Categorized | Europe, US, World

The End of Truth

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Truth and Democracy have always had a troubled relationship, but perhaps never as troubled as now. From Plato’s Noble Lie to Kellyanne Conway’s Alternative Facts, there has always been a tension between the presentation of an objective truth and the exercise of political power. Michael Ignatieff, himself an academic turned not particularly successful politician, mused that this is why academics generally make such poor political operators. Nevertheless, there is a cruel irony in the fact that at a time when knowledge is more abundant than ever before, the truth is such a contested issue.

This can be seen everywhere in the democratic world. The madness of the recent Presidential election has sparked talk of the “Post-Truth” age, but these issues go back further than Donald Trump. The preponderance of 9/11 conspiracy theories showed the widespread lack of trust in government from both the left and right, while the anti-Obama birther movement illuminated the well-established relationship between racism and lies. On university campuses, there are groups so convinced of their own notion of truth that they refuse to allow dissenting voices. Meanwhile, in the UK Boris Johnson has reached the height of power despite spending his earlier career peddling a litany of proven lies about things like straight bananas or balloon bans for children. Where people stand on issues of objective truth split increasingly down partisan lines. Even by the end of Obama’s term, many polls showed that a majority of Republicans still believed that Obama was a secret Muslim and/or was not born in America. Across Europe people routinely overestimate the number of Muslims in their country by 300% or more. These are issues which can be examined objectively with relative ease but yet have became hotly contested battlegrounds. So what is at the root of this issue?

The forces behind this are nearly impossible to untangle as they reinforce and amplify each other. The partisan nature of many media outlets hardly needs to be mentioned. This has generally been prevalent on the right, with Fox News and the Daily Mail having mastered the selective use of facts. The Daily Mail splashes the front page with stories of benefit cheats and jihadis while relegating the murder of a sitting MP by a white nationalist to page 30 while Fox News has long abandoned the appearance of impartiality expected of TV news networks.

In the midst of liberal handwringing over the election of Donald Trump, American liberals have also begun to indulge in some of the fake news promoting and conspiracy theorising for which they have long mocked the right. Desperate to believe the worst about Trump, people are turning to talk show hosts like Rachel Maddow and Twitter celebrities like Louise Mensch for comforting stories which seem to show the President’s impending impeachment. Although the current scandals swirling around the administration may well bring down Trump, at this stage many on the left look like Glen Beck with his chalk board. This is perhaps an understandable instinctual response, but it is not a helpful one.

Counter-intuitive as it may be, as the plurality of potential news sources increases the public’s exposure to alternative ideas seems to decrease. Social Media algorithms, the availability of like-minded communities and the wide availability of partisan alternative news sources have conspired to create echo chambers in which dissenting voices can be blocked out. This allows organisations like Breitbart to safely muddy the truth or tell outright lies. It has long been understood that people seek out news which confirms rather than contradicts their previously held notions. This may explain why people who no longer believe the word of the FBI or Justice Department are willing to believe Steve Bannon or John Oliver. In the internet age, this building of echo chambers is easier than ever. Indeed, as Eli Pariser has persuasively argued in ‘The Filter Bubble’, it is almost impossible to avoid.

Another driving force behind the contested nature of the truth is the division of society along a variety of identity-based lines, which works with our polarised media landscape to reinforce the vicious cycle of adversarialism sweeping across much of the democratic world. LGBT rights activists willing, perhaps with good cause, to believe the worst of the Trump administration have been caught out by fake news. However, it is from the other side of the political divide that the most worrying examples come from. Although many people have been keen to focus on the economic factors involved in the Trump election, it is undeniable that racial identity played a role with white voters at all income levels voting for Trump. This is not a new factor in US elections, but a newer and more ominous development is the fact that issues of racial and religious identity skewed the public’s understanding of basic facts. Philip Klinker’s analysis of the American National Election Study has shown that the single best indicator of whether someone is a Trump voter is a positive answer to the question ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?’ combined with the fact that they are white. Various other polls have shown strong correlations between support for Trump and explicitly anti-black views, including the belief that non-whites are less evolved than whites. This does not just show the twisting of the truth through the prism of party politics, but the much more sinister role of religious and racial resentment in how people view the world. These kinds of splits between identity groups are anathema to the functioning of multicultural societies. Furthermore, this harms everyone, as in-group/out-group thinking can drive violence on both local and national levels.

The truth itself may be an abstract concept, something which always has and always will be slippery. But the current approach to facts, both within the media and the public at large, is a fundamental threat to the functioning of democracy. Thomas Jefferson believed that ‘Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.’ Yet despite the preponderance of knowledge in the world, can a society lacking in an agreed standard for truth really be considered a functioning democracy?

Image courtesy of scattered1

Daniel Shaw

About Daniel Shaw

Daniel Shaw graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Politics, and has worked as a researcher in the public sector. He currently lives in Shanghai, where he struggles artlessly to learn Chinese. On dark stormy nights he writes horror stories and in the clear light of day he writes about politics. He is hoping to study for a PhD in Global Security.

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