Excerpt: 'Philosophical Essays on Free Stuff' by Robyn Ferrell
Paige: Eastwood Hotel, Rotherham, 2012 (CC)
The declaration of “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year hailed an extraordinary, some would say preposterous, change in the conduct of political discourse.
We might have expected a contest over political truth. But over the plain truth as shown in photographs? When a CNN interviewer queried the size of the crowd at the Trump inauguration, advisor Kelly Ann Conway denied the numbers were smaller than those for Obama several years earlier, despite the evidence.
She referred instead to the President’s use of an “alternative fact” in his claim the crowds were largest ever. Said the CNN interviewer: “Isn’t an alternative fact a falsehood?”
“Comment is free but facts are sacred”, wrote the editor of The Guardian in 1921. The slogan appears over the comment page on the paper’s website. But the Oxford Dictionary defined post-truth as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
As the Dictionary noted, the word had been increasingly in circulation in the lead up to Brexit and to Donald Trump’s presidential nomination. It was “fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment.” Post-truth enters the lexicon as a function of the rise of populist politics in the US and Europe.
There is irony in a dictionary, repository of reference and a source of authority for the truth of meaning, adding a word like “post-truth” to its lexicon. And the term entered originally as irony it seems – in reporting this, The Guardian referred to the Dictionary’s citation that the first time the term “post-truth” was used was in a 1992 essay by Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world”.
Careless speech, ignorant speech, outrageous speech and outright lies were previously the province of the alt-right fringe, but what was shocking in 2016 was its move into the mainstream of political language. But living in a time of acute fragmentation of perspectives, or even in a time of extreme manipulation of popular opinion, is not the same thing as being in an era when nothing is true. Some things can’t perhaps be determined to be truth or lies, as corresponding to anything, because they apply to future events. The rhetoric of Trump and other political promises has traded on this.
The predicament that Trump put to his audience was the anxiety that he would not keep his promises over against the anxiety that he would. If we are post-truth, so that the politician’s promise is not the point – “he only said that stuff to get elected”, as businessman Gerry Harvey put it following 2016 US election day – then what is the point of the genre? The chaos imagined to be unleashed by a politician shamelessly foisting the world of post-truth on the public discourse has caused great outcry. And yet, perhaps, greater outcry at the possibility when he did move to keep promises – to ban muslims, to build a wall with Mexico, etc etc.
There was a breach of trust in bank bailouts and imposed austerity measures for the democratic citizens of many countries in the wake of the GFC, forced to pay as they saw it for the speculative excesses of elites. Post-truth became a proxy for the fear that “you will never know the truth”, as in “they will deceive you”, “they” will keep it from you, and will deny the self-evident. Post-truth is a proxy for the fear of being deceived and for the conviction that, whatever they say, you will be made to pay. This is because politicians lie, even the most plausible of them, and even the ones you are inclined to trust.
President Obama came to be regarded as one of these. The misfortune for Obama was that, for all his inclusive eloquence, history gave him the task of putting a radically inequitable financial system on taxpayer-funded life support within weeks of inauguration. His slogan of “Yes we can”, his message of hope, was trashed in this bail-out of the banks in the global financial crisis, however much that action was defensible and even essential in terms of “saving the world” from itself.
It probably wouldn’t have worked to let the banks fail, it certainly would have inaugurated a post-capitalist moment in which apocalypse would be visited hardest on ordinary working folk. But because the bullet was dodged, nobody gave credit for the precipice that the free world had been coaxed back from, and all they could see then was what they had lost. The jobs, the houses, the savings. Obama was mugged by reality. His legacy might be regarded as one in which the hazards of political rhetoric met the corruption of the real world in a head-on collision. While he succeeded in saving the furniture, he didn’t get to abolish inequality as his rhetoric had promised. If Obama had a problem, it was that he was too good a speaker. His oratory, however sincere, now suffers from the taint of sophistry. And then, it might also be said, his silences suffered from too much tact. What he didn’t say did the damage as well as what he did.
Trump, as the reality-TV president, was the paradoxical beneficiary of public disenchantment. The voters punished Obama not with a vote for a more moderate ambition but with a leap into magical thinking. Possibly the outright fraud of the GFC and its aftermath is in large part responsible for the hollowing-out of faith in truth, fact and public discourse. Ordinary citizens paid for the excess of finance – in Greece, in the US rust-belt, in the north of England – and saw they were picking up the tab for others richer than themselves. This was the point at which the self-evident truth seemed to people to be that they were being dudded. And it is galling to have politicians deny what seems as plain as the nose on your face.
