Monday, December 3, 2018

The Truth lies not always in the middle

Epistemology is one of those ivory tower words you don’t expect to hear people using in everyday conversation. It’s usually limited to those who study philosophy, and is associated with people like John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Not a word for the breakfast table.

But the world has changed. Americans are now arguing amongst themselves over what to make of Donald Trump and the polarization of Americans into two antagonistic camps that his election has exposed and exacerbated. His political base follows him blindly, evangelicals turning their eyes away from his moral failings, arguing that whatever his personal peccadillos, he’s an agent for positive change. People on the other end of the spectrum are arguing over whether to try to impeach him or ignore him completely and focus on what makes his enablers tick. I sit with this latter group. I’m convinced all this analysis of Trump is a waste of time. We are studying the symptoms of a social illness when we should be studying the sickness itself. And that sickness has to do with the way we have surrendered the distinction between fact and fiction, the very kind of thing with which epistemologists occupy themselves.

To give an example, why is it some people classify belief in God as a kind of knowledge, while others say it has to do with imagination, and not knowledge at all? Why limit knowledge to empirical knowledge, they ask, to the knowledge of things that can be demonstrated to be true. What about intuition? What about faith? They're not about knowledge, say the rationalists. Yes, they are, say the poets and religionists. At least the poets know they are playing with imagination. Religionists – of the fundamentalist authoritarian type, at least, can’t – or choose not to – see the difference.

Another word that has moved from the esoteric into regular conversation among people given to tossing interesting ideas around is meme. Richard Dawkins coined meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as a way of talking about ideas that spread from person to person, society to society, not unlike the way physical characteristics spread from one generation to another by means of genes.  Race can serve as an example. Somebody came up with the notion of race; it caught on despite the fact it has no scientific basis, and became a real thing of tremendous significance. People began assigning human beings to racial categories – black, white, brown, yellow and red – establishing a hierarchy, usually with white on top, black on the bottom, assigning social features, like intelligence, to them, creating an entire universe of interconnected notions – all little more than fanciful concoctions. We think we know what race is; we certainly act as if we did, but when push comes to shove, and we explore the foundations of the concept, we find there is no there there.

We’re becoming increasingly aware of how the media, with their need to “market” information (and thus focus on trickery, violence and anything outrageous) have been suckered by the man John Stewart refers to as Fuckface von Clownstick into keeping him the focus of “Breaking News.” He has figured out that in this age of celebrity worship, if you can get people to pay attention to you, you’ve got a base of support you can work from. It doesn’t matter whether they’re saying good things about you or bad; it matters only that they are talking about you. People remember your name long after they forget whether what they heard about you is good or bad. And in this age of tribalism, once they’ve signed on to you, and identified themselves as one of your tribe, it’s the tribal loyalty that matters, not the morality of the tribal leader.

People on the left still cluck cluck over the fact that many of the bold assertions made by Clownstick and his minions have no basis in fact much of the time.  Quite to the contrary, they are proven false as fast as they’re spun out. But instead of being given credit and appreciation for exposing lies as lies, you sit and watch his loyalists turn around and insist they are truths, clutch them to their chest as bits of wisdom which serve the tribal interests of the leader. He who is quick to label the products of good investigative journalism as “fake news” is simply playing with the various memes of the modern age which collectively constitute the tribe’s epistemology. The tribe has its own set of beliefs, statements which, although they do not correspond to truth, believing them (or at least claiming to) serve the political interests of the tribe.

This playing fast and loose with facts didn’t begin with Trump. Fox Network was set up for the express purpose of reporting news and information with a right-wing slant. Which would not have been a problem if it had indeed been just a question of slant. The problem is, they are known to broadcast downright misinformation, and their viewers have been shown to come away actually knowing less than people who don’t watch the news at all. More recently,  in this Trump age of fake news is that the right wing has expanded the Fox effect and gotten bolder about claiming the opposite of the truth: that they are the purveyors of fact and the mainstream media, is the source of “fake news.” When your followers evaluate your pronouncements in terms of political utility to the cause, rather than in terms of factual accuracy, you can say pretty much anything and call it “fair and balanced” reporting.

And here’s where the issue of epistemology gets really interesting. Big Tobacco discovered years ago they didn’t have to actually admit that nicotine was harmful; all they had to do was convince the average smoker that “the facts aren’t in.” People who wanted to smoke were willing to take a chance that the glass was half full, that maybe a cigarette now and then wouldn't hurt. Think positive, they said. Things will turn out all right. All the tobacco corporations had to do was withhold the facts they had uncovered even in their own laboratories and the willingness of their addicted customers to believe what they wanted to believe would do the rest. Today these same liars-for-hire are working to claim that global warming is a hoax. Big oil and other polluters only need to claim “scientists disagree.” They don’t need to reveal what everybody knows, that climate change is a reality. Those who want to believe them will believe them. Tribal epistemology again. 

