Post-Truth Politics?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

3forkedtongue-150x150Still reeling from the unexpected outcome of the US presidential election, commentators understandably have begun diagnosing the political and intellectual condition of the country. One assessment that has been gaining traction especially among Left-leaning intellectuals is that, in electing Mr. Trump to the Presidency, the United States has embraced a “post-truth” politics. Though quickly becoming a predominant theme of political commentary, as yet the term does not have a unified meaning. Arguably, it refers instead to a several related but distinct phenomena. But if the term is going to serve any useful diagnostic function, it is necessary to disambiguate its central uses.

Most commonly, “post-truth” is employed to mark the fact that apparently a large segment of the electorate holds that although Ms. Clinton's alleged dishonesty disqualifies her for office, Mr. Trump's dozens of demonstrable lies, deceptions, and whole-cloth fabrications are acceptable, if not positively admirable. That is, our politics has become “post-truth” in that lying and dissembling no longer necessarily count against a politician. But when one regards lying as disqualifying only for one's political opponents, one reveals that one's concern isn't really with truth telling at all. One is appealing to truth in a strictly opportunistic way.

A second deployment of “post-truth” is closely related, though more radical. It concerns the newfound force of unrelenting denial. When caught in a lie or fabrication, Mr. Trump's leading tactic is to flatly deny that he ever said the lying or fabricated thing that, provably, he said. This goes beyond President Bill Clinton's infamously tortured semantics concerning “the meaning of ‘is'.” Here, Trump embraces the view of Humpty Dumpty, whose words mean whatever he at any moment declares them to mean. When meaning is fixed wholly by the speaker's will, what the speaker has said is no long evaluable by anyone but the speaker himself. Hence our politics is post-truth not only in that lying, and even asserting falsehood, is conceptually impossible. There could be no such thing as lying for those who, like Carrol's egg, refuse to be mastered by words, even by their own words.

A third and more distal usage concerns the organized construction of an alternative information environment that reliably delivers to political consumers commentary and news items explicitly designed to confirm their pre-existing political opinions. The current predominance of news outlets that overtly brand themselves as pitched to those with particular political leanings signals a “post-truth” era in that such outlets thrive on the denunciation of the very idea of unbiased journalism. According to producers and consumers of alternative news, all news reporting presupposes a set of substantive political commitments. The difference between CNN and Breitbart is simply that the latter owns up to that fact, whereas the former attempts to disguise it in a shroud of fake journalistic integrity. As Mr. Trump and his many of his supporters frequently claim, the Press is “dishonest.” By this they mean not merely that the Press slants the news according to their own political commitments (which is itself not a criticism, since on their view, that's simply what reporting is); the charge of dishonesty is aimed at the Press's portrayal of itself as offering raw information, news that is not adulterated by any particular political point of view. According to this usage, our politics is “post-truth” in that we have given up the illusions of politics-free information and perspective-less facts. It is only with such illusions in place that terms like “propaganda” and “slant” have an intelligible contrast term. In a post-truth environment, we're all propagandists; the problem is that some are dishonest enough to deny that.

Finally, there is the simple challenging situation one finds oneself in when trying to simply inquire as to what the truth of some controversial matter is. “Fact checkers” on the various sides of the issues report conflicting results. For every debunking, there is a debunking of the debunking. And according to the various sources, so many people have pants on fire, it's amazing anyone has any pants at all. And once one's taken on the cynical view of reporting we'd identified as the propagandistic view, it's difficult to even see most others' commitments as little more than the product of their political affiliations, not reflective of evidence or the facts. The trouble is, if it's true of everybody, it's true of us, too. The result is far from a healthy skepticism, but rather a kind of intellectual nihilism. The trouble is, the nihilist just keeps plugging away with the game of keeping tabs on the opposition and criticizing them, but once it is clear what the game is, it's no longer clear what criticism is by the nihilist's lights.

It is hard to know what to make of these phenomena. Indeed, it is hard to know how one might go about addressing the question of whether the phenomena in fact obtain. Surely some of Mr. Trump's supporters still hold that his lies are criticizable and that there is a distinction worth making between news and propaganda. Such supporters might simply have reasoned that in the intrinsically comparative political judgment among candidates, Trump emerged as the better choice. Yet even if one supposes that these four phenomena are in play, there remains the question of how they could be remedied. What argument or reason could possibly count against post-truthism? All argument, reasoning, and criticism presuppose some conception of truth. So what could be offered in defense of that very presupposition?

In Philosophy, there is a familiar distinction between internal and external criticism. When a claim is criticized from an external perspective, the critic attempts to show that the claim fails to satisfy some criterion of success that he himself imposes. External critics hold their targets to standards supplied by the critic himself, external criticisms are commonly met with counter-charges of question-begging. And this is surely the response to expect were one to offer an external criticism of post-truthism. To simply assert that indeed there are politics-free facts is to invite the counter-assertion that the very idea of a politics-free fact is itself a covert assertion of a political viewpoint, one that the post-truthist rejects.

What remains, then, is internal criticism. The internal critic attempts to show that his opponent's view fails to satisfy some desideratum that the opponent herself embraces. Accordingly, the gold standard for internal criticism is self-defeat. That is, one ironclad mode of internal critique is to show that the opponent's view is inconsistent with itself. To get the flavor, imagine the simple-minded relativist who asserts that “no statement is objectively true.” This claim is commonly offered as a critical maneuver against some proposed candidate for an objectively true statement. The trouble is that the simple-minded relativist's claim is self-defeating, as it itself purports to express an objective truth. So if there is a version of relativism that is internally coherent (an open question in Philosophy), it can't be simple-minded. The trick for the sophisticated relativist is to figure out a way to deny objective truth while also preserving relativism's critical edge.

A similar line of internal criticism can be launched against the post-truthist. Recall that those who embrace the post-truth phenomena tend to offer post-truthism as a critique of the status quo. As we saw, the denial that Trump's lying is objectionable substantially blunts the critical force of the claim that Hillary is “crooked.” The same goes for the tactic of denial; if Trump's unrelenting denials are exonerating, the same must go for any other persistent denier. Insofar as these varieties of post-truthism affirm anything, they lose their critical edge.

Matters differ somewhat with respect to the alternative media and intellectual nihilism. If anything, the difficulty here is more severe. “Alternative” news runs centrally on uncovering and publicizing the biases alleged to be driving the mainstream news media. But this activity draws its critical force from the tacit presupposition that news media are supposed to be unbiased. However, if post-truthism prevails, there is no such thing as unbiased reportage. Consequently, it's not clear what critical force there is in exposing the biases of a mainstream media outlet. To put the point in a different way, the practice of exposing bias derives its critical edge from the implicit claim that the exposing party is itself offering an unbiased objective assessment of its target. But if the post-truthist holds that there is no unbiased perspective, then her perspective is simply another expression of bias. It is not clear how the clash of biases amounts to anyone being exposed or debunked.

The same goes for the intellectually nihilistic version of post-truthism, since the view is supposed to be that those who think that there can be proper inquiry and evidence are either naïve or shills for the powerful. The view has its critical force in unmasking something that had been hidden. But if the nihilist is right, it itself cannot be in any better position to make such a critical point.

And there's ultimately the rub. Although frequently presented as a means for speaking truth to power, cutting elites down to size, and shredding the pieties and practices that serve the interests of Washington politicians, post-truth politics ultimately has no critical force at all. Or, rather, it renders us all defenseless against the will of whoever happens to have power.