That the citizenry should lose faith in discourse is a high price for a nation to pay for this failure. Destructive post-truth paradoxes have included the recourse of people to wishful thinking in their search for truths they can believe. The demagogues see their moment – the people’s disappointment at being misled causes them to prefer outright lies.
But the equivocal nature of truth shouldn’t obscure the obvious. It is possible to demolish a lie, if you have evidence and vigilant courts. It is much harder to take the wishfulness out of a half-truth, especially if it talks about the future that offers itself to lazy thinking as “anyone’s guess”. People accept the scandalous fabrications of Trump’s untruths – the “birther” slur, for example – precisely because they are scandalised by what they have been led to believe by more sober orators that has turned out to be so far from the truth.
Writing about totalitarian states in her epic study Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observed: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”
The very prefix “post–” that makes post-truth such a scandal, can be seen to have been growing horns and a tail for the previous thirty years.
The Oxford dictionary pointed to an expansion in meaning of the prefix. “Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match” – it has taken on the meaning of “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”. The nuance originates mid-20th century, they write, and has been used in various formations including post-national (1945), post-racial (1971) and post-feminist.
Some of this could be sheeted home to academic versions of European Marxist philosophies being garbled into tall tales of relativism. Post-structuralism was devised in scholarly circles to label a kind of social theory that described a conceptual move following from structuralism. That move highlighted the way that contrasts could be differently arranged in any array of terms and in so doing change the meaning. This theory emphasised perspective but leading proponents were misread as relativist. Foucault and Derrida were especially the targets of Anglophone philosophers with their own views on common sense. This grew into an ill-informed McCarthyism that took a xenophobic approach to reading another tradition.
The post-structuralist philosophies in the original were not relativist but perspectivalist, aiming their challenge at the simple scientistic model of truth that had dominated empiricist traditions. Science itself had been re-evaluating the model at least since Heisenberg and quantum physics. But reported to the wider world from the academy in a garbled form, the assertion of relativism alarmed conservatives because it erased the self-evidence of traditional meanings and particularly of social meanings. Historical social change was already overwhelming the old certainties; what the huge forces of industrialising had begun the impetus of globalisation accelerated. Populism blamed the messenger.
But the post-prefix by itself was well designed for the populists’ scandal. It became itself a signifier for change. This was even more evident in the notion of the post-modern, which came to stand in for post-structuralism although it was not in fact a synonym. In the popular discourse about the frightening pace of change, “post-modern” really captured something. The idea that we were already beyond the modern suggested we had already surpassed the present before we had properly arrived at it and this must mean that we were “getting ahead of ourselves”. This disturbing temporality of the post- prefix generally fascinated the commentariat.
Post-truth has become the latest hysterical cry in the face of an implausible progression. Post-truth is an ingenious compression of many sleights of hand. It has coalesced out of the imagined fear of the “future present”, and of these foreign philosophies – Marxism, feminism and identity politics – that were denying the apparently obvious.
Post-truth is a journalistic construct, and a good example of the rhetorical shift in political discourse amplified by social media and digital disruption. The associative slide from post-war to post-modern to post-truth loses referential directness until all it carries of the prefix is the connotation. No serious philosophy contends that there is no longer any such thing as truth. But the ineluctable complication of the notion in the face of the presence together in the public space of different languages and cultures has led to a re-think. Now at the same time as observing the perspectival character of all statements, the new thinking affirms how styles of expression have greater, not less, probity than previously thought.
“Legacy” journalism, with its protocols of independent reporting of facts and authoritative comment or opinion has been overwhelmed by media of another order. As the populist turbulence of 2016 played out, it became clear that it was not just that print media has been eclipsed by cheaper on-line distribution.
It was the loss of authority of the traditional “editorial environment”, previously so significant to the success of the leading mastheads in the days when they led opinion and advertising followed. Now as social media takes on more of the news dissemination, the tail is wagging the dog.
The concentration of press ownership, and the aggressive use that some proprietors have been prepared to make of it, had already reduced the prospects for an independent-minded journalism that might protect the fourth estate. Now the habits of social media change the value of free speech. Not only is mainstream media losing its revenue base to social media at a dizzying rate (in 2016, the operating profit of The New York Times fell by 13%, to $51.5 million while Facebook’s net income tripled in the same period to $1.51billion, as Guardian editor Katharine Viner reported.) Social media is imposing, through its business model, a wholly different driver of influence. The “like” and the “click” is overtaking the traditional editorial curation of opinion-makers and even of media-owners in setting the agenda of news.
