Turkish academics know the danger of post-truth. We can learn from their experience

The belief that there exists a central truth that can be secured from above yet that remains somehow liberal rather than authoritarian is a fatal mistake. 

Julian de Medeiros
31 January 2017

A guard of honour awaits PM Theresa May at the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ahead of talks in Ankara. January 2, 2017.Christopher Furlong/Press Association. All rights reserved.When I began writing about conspiracy theory in Turkey the term post-truth had not yet been coined. Nor, for that matter, had anyone heard of 'truthiness', or even 'alternative facts'. The idea that politics was inherently conspiratorial, at times truthful, at others not, was unquestioned, and not something worth paying any particular attention to. As a relative outsider, the more excentric and at times absurd, manifestations of Turkish political rhetoric were both fascinating and disorienting. Yet for all the apparent difference in rhetorical style, I suspected that both in the US and Turkey, politicians enjoyed playing a game of what Hofstadter referred to in the 1960s, as ' the paranoid style', in which accusations, however absurd, are used for populist gain. I began to understand how conspiracy theories in Turkish politics serve to systematically reinforce and mobilise longstanding grievances and various imagined communities. As part of my research, I began to catalogue the various conspiracy theories in the post-Gezi political environment.So the recent surge in public attention to the idea of post-truth politics in the US, the UK, and Europe, has both taken me by surprise, yet also confirmed my own suspicions. Particularly, it confirmed that what may have appeared to be a specific Turkish eccentricity was in fact part of a global rejection of so-called rational and deliberative politics. This worrisome trend is one that Turkish academics and indeed Turkish citizens have come to accept as part of their everyday reality. We can learn from their experience. And hopefully, in so doing, better understand and combat the perils of post truth in our own countries.

In fact, my entire reasoning has always rested on the belief that a certain flirtation with the paranoid is at the very heart of the global contestation both detrimental yet vital for a democracy to function despite all its contradictions. After all, to attempt to reconcile the tug of war between a democracy that emphasizes equality over freedom, or vice versa, individual freedom over equality, while somehow guaranteeing both, requires a certain Sisyphean necessity. The sacrifices that are made along the way, and the grievances that ensue, always threaten to provide fertile soil for autocratic opportunism and populist manipulation to take root.

There exists indeed, buried within the very experience of democracy, an ongoing negotiation of truth(s), which for the sake of democracy, should never be fully reconciled. In other words, for a democracy to flourish requires both challenging antagonist simplifications, while at the same time resisting the temptation to enforce and regulate the supposed empirical purity, or one form of truth, that ought to be inherently progressive. To set out on such a path, is inherently to invite a populist backlash, and in many ways our current predicament can be traced back as much to third way liberalism, or Bill Clinton’s triangulation strategy of the 1990s as it is due to the bizarre antics of Trump's popular persona.

You may already anticipate where I am heading here, which is towards addressing what has become the linguistic signifier du jour, the idea of a so-called post-truth. And while I share in the current fascination with this concept, I remain highly skeptical of the merit of such a term in the long run. On the one hand, it is a useful and revealing lens through which to assess the crisis of democracy we are in. Yet on the other, I worry that in its ellipsis-like desire for a return to a pre- post-truth era, it completely underestimates the totalitarian impulses such a desire entails. The strongman leader and his supporters decry the effects of post-truth just as strongly as do his opponents.

For Turks, and those who keep up with Turkish politics, the term post-truth can be no more than a glitzy piece of nomenclature to describe a lesson already learnt long ago; that in any hegemonic system, the truth of any given matter is entirely secondary to the overarching whims of the strongman political project. The truth derived from the depths of its own rhetorical machinations forms a post-truth precisely because it contains within it the premise for its own justification. In other words, one cannot fight post-truth by seeking for a pure pre-post-truth impartiality. Therein would lie only the solidification of the trap that is post-truth politics.

Of course, as with any political position that sells its polemics as empirical reality, there exists a certain wilful ignorance of the elusive relationship between truth and politics. A truly curious and deeply contradictory result of this is that the strongman leader and his supporters decry the effects of post-truth just as strongly as do his opponents.

In both cases, a consensus can only be achieved by an elimination of the idea of pluralism and a dismissal of agonistic versions of the truth. Post-truth is therefore nothing less than a pure manifestation of the contradictions of ideology, and the ensuing desire to seek within itself the reasons for its own necessity, rather than looking outside. In turn, one of the decisive mistakes in the reaction to post-truth is one that calls for more censorship of fake news and stronger hegemonic control of free speech, in the erroneous belief that there exists a central truth that can be secured from above yet that remains somehow liberal rather than authoritarian. One cannot fight post-truth by seeking for a pure pre-post-truth impartiality.

So there we have it. Yes, the current post-truth crisis is indeed a global one, and indeed, Turkish academics have more reason than most to shrug their shoulders at our newfound sense of alarm regarding the fragility of our democratic institutions. If diagnosing the profound threat to democracy that post-truth resembles is both an earnest and necessary reaction to recent events, it nevertheless rings somewhat hollow to those Turkish academics who have been blowing the whistle all along.

