‘The Tyranny of Truth (or, How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Start Lying)’, by Gabriel Watts

[Truth. It's more important now than ever]

Image by the author, picturing this New York Times subway poster.

In our everyday talk, when we call an assertion ‘true’, we typically mean that it is in accordance with the facts. And when we say that something is a ‘fact’ we more or less mean that it is whatever impartial observers would agree is the case. So, for example, when someone says that, “fewer people attended the inauguration of President Donald Trump than the inauguration of President Barack Obama” we would say that this assertion is true, and that this is because impartial observers would agree that this is what happened. Conversely, when someone says, “refugees just want to live here for the welfare benefits,” we would say that this assertion is false, because impartial observers would not agree with it.

Most of the time there is no need to spell any of this out. But switch on the news, or take in any sort of current affairs from just about any source, and it’s pretty clear that something unusual is going on. The sentiment that has kept climate-science scepticism simmering in the background has gone viral, and we now find that the most basic untruths are presented as ‘alternative facts’ by the so-called “leader of the free world”. In such times it is worth reminding oneself what the facts about truth are.

However, by the same measure, it also worth being clear about what truth is not. Most importantly, it is worth reminding oneself that the truth is not something that one is morally required to care about, nor is one morally culpable for failing to care about the truth. This may seem a perverse thing to say in the middle of what is arguably an information war. But the current stand-off between the White House and The Media only intensifies the need to prise apart any supposed connection between telling the truth and moral merit, and between telling lies and moral blame – because the tendency to fuse these things together is causing problems.

Let me give an example of how such connections are formed. It is an example largely cribbed from this editorial in The Economist, but it has a general structure, and it appears all over the place once you start looking.

According to The Economist, we are living in a new political era, the era of ‘post-truth’ politics. The driving force behind post-truth politics is anger. More precisely, Ordinary People have become angry at a consortium of Politicians, Professional Journalists, Experts and other Technocrats (a.k.a. Elites) who betrayed their trust by making false claims regarding their future prosperity. For instance, the Elites convinced Ordinary People that participation in global free markets would bring them lasting material benefits. Instead it only brought such benefits for Elites, while Ordinary People missed out. Hence Ordinary People became angry with the Elites, and stopped trusting them.

As a result, The Economist concludes, Ordinary People now trust other Ordinary People (read: their social media networks) for their news – more so than they trust Elite-controlled Civic Institutions like the press and government agencies. The problem with this, however, is that placing one’s trust in one’s peers for information only serves to confirm one’s biases in a way that feels impartial, thus creating an ‘echo-chamber’ in which the consumption of falsehoods takes on the appearance of learning the truth. From here, a number of self-serving politicians (a.k.a. Outsiders) have manipulated Ordinary People by masquerading as One of Them and then promoting the consumption of lies over the consumption of truth. And with this shift we have entered the realm of post-truth politics, where facts are not disputed, they are irrelevant.


Image by einalem. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Two features of this popular narrative warrant our attention. The first is that the anger expressed by Ordinary People towards Elites only makes sense on the assumption that the Elites have wronged Ordinary People. In other words, the anger of Ordinary People towards Elites is unintelligible unless the Elites are understood to have done something to deserve it. And what they have done, according to The Economist, is they have failed to care sufficiently about the truth of the assertions they have made to Ordinary People. The implicit assumption here is that failing to care about truth is morally wrong, and that the anger of Ordinary People towards Elites is a natural response to this moral failure. So if you buy The Economist’s line that Ordinary People are angry at Elites, then you are buying into this background assumption about the moral blame-worthiness of lying.

The second point worth noting is that, according to The Economist, the problem at the heart of post-truth politics is not that Ordinary People have begun to prefer falsehoods to truths, but that they have come to believe that falsehoods are truths because they appear to be truths. The implicit assumption here is that Ordinary People still retain the desire to know the truth, but that this desire has come to be satisfied by the wrong things, i.e. falsehoods, rather than the right things, i.e. truths. This second assumption is equally fundamental to The Economist’s overall narrative strategy, as it allows for the possibility of redemption.

To put it briefly, if Ordinary People retain a desire to know the truth, then the Elites can redeem themselves by taking active measures to distinguish real truths from apparent truths. For instance, they can implant fact-checking measures directly into people’s news-feeds or tweak personalisation algorithms so as to down-rank “fake news”. The basic idea here is that if the Elites can correct for past moral failings by demonstrating a renewed commitment to telling the truth, then the anger of Ordinary People should dissipate, and they will become less susceptible to the socially destabilising lies peddled by political Outsiders.

As delightful as all this sounds (who doesn’t want less anger and more social stability?), we ought to remain suspicious. We owe it to our bong-smoking, Pynchon-reading, ‘Media and Society 101’ selves to remain critical of Mainstream Media Narratives, even at—especially at—a time when the Mainstream Media arguably occupies the moral high ground. We should question whether the assumptions implicit in The Economist’s narrative hold up, so let me suggest some alternative facts.

Let’s suppose that the Elites—Politicians, Journalists, as well as various Economic and Bureaucratic Experts—have indeed failed to care about the truth of assertions that they have made to Ordinary People. This is to say that Elites have been less impartial in their observations than they ought to have been, given the institutional authority attached to their opinions. But let’s withhold any judgement as to whether this is morally wrong. Instead, let’s suggest that there is nothing wrong about this at all.