Despite the hope for the internet as a cultural commons, social media has disrupted practices of rights and democracy. The growth of the citizen journalist, the blog and the You-tube video hasn’t done much for freedom of the press. It seems the process has been hijacked by a concentrating of corporate interest greater than the feared traditional media ownership that cross-media rules have tried previously to offset.
Katharine Viner reports that a former specialist in high-traffic viral stories for Gawker, Neetzan Zimmerman, has said: “Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it.” The modus operandi of social media now defines the field: “If a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news.”
The tailored news feeds and feedback loops in chat rooms on social media sees a fragmenting of the public sphere in a way feared by defenders of free speech. The filter bubble is now dictating news. It crystallises the antinomy between serving the market and retaining a free press as an organ of democracy. The importance of reportage uncovering unpleasant facts in an imperfect world becomes greater not less.
There is a difference between creating deceptive information to persuade people to vote otherwise than they would have (“I will bring back your coal mining jobs”) and the political “puff” rhetoric that inclines toward a different kind of future – “make America great again”; “Take Back Control”. Beyond the filter bubble, the extremity of the like/click business model delivers fake news, stories designed purely to get attention and traffic onto websites by gaming the algorithms of the social media platforms.
The content of fake news may have been manufactured out of speculation, prejudice and wishful thinking (lying about what took place in Aleppo, covering up what took place in the hacking of Democratic servers or in the bedroom of a luxury Moscow hotel) and the cynicism of those who produce it is egregious. But lying is not new to the species. The fraud, the set-up, and deceit are all enduring threats to the public interest, as they have ever been. Before social media, deceit and cover-up were still possible perhaps even more possible. The promulgating of misinformation has been part and parcel of politics since the Trojan Horse.
What is new is the leveraging of a thousand tiny preferences into a tsunami of falsehood on social media.
When it occurs in law, as the Racial Vilification Act, political correctness becomes a kind of bureaucratic action, which may explain why it is bracketed with other modern evils like “red tape” in the smear of “bureaucracy gone mad”.
But “political correctness” as a charge against political discourse stands for more than labels and correct speech. The social ill that PC language addresses – bias against minorities especially bias against sexuality, gender and race expressed in ordinary language – presents speech as a kind of action and not as something distinct from it.
This view of language arises from post-structuralist and semiotic theories of language, picked up by the progressive side of politics as “identity politics”. It focusses on the marginalising of gender and race, rather than on class conflict. It has had as one of its effects the pitting of working class people against “others” that they are chided to make space for.
Some cite political correctness as a cause of Donald Trump’s election win, saying that the apparent favouring of minorities in this concern angered those parts of the electorate who were feeling the pain of job losses in the “de-industrialised” rust-belt of the US. And certainly, the loss of a world that the retreat of manufacturing has brought on, both there and in the North of England ahead of the Brexit vote, is a visceral cause of despair in those areas.
Although political correctness, then, has been aimed at enhancing or promoting equality, its directives are received as overruling a kind of class politics in favour of “others” who then receive preferential treatment. It is also experienced as a form of bureaucracy, appearing autocratic and a challenge to individual freedoms including free speech. Stalin is mentioned; Orwellian “double speak” is invoked. Inclusive language gets on the one hand lumped in with other bureaucratic measures like positive discrimination that become pejoratively described as “social engineering”. On the other, its artificiality groups it with political spin and types of public speech that have a quite different intent, a consciousness of language that is heard as “weasel words”, and which may smell of propaganda, cover-up and fraud.
These unfortunate tendencies have driven anger against social inclusion, and characterized political correctness as somehow in conflict with liberal freedoms, especially free speech, with its wholly different concept of what speech is to the democratic process.
Politically correct language may or may not have worked to repress robust discussion around immigration policy in the Western democracies now feeling a populist backlash. But on the ground, political correctness has collided with the consequences of free trade and increased immigration. The higher visibility of people from minority ethnicities in workplaces, or of women in positions of authority and LGBT couples celebrating their unions has been conflated into a resentment against political correctness. There are several different policy landscapes behind this increased visibility but they are lumped together in an effect that recently has been perceived by some not to benefit them. And yet political correctness is felt to shame anyone complaining about these changes.
