Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Know the Truth

Instinctively by Trump, perhaps strategically by Bannon and others, the Trump moment has promoted the idea that there are no facts, no reality, no authorities, no actual truth. There’s only us and them.
James Fallows ‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’ The Atlantic.
As much as I like James Fallows, I must wholeheartedly disagree with this conclusion. What the Trump moment, and broader Conservative thought has pushed back against is the idea that if there is a disagreement between "the press" and any other entity or institution as to what the facts, reality, authorities or actual truth are, then it must be the press that has it right. As much as various personalities within and commenters on the media and the press may say that the sole function of the press is to get us to facts, reality, authorities and actual truth, the simple fact that they have one job does not, in and of itself, mean that they are doing it properly or in good faith. To claim otherwise is an appeal to authority that may be wise, but is no less a fallacy for that.

What the Trump moment is instead promoted is that they are honest speakers of the facts, reality, authorities and, yes, actual truth. And that those who say otherwise are at best instinctively biased and at worst, strategically dishonest.
Do you believe that the mainstream media has been too eager to jump to conclusions about rumored stories?
action.donaldjtrump.com Mainstream Media Accountability Survey
Once you postulate that facts, reality, authority and actual truth are real and objective things that can be discovered and known, they become independent of any particular persons or institutions. And if you postulate that these things are self-evident to anyone who cares to look at them, it is easy to conclude that you can judge a person's intellect, observation and/or honesty by how they describe them.

It is a common facet of human nature to believe that "ought" can be just as objective as "is." And that one can, and should, flow from the other. We are no less likely to see what we think the world ought to be like as objective and self-evident as we are to think of our everyday reality that way. And in a society large enough to have major cultural groups operating at cross-purposes (if not direct opposition) to one another, it's easy to see how "us versus them" comes into the picture. If I control the narrative of the past and the present, I can influence what someone thinks the future should be. And we often use the present to dictate to people how to bring about the futures we want. If you see someone's vision of what ought to be as damaging to you and based on certain information about what currently is, sometimes one's first impulse is to dispute what is, rather than question the necessity of the connection. And in a regime where what is, in the form of everyday reality, is thought to be self-evident, disputing someone's account of what is lies only a short step away from questioning, or impugning, their rationality, knowledge and/or morality.

And from there, you have Us, the rational, knowledgeable and moral - and thus ready, willing and able to accurately understand the world around us; and Them, the irrational, ignorant and immoral, who see what they think they see, what they've been told to see or what they want to see in order to justify their wrong-headed, if not dangerous, ideas of what ought to be.

The problem with common conceptions of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth is that we don't often distinguish between the objective and the subjective; but we often link the two. Consider the statement, "It's cold outside today." Now consider the statement, "It's 40° F outside today." Are both of those statements facts? Let's say I make the second statement "It's -20° F outside today." Now are both statements facts? And if 40° isn't cold, but when I go outside it is, can I question my thermometer? These are the sorts of questions that we deal with day after day, as we sort our sensations and perceptions of the world into information and knowledge. Is the legitimacy of a government ever a fact? Can it be linked to vote totals? Is popularity a fact that flows from polling numbers? We know that polls can be wrong. Is "You are (un)safe," a fact?

As I understand the world, things like facts, reality, et cetera are not always truth-apt in the grand scheme of things, but only in regard to human experience. And from that comes the idea that there is no one singular, universal truth. But that is different, very different, from the idea that there no actual truth at all. (Of course, if I wanted to really meta about this whole exercise, I could ask if actual must mean singular and universal...) A worldview that posits that the actual truth must be an agreed upon item, sets us up for a conflict of truth versus lies, rather than the overlapping truths of different experiences. It is a conflict that can never be won, because unless truth only consists of items that are objective, in the sense that they are completely independent of the perceptions of the observer, different people can always honestly assert different truth. And even with objective truth, you still have the issue of incomplete knowledge - just as with blind men and elephants, partial knowledge may be mistaken for the whole.

And so I disagree with the idea that the Trump moment represents an attack on the idea of facts, reality, authorities and actual truth are real. Instead it argues against the idea that these are singular things and/or that only people outside of the moment have access to them. Kellyanne Conway's invocation of "alternative facts" as clumsy as it was becomes the first of those propositions, and the Trump moment's general disdain for media outlets they disagree with becomes the second.

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