What renders this stance somewhat smug, however, is that academics in their responses to post-truth seem to mistake themselves for purveyors of fact rather than as appropriately suspicious of hegemonic consensus. After all, to tell truth to power is not the same thing as craving the power to establish the truth. This would be neither scientific, nor intellectual.

And it stands as an odd testament to the erosion of academia, that we would consider ourselves as guarantors of any one truth. In fact, the term post-truth, for all's its vagaries, has always sounded somewhat academic. Wasn't the merit of the post-structuralist position precisely to be weary of any proclamation of truth as devoid of agency? Can post-truth be envisioned as a good thing, and why has it been so forcefully proclaimed as a triumph of the distorting forces of the right?

The current style in liberalism, one that places all its hopes in our democratic institutions as guarantors of an inherently progressive truth is a dangerous naïveté that in fact threatens democracy. This is the real lesson that Turks have learned; which is that when totalitarian politics becomes cemented, it does not do so through force alone, but by a hegemonic take over of democratic institutions, and then conveniently blankets itself in the comforting notion of being a legitimate populist democracy.

This is a lesson that for a brief moment, following World War II seemed evident across the western world, but which has been all too readily forgotten in the outcry amid fake news, conspiracy theory, and post-truth politics driven by the desire for a stabilizing force to provide a truth that everyone can agree upon. 

Solidarity is not enough


May and Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara. Andrew Parsons /Press Association. All rights reserved. As loathe as I am to dabble in the neoliberal platitudes of opportunity in crisis, there may however yet be a strength to be harnessed from all this, at least with regard to the idea of a global academia. This can be summed up as follows: for academics to challenge the admittedly perilous sphere of post-truth, requires an understanding of academia as an intellectual responsibility, rather than an identification that is primarily ‘scientific’ in the mode of a supposedly pure empiricism. This requires that quantitative and qualitative approaches cease to be presented as anti-thetical. In turn, this would require more academics to move beyond the current trend of being an ever-ready source of ‘expert’ opinion to be called upon to suit whatever political fancy or contention is currently dominating the news cycle, but to instead engage critically with concepts of truth and expertise perhaps even particularly when engaging with the public or the media. Resist the idea of viewing our work as that of fact-checking rather than – thought-checking.

For despite the increased ‘approachability’ of academics, the strong focus on the ‘talking head’ variety of academic input has not made academics seem any less isolated. In fact, the opposite has occurred, where many members of the public, in many cases rightly so, suspect academics and ‘experts’ in general of being in service of so-called special interests.

This does not entail that we as an academic community should embark on some form of self-imposed vow of silence. Quite the contrary. Instead of trying to sell others on the value and merit of our research, we should be suspicious of such seeking after endorsement, and instead adopt a more critical stance towards our own role in perpetuating the appeal of post-truth, even if this entails eschewing the contemporary desire for an accommodating academia, in which academics conveniently provide supposedly rational fodder for polemical stances.

Secondly – and this is where I believe one can draw a direct line to the experience of Turkish academia – to challenge post-truth requires an acknowledgement that consensus, while constituting a possibly beneficial outcome, should not be the a priori goal of academic debate, nor of the intellectual tradition. In fact, we would do well to be suspicious of an academia that achieves such consensus, as this can only ever in and of itself be the result of a temporary hegemonic moment, and hence, of necessary exclusion. The fight for academic freedom is inherently a global one.

As I have written here before, the fight for academic freedom is inherently a global one. Ironically, it is perhaps the reality of our current fascination with post-truth(s) that it forces us to take seriously the challenges faced by academics working in increasingly restrictive democracies including our own. To this extent, solidarity with Turkish academics is no longer enough, and in the light of the political crises in the USA and western Europe, the notion of solidarity itself may seem somewhat patronizing. After all, what is intended as a show of sympathy, all too quickly disintegrates into a mostly self-serving self-congratulatory reassurance of our own freedom of expression.

Despite this, the struggle to articulate adversarial positions, can be considered a positive force in the dissemination of critical narratives upon which in turn societal debates, or in the American parlance, a ‘national conversation’, can take place. Yet to do this successfully requires a global effort, rather than isolated nationalist-oriented institutions of higher learning. The best way to resist becoming co-opted into the State’s desire for such a consensus along the lines of a national project is at every turn to resist the idea of viewing our work as that of fact-checking rather than –thought-checking. Pity the nation that asks its academics to provide it with a stronger dosage of ‘truth’.

Pity the nation that asks its academics to provide it with a stronger dosage of ‘truth’. Instead, we might be better served by reminding ourselves how the legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali, liked to quip with reporters that his idea of joking was to always tell the truth. After all, isn’t the idea of a pure and unvarnished truth in fact nothing less than the funniest joke in the world?

To acknowledge such, that the true anti-dote to post-truth politics is not to take seriously the demand for a licensed form of empirical truth, is something that we can learn from our Turkish colleagues, who have long since abandoned the idea of a discourse based solely on fact or reason. And if there is something humbling in such a realization, then perhaps it is that the experience of post-truth can provide us with a foundation upon which to build a more shock proof democracy, and hopefully, a wiser one as well.

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