Take Brexit as a case in point: The surprising referendum result seemed to build not on economic arguments about membership of the European Union, but sentiments about a loss of precedence for old-style Anglo male majorities in a world ruled by edicts from elsewhere. There was undeniably a degree of xenophobia in this sentiment, which was fueled by the rhetoric of the “leave” campaign. And while the “destiny of a sovereign nation” was invoked as pretext, the referendum to decide on whether Britain should leave the European Union was held largely for party-political purposes to outflank the radical right of the Tory party for the group of moderates trying to keep control of it.
The move spectacularly backfired when it collided with the agitprop of a populist mood that sold a kind of magical thinking to a disenchanted constituency – the pilloried “sunlit uplands with unicorns”. And in the wake of the vote, the struggle within major parties –and particularly the governing party of Conservatives who had by that point lost their majority in the Commons– was more and more nakedly about what would protect their political interest rather than any view of the public good.
It could be seen from a country mile that “no-deal” Brexit was likely to vandalize the economy, and hurt worst those who had been most susceptible to the “leave” pitch about taking back control from politically-correct elites – the working people and retirees who had suffered under austerity mandated by the fall-out of the Global Financial Crisis. And yet, no figure emerged from the right or the left that could take the situation out of the paralysis of a parliamentary democracy stymied by the consequences of the populism it had stirred up.
At bottom, the resentment was justified, perhaps, in protesting an unequal distribution of wealth; it only misidentified the culprits as the minorities who were championed by the political correctness of a certain kind of speech.
The prospect of the political sphere as in any way open to the future – or even to those people already born but not yet of voting age – became obscured in the xenophobic mood. If democratic representatives genuinely thought ahead, to the world of strangers to come and with what we should wish to welcome them, the short-sightedness of this politics would be clear. There would be a view from which this myopia is bordering on corrupt. Sadly, that vista looks destined to be seen the 20/20 of hindsight.
Why Free Speech
The post-truth phenomenon, the advent of fake news and the opprobrium of political correctness is more disturbing because of the scale on which it could attack the credibility of politics and the public discourse that supports it.
The guarantee of free speech is made in liberal democracies across the “free world”. At common law, there has long been a “negative” right to freedom of speech, constraining others from obstructing it. In Europe, free speech is explicitly guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified by all member states. It was taken into British Law by the 1998 Human Rights Act, Article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”.
In the US, free speech is famously guaranteed in the Constitution by the First Amendment, adopted in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.
The first amendment begins with the guarantee of religious freedom because it is at the hands of religious authorities that settlers originally felt the coercion of authority on ideas and their expression. It sets the context for free speech as one in which truth and belief are close cousins. The Europe of the eighteenth century emerged from medieval practices of “revelation” of truth, including torture, toward a conviction that there was an impartial truth that could be recognised by reasonable people as evidence-based and true for any observer. The conviction went hand-in-hand with enlightenment values in Newtonian physics and the experimental method of the physical sciences. In parallel, the political consensus to be found in a democracy was thought to emerge from the ability to express ideas and to discuss them with each other – the right of association was similarly regarded as essential to the democratic process.
“Those who won our independence … believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth” as Justice Brandeis eloquently put it, dissenting, in Whitney v. California .
Attempts by authority to constrain this freedom, by restricting what could be said when and to whom, were regarded with suspicion; the right has been jealously guarded. As the singular way to establish truth in the political community, the defending of free speech grew in importance, and jurists of the early twentieth century expanded the application of the first amendment in the US, extending it to more situations than it had been held to affect in the nineteenth.
The virtue in having “the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think” lies in the potency of ideas shared for the viability of political community. The seriousness of this imagined forum was underpinned by an assumption of sincerity, of a close bond held between truth and belief. Is it this bond that has come loose?
The perfect democrat was a philosopher, a lover of truth, but as the politics of enlightenment has matured and aged, this Platonism shows signs of wear. Actually, twentieth century political history shows that people believe a thing for many reasons other than its truth – because they want to believe it’s true, because it looks familiar to them, because it seems likely or plausible, because it is said by someone they know and/or trust. Philosophy is replete with warnings against “invalid reasoning”.
And then there are the less respectable reasons – because something is amazing, unlikely, sensational or scandalous. Because it offers an easy answer, or a way not to answer, a quick fix, a pretext or an alibi. Because it makes things previously believed more likely. Because it is too frightening to entertain the alternative. And so on.
