I first came across the term “post-truth politics” last summer – but hadn’t appreciated the scale and nature of the “denial of facts” on the blogosphere until the Trump campaign hit us full blast in the autumn.
"Political correctness” has apparently become everyone’s favourite hate but seems now to be degenerating into a mindless post-modern contempt for anything that smacks of evidence
This is not an easy topic to discuss in a civilised way - so let me put my own cards squarely on the table…….
I have quite strong memories of the 1980s as the issues of feminism, racism and sexism first moved in from the margins…..I was heavily involved in issues of community development and the social exclusion which affected low-income people - and wasn’t too impressed with the new language of “the glass-ceiling”….
So I understand the concern about “progressives” becoming (progressively) more focused on social aspects of power and equality – to the neglect of the economic..…And I have been no fan of the rise of academic ghettoes (particularly in the (North American) universities accompanying the development of women’s, black and gender studies.
The backlash to “political correctness”, for me, was always a disaster waiting to happen.
But even so, I watched open-mouthed last night the antics of a self-centred, loud-mouthed, hyperactive effeminate called Milo Yiannopoulis (yeah – pull the other one!) who is apparently the epitome of a new breed of libertarian publicists who out-do Oscar Wilde in their urge to shock. Although he’s apparently an editor (of one of Breitbart website series) he’s also a wag and "provocateur” on the same level as the characters in the Little Britain series of more than a decade ago
Jill Lepote gaves us recently in The Internet of us and the end of facts the best history lesson I’ve seen of the whole post-truth phenomenon (be aware, it’s the last para of the excerpt which counts).
She starts with a childhood incident when she found herself challenging someone she knew had stolen something she valued (a bat) -
The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval. “Fight you for it,” the kid said. “Race you for it,” I countered. A long historical precedent stands behind these judicial methods for the establishment of truth, for knowing how to know what’s true and what’s not. In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof.
Kid jurisprudence works the same way: it’s an atavism. As a rule, I preferred trial by bicycle. If that kid and I had raced our bikes and I’d won, the bat would have been mine, because my victory would have been God-given proof that it had been mine all along: in such cases, the outcome is itself evidence. Trial by combat and trial by ordeal place judgment in the hands of God. Trial by jury places judgment in the hands of men. It requires a different sort of evidence: facts. A “fact” is, etymologically, an act or a deed. It came to mean something established as true only after the Church effectively abolished trial by ordeal in 1215, the year that King John pledged, in Magna Carta, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned . . . save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
In England, the abolition of trial by ordeal led to the adoption of trial by jury for criminal cases. This required a new doctrine of evidence and a new method of inquiry, and led to what the historian Barbara Shapiro has called “the culture of fact”: the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing—the substance, the matter, of fact—is the basis of truth and the only kind of evidence that’s admissible not only in court but also in other realms where truth is arbitrated.
Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism. What were the facts in the case of the nail-polished bat? I didn’t want to fight, and that kid didn’t want to race. I decided to wage a battle of facts. I went to the library. Do they even have baseball in Italy? Sort of. Is my name the name of a baseball team? Undeterminable, although in Latin it means “hare,” a fact that, while not dispositive, was so fascinating to me that I began to forget why I’d looked it up.
I never did get my bat back. Forget the bat. The point of the story is that I went to the library because I was trying to pretend that I was a grownup, and I had been schooled in the ways of the Enlightenment. Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier.
OK - here's the punchline -
Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures.
The title of this post is the opening sentence of one of Francis Bacon's most famous essays