‘it’s media bias’ or ‘Twitter echochambers’ and get at some core of truth underneath it all.  You can’t say a situation is ‘because capitalism’ or ‘because immigration’ – the answers will change depending on where you look, how wide a view you take, what you focus on.  And they don’t somehow average out to one true answer.  Sure, there’ll be little factual nuggets buried in there – even Twitter can’t change what Jeremy Corbyn had for breakfast this morning.  But things only become valuable or useful when embedded in contexts.  To give a simple example, whether 2+2=4 is ‘true’ would be a pointless argument in a non-numerate society.  And context is the complicating bit.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t condemn outright lies, or deny that the real world has any value – in George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith’s most powerful act of defiance is holding up two pairs of fingers against The Party’s assertion that two plus two is five.  But I’m going to argue that public debate shouldn’t be so strongly geared around trying to produce ‘truths’ for things that, if everyone is honest, cannot be given a single truth.

 

Politicians can’t produce the truths they claim to produce.

Let’s start with the wearily predictable example of that claim made during the referendum campaign that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU.  Pedantically, it’s obviously untrue.  It’s a suspiciously round number for a start.  And when we consider the amount of variation which needs to be averaged out, the number and scale of assumptions, and the uncertainties in all the ‘I suppose this benefit is probably worth £x to the economy, ish…’ calculations, the difficulties of coming up with a single ‘true’ figure of how much we send to the EU are vast.  I expect that all calculators, relayers, and receivers of this claim would probably accept that.  But the problem goes deeper than inaccuracy.  The ‘truth’ would depend on the time window you bounded it by, the people asked to do the analysis, which information which happened to be used for input, and much more besides (including the ‘truths’ claimed by every single prior analysis that this analysis built on).  That doesn’t seem a particularly singular truth to me – more a product of decisions, which could have produced a different answer.  For balance, the same can be said of Remain’s claim that UK families would be £4,300 worse off if we left.  Or non-numerical[3] stuff like Tony Blair’s counterfactual history in which ISIS appears even without an Iraq invasion, or who exactly crashed the economy in 2007/2008.  And any large economic, political, or social question – or anything that actually matters to people’s lives.

I’m not saying these sorts of investigations shouldn’t happen, or that results shouldn’t be reported.  Orders of magnitude and trends are still useful.  But they’re rarely the whole story.  To give a non-political analogy, think of how much sex people are having.  Once you’ve done that, think of surveys thereof.  You’ll probably accept that the results are as much to do with people systemically exaggerating or downplaying how much sex they’re having (depending on gender, generation, social views…) as they are to do with frequency of sexual activities.  We could spend lots of time arguing about what the numbers should be.  Or we could spend some time doing that, and some time discussing the more valuable questions buried within all the above.  Does it seem that inaccuracies are more likely to be exaggeration or downplaying?  Did that shift, and when?  How does it vary between populations?  And what does it say about social values, the things society encourages and discourages?  These are not simply corrections; they are important discussions that reveal a lot about what people want, fear, or value.  Those discussions, I’d argue, haven’t been given as much campaign time as the narrow ‘you’re WRONG’ ‘no YOU’RE WRONG’ interchanges.  What might it have looked like if those wider discussions had been allowed?

 

‘The Truth’ is a powerful tool for dismissing people

I’d argue that[4] focussing on questions of establishing The Truth quickly narrows down the possible scope of debate – the EU is or isn’t a net economic contributor to the UK, immigration does or doesn’t have net benefit for the UK, and so forth.  This risks being pointless, as the UK doesn’t vote – individuals vote, and they most likely have their own views on whether immigration is good or bad for them already.  Trying to tell them their truth is wrong isn’t likely to do much except polarise; but trying to present alternative truths might open up debates further.  Imagine telling that sex survey respondent ‘there’s no way you’re having that much sex, I’m putting this lower figure’.  Now imagine telling that same respondent ‘thanks for that. That’s quite a lot of sex; just to let you know that people I’ve surveyed before have said trying to sustain that amount of sex made them unhappy in the long run.  So keep an eye out for that’.  It doesn’t deny the respondent’s truth; it accepts it and presents them with another one they might not have had otherwise.