If this is the case, then how would we explain the anger that Ordinary People have been directing at Elites? Simple: Ordinary People are not angry with Elites. They hold them in contempt. Wait a second. How is that possible? To hold someone in contempt is to look down on them. If Ordinary People held Elites in contempt, then they would no longer be Elites. That’s correct: Elites are no longer Elites, and they haven’t been for some time.

This is not to say that Politicians, Journalists, and other Civil Authorities do not enjoy superior social status to the Ordinary People whom they govern, write about, and organise the macro-affairs of. They do. Rather, the point is that just like Ordinary People, these so-called Elites work for what they have; and the one thing that distinguishes truly elite human beings from the ordinary run of people is that the truly elite among us do not work.

Sometimes this is because such elite human beings have acquired spectacular amounts of money (legitimately or not) and no longer need to sell their labour. And sometimes it is because they are born into wealth. But in all cases, Elites are distinguished from non-Elites by the fact that what they do looks more like recreation than work.

It makes no difference whether Elite activities have clear public benefits, such as hosting fundraising galas for malaria research, or whether they have questionable social utility, such as planning to colonise Mars: the point is that Elite activities are leisure pursuits, not a job. By contrast, so-called Elites make it very clear that what they are doing is work. Indeed, when Barack Obama goes on holiday it is so unusual that it makes the news. And while Ordinary People may not always believe that the Civil Authorities are acting in their best interests, they certainly believe that they are being paid to do whatever it is they call work.

The important thing, however, is that this was not always the case, and it is in coming to understand this that we come to understand the contempt that is the real driving force behind what is called ‘post-truth politics’. For there was once a time when the kind of knowledge that it takes to be a Politician, an Economist, a Climate Scientist, or an Investigative Journalist—i.e., knowledge of the natural and social sciences—was largely seen as a luxury reserved for those with leisure enough to rise above the clamour of day-to-day business and indulge in the contemplative life of the ‘learned’. At this time in history, which was more or less what we now call the Enlightenment, today’s so-called Elites really were Elites, and the Civic Institutions that were established as a consequence of their learned pursuits—the free press, scientific societies, democratic governments, independent judiciaries—were genuinely impressive human achievements.

Only that time has passed. For—largely as a result of the success of these Civic Institutions—the kind of learning that precipitated the existence of Nation States, the Mainstream Media, Public Universities, etc., has moved from being a luxury item possessed by Elites, to something held in common by many people. And while the democratisation of access to the natural and social sciences is certainly a good thing, it is not without consequences. The chief amongst these being that knowledge of such sciences is no longer attended with the sort of lustre that comes from being an Elite pursuit. Instead, these days, those with the leisure to rise above everyday concerns tend to pursue advances in the technological and medical sciences, and to leave the natural and social sciences to the Civil Authorities.

This is why, if you think about it, Ordinary People have come to feel contempt for so-called Elites. It is because our tastes in truth have changed over time, and the kinds of truths that the Civil Authorities are offering—about the natural world (climate changes) and about the social world (lifestyle changes)—are not the kinds of truths that Ordinary People are interested in knowing, given that there are much more impressive truths produced by the technological and medical sciences. And really, why would you want to think about the fact that your behaviour is destroying the planet when you could think about escaping to Mars in a spaceship?

One answer to this sort of question is that it is not a matter of which truths you would like to think about, but that one is obligated to think about whatever is true. This is basically the approach we find in The Economist. The central assumption here, as we saw, is that a concern for the truth is a moral duty, and that failing to care about the truth is a moral failure. Crucially, this obligation applies equally to all truths, old or new, big or small, nasty or nice: so that your thinking about the fact that you can order an Uber from your phone, instead of thinking about the fact that walking home is better for the planet, is a derogation of your duty to consider all the relevant facts.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it tends to backfire. This happens for the simple reason that telling people they have a moral duty to consider truths that don’t impress them doesn’t change the way they think. Instead, it compounds their disinterest with a feeling of resentment towards those holier-than-thou types who claim that such truths are of the highest moral importance. This generates feelings of contempt for anyone who treats a commitment to the truth as a morally non-negotiable duty, and a perverse esteem for anyone willing to put such people in their place.

These sentiments have been simmering away in debates over climate science for many years, but with the rise of Donald Trump they have spread to all truths regarding the natural and social worlds: and thus we find ourselves in a situation where the more often Trump denigrates Expert Opinion and the Mainstream Media, and questions their authenticity, the more Ordinary People’s esteem for him grows. Self-styled Elites such as the editors of The Economist misinterpret this as the product of anger, but it comes from a much more disdainful place than that.

So what is one supposed to do in the face of all this? The first thing is to question any moral attachment we have to telling the truth. This is not to suggest that there is never any moral value in being committed to truth, but rather that the moral value of telling the truth is not unconditional: that being committed to truth is not always good, especially when it leads to the sort of pro-truth moralising that one finds in The Economist, moralising that only works to tyrannise and alienate Ordinary People. At the same time, one must start taking seriously the moral value of lying. Because if there is anything to be certain about in this uncertain age, it is that Donald Trump is just the first and loudest politician to challenge the tyranny of truth. There will be many others: and they will be just as mean-spirited and self-serving as him.

But there can also be good people who challenge the tyranny of truth. The name I keep for such people is artists. Artists can come from the ranks of the Ordinary, or from the established Civil Authorities. But what distinguishes artists from both these types of people is that artists transcend the boundary between work and leisure. For when artists make art they become indistinguishable from the truly Elite, and the best art commands the same esteem that attends Elite pursuits. And what the best art does is lie with a clear conscience.

Gabriel Watts is a DPhil student in philosophy at Oriel College, Oxford.