Can Europe Make It?

An Arendtian approach to post-truth politics

Arendt warns that a claim to absolute truth in the political sphere, with no support from opinion, would threaten to asphyxiate politics. For debate constitutes the essence of the political. 

Thomas Weyn
11 March 2017
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As seen on the shelves of a bookstore in New York, sales of the George Orwell's "1984" have soared since the news that the White House used "alternative facts" to bolster its claims on the inauguration audience. Richard B. Levine/Press Association.All rights reserved.In 2016, with the Brexit and Trump stories at an all-time high, post-truth politics was named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. The term was originally coined by columnist David Roberts in 2010. It highlighted the change in politics whereby rhetoric was increasingly becoming detached from policy ideas and focusing instead on emotion.

More recently, a presidential aid of Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, would use the term alternative facts (January 22, 2017) to defend the size of the inauguration crowd. The very notion of alternative facts was immediately (and rightly) linked to George Orwell’s book 1984, raising the book to most sold on Amazon. The bleak world described in Orwell’s famous book is not one to be taken lightly, but just how concerned should we be?

With this in mind, I turn to Hannah Arendt’s Truth and Politics, originally published in 1967, but still very relevant today. In her work, Arendt distinguishes between the non-political sphere, where a singular truth reigns, and the political sphere where truth is plural and factual. Factual truths are what arise when individuals come together in the public space (publicity) with their differences (plurality) and through a discourse come to a judgment. For example, global warming may be a truth in the scientific sphere but once it enters the political sphere, it becomes factual, open to debate and challenge. Factual truths are what arise when individuals come together in the public space (publicity) with their differences (plurality) and through a discourse come to a judgment.

In this sphere, through publicity, plurality and discourse we form a judgment regarding the truth or shared reality. Separating the political truth from the non-political truth prevents rational truth from entering the political realm with an irrefutable claim to truth, thereby silencing discussion and harming key aspects of a healthy democracy. This is not to say that experts or facts have no place in the political. Arendt would argue that rational truths serve to inform our opinions and strengthen our judgments. But post-truth politics and the modern media environment have significantly weakened the notion of publicity and plurality for several reasons, thereby diminishing our ability to make a sound judgment. Arendt would argue that rational truths serve to inform our opinions and strengthen our judgements.

First, the incredible amount of user-generated content on social media pages, tailored news feeds and news outlets with substantive political interests have created an environment in which any assertion can create ‘facts’ upon which to claim its ‘truth’. Second, the human tendency to search for or readily accept what fits our world view and reject what does not, commonly referred to as the confirmation bias, has diminished discourse with individuals having opposing views, instead leading to a convergence of likeminded individuals in homogenous systems of discourse, creating the echo-chamber effect. The echo-chamber effect leads to the reinforcing of ideas and convictions due to the homogenous and isolated nature of the group. For instance, Facebook’s algorithm defines my newsfeed according to my likes, history, views, gender and age, placing me within a system in line with my world view. Strength of judgment comes from our ability to come together with our differences and through discourse form a judgment.

The combined nature of these effects creates an environment in which our ability to form a judgement is significantly weakened according to Arendt. Strength of judgment comes from our ability to come together with our differences and through discourse form a judgment. However, when both plurality and publicity are weakened, our ability to form a judgment is crippled. As Arendt states, political thought is representative, meaning that by considering something from other people’s standpoints I strengthen my ability to form a valid opinion and judgement. Applying this to the aforementioned conditions means that individuals are less able to take on other people’s standpoints, less able to imagine how it would look from their perspective and less willing to accept what other people’s standpoints would be. All this means that political thought is no longer representative but isolated and homogenous, akin to living in different realities. Political thought is representative, meaning that by considering something from other people’s standpoints I strengthen my ability to form a valid opinion and judgement.

Second, in authoritarian-prone states such as Russia or China, the flood of information has become a tool for suppression and influence. Instead of relying on censorship which is inherently difficult to target, regimes have relied on an overflow of facts to obscure and twist the truth, a phenomenon referred to as gas lighting. The goal of the overflow of facts is not to replace the truth with one created by the regime; no power in the world is able to create a foolproof reality. Instead it aims to disturb and distort reality, significantly effecting our ability to form a judgement. Through gas lighting, individuals can find themselves in different realities, depending on what distortion of reality has had an effect. By creating a web of deceptions from which individuals take their bearings, the validity of our judgments and political thought is impaired. How are we to distinguish between truth and falsehoods; the basis on which we inform our opinions and judgement.

Lastly, traditional filters of truths and falsehoods matter less in this environment. In the Hybrid Media System, a book by political scientist Andrew Chadwick, he identifies the declining role of traditional gatekeepers of truth. These gatekeepers were reputable news outlets, journalists or political pundits who acted as checks and balance on politics. However, the increased role of the internet for the dissemination of information means that political actors are able to reach their electorate directly, think of Trump’s twitter habits, bypassing these gatekeepers. Moreover, bloggers, self-proclaimed journalists and news outlets, cater to the willing with punchy and attractive titles. It is debate that constitutes the essence of the political. 

In this environment, the right to question and counter assertions is rejected, instead claimants are politically biased for doing so. From a media perspective, the rejection of expertise is a logical development of the situation in which we find ourselves. Traditional media are struggling to compete with online platforms, leading them to focus heavily on protecting their reputation. Continuously challenging assertions is a potential minefield in which the potential ramifications for mistakes are quite serious. Not to mention the ability of political actors to steer away from critical platforms, as is the case in President Trumps branding the New York Times as #fakenews. Arendt warns that a claim to absolute truth in the political sphere, needing no support from the side of opinion, would afflict a terrible blow to the political. For it is debate that constitutes the essence of the political. 

The combined nature of these effects is worrisome to say the least. Our strength of judgment depends on our ability to reflect on perspectives other than our own. Moreover, the very state of our democracy relies on debate and the ability to debate and challenge each other. But in a certain sense, we are living in different realities, which significantly affect our ability to place ourselves in another’s shoes. Arendt describes the inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood as the loss of sense from which we take our bearings in the real world. The loss of the metaphorical land on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us. Although a solution to such an all-encompassing problem might seem impossible, for the sake of democracy and society it is very important that we regain a foundation from which to take our bearings in the world.

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Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway who coined the term 'alternative facts', here seen at the American Conservative Union's 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. Michael Brochstein/Press Association. All rights reserved.

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