Analogously, Remain’s time could maybe have been spent re-formulating the immigration question so it becomes ‘you feel negatively impacted by immigration, so let’s talk about how we our plan for dealing better with its impacts, a plan which BTW would be helped by us staying in the EU’.[5]  Or perhaps coming up with a less vague expression than ‘we’ll lose our place at the table’ (not convincing to people who don’t like the table anyway) – some way of giving us an insight into another truth about what it’s actually like being at that table, and another truth of what their job will be like if they’re not at it any more.  A truth that isn’t immediately accessible to other people, but is reconcilable with our experiences of being or not-being at various tables.  Something that challenged those claims of ‘we would get all the Sovereignty’, not by saying ‘no we wouldn’t’ but instead by exposing the simplistic vagueness, naïve positivity, and irresponsible over-optimism of such a claim.  Or outside the EU issue, the general election claim that ‘trickle-down economics means tax breaks for the wealthy mean everyone will definitely be better off’.  Or pro-Trump claims that a man with his, erm, forceful personality will obviously be great (just really great) at all Presidential jobs – Clinton’s campaign seems to have moved towards the ‘is that really realistic’ approach recently with some success.  But this, I’d argue, isn’t just an alternative spin tactic.  It’s an acknowledgement that in politics things are ‘wrong’ because they’re harmful somewhere, not just because they’re inaccurate.

 

My Partial Praise of Post-Truth Politics

My overall point: We should not value a public debate which even tries to give unambiguous answers to basically unanswerable questions.  Instead we should value a less precise but more realistic form of honesty, with more nuanced claims which are open about the lack of ‘answers which will be 100% right for everyone’.  This is optimistic: in our current media landscape there’s a huge risk of a dishonesty arms race in which those prepared to ‘ignore uncertainties’ (to put it euphemistically) win at getting their claims accepted more widely.[6]

But for now, the rise of post-truth politics need not be seen simply as a damning indictment of the dishonesty of politicians and the gullibility of voters.  Instead, it acknowledges that politicians and experts do not hand down ultimate truths to the blank minds of an uncertain public; they speak to people who already have their own truths, brought about by a combination of life experiences and personal values.  This is not simply some annoying barrier of ignorance or prejudice.  This is symptomatic of that really deep problem, of how we live with and for one another when our lives are so incomprehensibly different.  Like postmodernism, post-truth politics could turn this deep problem into an important shift in thinking.  So unlike postmodernism, let’s make it make this shift a wide, welcoming, and positive one.  Value people who understand what it’s like to be hit by a flood; value people who understand what it’s like to be tasked with stopping a flood; don’t value people who simply claim the floods will be stopped.  That’s the very best way to ensure they won’t stop ever.

 

 

[1] See also relativism and some branches of social constructivism.

[2] For a view supportive of this kind of writing, see this piece by Judith Butler

[3] For these examples, the decisions become things like ‘does a stronger Al-Qaeda basically count as another ISIS or are the differences significant?’ or ‘how far back should we trace the casual chain of crashing the economy, lest we say it was the fault of the Universe for existing?’.

[4] You’ll notice this, and many other sentences in this and other posts I have written, would probably be improved by removing such acknowledgements as ‘I’d argue’.  That this would be an ‘improvement’ is, again, not a universal truth but part of a problem with our cultural expectations of how people should write, read, and argue.  Or that’s what I’d argue, anyway.

[5] I’m aware that theory is much much easier than doing that in practice – nonetheless, this programme gives an interesting insight into the decisionmaking processes behind the Remain campaign, which does suggest they were convinced that accurate economic reportage would win it

[6] Again, this is not a universal truth; it is entirely possible to envisage a cultural revolution in which caution and self-criticism become greater values than snappiness of soundbites.  But I see little evidence of that occurring. Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband seemed to have tried this approach with little success, though personally I’d have more respect for Jeremy Corbyn if he directly acknowledged the criticisms that he lacks personal leadership skills, rather than default to his ‘facts’ that everything is ok because Labour won x in council election y etc. etc.

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2 Responses to In Partial Praise of Post-Truth Politics

  1. Matt Bonner says:

    Interesting post as always. This is a problem I’ve been grappling with for a while. Is it possible to find “capital T” Truth in something as messy and complicated as politics – or life in general for that matter? It’s nice to know there’s an entire academic movement tackling this, even if it is an apparently discredited one. If you have any further reading on this topic I would love to hear about it.

    • Thanks Matt, good to hear. It should be noted that my views of postmodernism would not be shared by many in the academic community (esp humanities and social sciences) – my view is very much shaped by my interests in natural sciences and academia-in-public, which have arguably been postmodernism’s weakest points. Ian Hacking is very good and clear on the major postmodernist writer Foucault, e.g. in this http://www.nybooks.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/articles/1981/05/14/the-archaeology-of-foucault/ . Or Lyotard’s very influential 1979 piece ‘The Postmodern Condition’ (including Fredrick Jameson’s intro) is clearer than some later stuff https://www.abdn.ac.uk/idav/documents/Lyotard_-_Postmodern_Condition.pdf. The OUP Very Short Introduction on Postmodernism is also pretty wide ranging, perhaps more focussed on artistic influences than academic influences but it’s useful to see how those fields are related. Postmodernism is a bit like a weird language, you start by understanding very little of the writing and then start to get the hang of it by a weird unconcious process. Happy to chat further!

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