As much as fair-minded folk and much of the media like to suggest that our problem is between two conflicting mind sets/consciousnesses/tribal epistemologies, it’s more accurate to say that while both sides see things through arbitrarily selected lenses at times, and often tell their stories with a slant, the so-called “leftist” media actually gets it right with far greater frequency than the rightist media does – not because their tribal interests are liberal but because their tribal value includes a greater respect for objective fact and for a scientific orientation to truth as something to be discovered, not something to be proclaimed and “testified” to because “in your heart you know it’s true.”

A friend just pointed me to a May 2017 Vox article by David Roberts, which still has current relevance – on what he calls “tribal epistemology.” Which, let me repeat, reflects the fact that we’ve divided ourselves politically and socially into mutually antagonistic tribes, each with our own theories and beliefs about how the world works. The way tribal epistemology works can be illustrated this way. Back in the day when we were all one tribe – let’s call it the “American tribe” – we had our differences. Republicans believed that capitalism did more good than harm, because it was better than any other system at generating wealth. It had its limitations, chiefly that it set up a competition for wealth and allowed those who couldn’t run as fast to fall through the cracks. But, said the Republicans, the trick was to modify the system, not throw it out. Democrats put more emphasis on limiting the evils of capitalism, chiefly through government regulation. The battle was over how to govern ourselves – and how much. We all agreed to disagree politely with each other, confident that good debates would expose the knowledge we need to make sensible choices. And we all agreed on the way to go about it. We used shared standards of the importance of evidence, for example, and accepted the need to keep an open mind and let both sides have their full say. And never lie. Not by commission or by omission.

What has changed is that we no longer have any respect for the other side. We call them liars and suckers and fools. And we work on the basis of feelings more than on facts. We have accepted the postmodernist idea that there is no single truth, only a set of conflicting ways of constructing the universe. No truth. Only conflicting “narratives.” One doesn’t debate anymore; one “testifies.” One tells one’s own story, and passionate loyalty to that narrative has replaced passionate commitment to the search for objective truth.

What I like about this David Roberts article, “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology,” is that he points out we have fallen into the common trap of believing that if there are two sides, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. Two conflicting narratives means the same thing as two separate (and equally valid!) truths – plural. Not so, says Roberts. We have an asymmetrical political system, with an increasingly homogenous (white, Christian, zero-sum world view) tribe on one side and a heterogeneous herd-of-cats array of folk on the other side. The former tend to be rural, the latter urban. The former tend to have less formal schooling. They have become the base of the Trump support. Trump has manipulated these folk into thinking the traditional institutions – government, the media, scientific endeavor, academic teaching and research – are the problem, and the solution is to follow him as he brings these "elitists" down one by one.

Roberts cites a Columbia Journalism Review study showing that

Right-wing media has become “an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenge[s] it.”

In another article, last November, Roberts expands the notion of tribal epistemology and makes the case that the split in America into two tribes is actually a falling away by the far right of what we once called media accuracy. What we have is not so much two conflicting tribes as the traditional institutions and norms of a society working on the expansion of democracy and the rule of law on the one hand,  and a group, with a kind of tribal loyalty to a leader, truth be damned. It’s “tribal” in that the loyalty is not to nation, institution or a traditional understanding of truth, but to a charismatic individual and his ideology. Fox News and the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh sowed the seed of distrust in the media and in government, and Trump arrived in time to harvest the results.

The media, Roberts argues, have been placed in a difficult position. Traditionally, their role has been to remain objective and neutral in any given political fight – “just the facts, ma’am”. But how are they to deal with the fact that one side values media independence and the other insists the media is nothing more than the voice of the opposition. How does one “report” that fact without saying in so many words that one side is right and the other is wrong?

“Just because you’re paranoid,” the saying goes, “doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Just because there are two sides to every story doesn’t mean both are right. Arguing that “the truth is somewhere in the middle” may be a useful strategy for getting ten-year-olds to stop fighting and have a conversation. But with adults who disagree on the importance of accuracy and evidence, how is a conversation even supposed to get off the ground?

The obvious next question is how do we get out of this mess?  As always, we are better at defining the problem than at creating a solution. Some insist the political answer is to carve out a place in the middle and pull the extremes in. Others believe the world is waiting for the Democrats to articulate a new vision – a Great Society – perhaps with inspiring solutions to the wealth divide and an immigration program that doesn’t make Americans ashamed of themselves. Still others believe, as many of us did in the 60s that the answer lies within. That we need to practice what we preach – listen to the address Anand Giridharadas gave to the Aspen Institute in July 2015 for a good example of that. 

I think we need to stand fast and insist on a simple traditional commitment to avoid violence and deceit.  Epistemic tribalism opens the door to deceit. Not believing in truth means ceding power to liars. One can argue over truth as an abstract notion and still share with others things that are true. Whether the solutions are internal or external, the media can continue its commitment to reporting facts accurately and fearlessly, teachers can still model truth-telling to the next generation, and we can all keep our bullshit detectors in good working condition.

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