The point of the forum of free speech is that it’s meant to measure plausibility, and average out the reasoning. It proceeds on the principle that “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. But in the closed forums of social media perhaps you can.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Distinguishing speech from action, as the liberal traditions do, tends to an oversimplification. It overlooks the existence of kinds of speech that are held even in the notion of free speech to be actively dangerous, or leading to special harm. For example, it is actionable at law to sue where one is defamed, because what is said about a person matters to their reputation, and indeed forms it. It has been illegal in wartime to discuss certain information widely – “loose talk costs lives”.
The UK Human Rights Act lists kinds of speech which may be circumscribed on the grounds that it may be damaging; the right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas, but provides a long list of restrictions to protect interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or morals, protection of the reputation or the rights of others, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence and maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Law itself is a powerful counter-argument to the liberal assumption that speech is opposed to action; both legislation and the opinions of judges are potent forms of speech that become a kind of action. It follows that some speech can cause harm, and that political correctness despite the opprobrium addresses a real issue for the democratic polis.
None of the provisions of the Human Rights Act, much less of the American constitution foresee a world in which the value of free speech is being undermined by discounting the value placed on the truth of it, or challenging the self-evidence of this in public life.
Of course, as they famously say, “in war the first casualty is truth.” But here, the threat to free speech is imagined to come from an authoritarian repression of it. It is not anticipated in the law and practice defending free speech that it would be encroached on by the trivialising of it.
Propaganda was the new weapon of authoritarian states in the twentieth century. But the democratic nations of Europe, the Commonwealth and the US, accepting their radical distinction as countries of “the Free World”, were perhaps blind to threats to free expression that might come from another direction.
The excising from the ambit of “freedom of speech” of statements “done for the purpose of making a profit” was compromised by the back door in the Supreme Court decision that allowed political donations by corporations to be regarded as a form of free speech (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 2010). In a regressive line of thought, and using the fiction of corporate personhood, it was held that paying a representative to speak for you is a democratic right that companies as well as individuals can claim. The result has been an increase in lobbyists, special pleading and rent-seeking that influences the conduct of democratic processes under the protection of “freedom of speech”.
Not all expression was traditionally accorded the status of free speech protected by the first amendment. A class of representations made in public places and addressing the populace was not regarded as political at all. The provisions that exempted “commercial speech” from the operation of the first amendment are perhaps now worth a second look. Those provisions provide that if an expression is “speech done on behalf of a company or individual for the purpose of making a profit” then it is not protected in the same way.
This “commercial speech” has not been recognised as presenting a danger to political speech. And yet, it is precisely speech made for purpose of making a profit that has evolved to inject rhetoric into the political discourse at the expense of impartial truth and, further, to create the circumstances in which propaganda can rival it. What else is fake news?
The blindsiding of democratic discourse came from the conviction that motivated speech was the opposite of impartial speech, and that propaganda would be forced on a people only by autocratic authority. But we see that a culture of marketing, with its manipulations of affect and its appeal to wishfulness, propagated in a landscape of social media, might compel assent from the populace like the fear of authority did in the totalitarian state.
Propaganda was the weapon of authoritarian states in the twentieth century. But the democratic nations, accepting their radical distinction as countries of the “Free World”, have been blind to threats to free expression that might come from another direction. Since the Supreme Court decision of Buckley versus Valeo (1976), money talks. Several further cases of the court have extended the protection of the first amendment to campaign funding by corporations and wealthy individuals.
We don’t perhaps see the political import of marketing or “commercial speech” because we don’t appreciate that truth in the guise of information has become a marketable commodity, and how power takes effect sometimes through truth. Yet this paradox has flourished in the “post-truth” and “fake news” intrusions into recent political discourse. Now we need to look at the drama occurring off-camera.
It works for the “alt-right” that relativism should prevail, although they bitterly denounce it – if truth is relative, then reality can be left to happen as inequality, and even as fraud, unchecked. By reality is actually meant “economic reality” which, in the context of this “post”-moment, is the only grounding of a truth, the only thing that emerges as credible; “it’s the economy, stupid”, “the bottom line”…
The loss of probity in language does not prevent the structures of value from operating in favour of the “real world” of economics. The beneficiary of this slide into relativism remains the flow of global capital that continues to make money whatever happens.
Power is being stolen from out of the public sphere in this evacuation of meaning, siphoned off into the value-creation of the economic which emerges more and more as the only solid indicator of reality that is trusted. Facing this prospect will call for a changed understanding of the power of language and the defence of free speech.
Excerpted from Philosophical Essays on Free Stuff by Robyn Ferrell Copyright (c) 2021. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.