Against the ‘Post-Fact’ Hypothesis

(Post begun on Wednesday, 9 November 2016, in the post-Trump situation.)

1.

At lunch today, I was struggling to explain my objection to that strain of commentary about post-‘fact’ politics.

Has politics become ‘post-fact’? The mystery from which this strand of commentary begins is that people seem willing to continue their support for politicians who:

  1. Make claims which they know to be false,
  2. Are blatantly inconsistent and self-contradictory, or
  3. Advocate economically and socially costly policies with no clear benefit.

Given these observations, the hypothesis is that people nowadays must simply have less of a concern or capacity for ‘facts’ in politics.

Is that an unreasonable hypothesis? Not exactly – but this initial plausibility is deceptive. In fact, I think its intuitive appeal is precisely what makes ‘post-fact politics’ a cognitively limiting and discursively sterile frame.

My most basic objection to the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis is that it is ripe for confirmation bias. “This is the politics of grievance.” “In the age of reality TV, people can’t distinguish serious content from entertainment.” “Nationalism and nostalgia are resurgent in many places in the world.” “It’s a rural-urban divide,” the sub-text being either, “It’s a tribal divide,” or, “The hicks don’t understand the news.”

From the ‘post-fact politics’ frame, this looks like a convergent pattern, and this seeming convergence creates the illusion that the hypothesis has explanatory power. However, that convergence arises partly because these explanations all serve to affirm a premise implicit to the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis: that my understanding of the parameters of constructive discussion doesn’t need adjustment. With ‘fact’ on my side, disagreements tend to be rationalized as transient differences of concern (temporary and self-correctable deviations from the norms of rational discussion), or as essential and unchangeable differences (mostly, an incapacity for civility or knowledge).

2.

I think it’s revealing that J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was one of the most extensively covered books about Trump-land in the establishment press. Vance tells a story that is evidently cognitively satisfying for a broad audience. His depiction of difference – framed in terms of class, culture, and other parameters of social situation – seems to have sparked a certain empathetic impulse in his audience (here I quote some of their letters to Rod Dreher, who did an interview with Vance):

  1. “I enjoy intelligent conversation and debate and have learned to carefully listen to and understand those who I may disagree with, so I might be educated fully on the issue not just entrenched in my beliefs […] Thank you for a refreshing read in a sea of partisan sludge.”
  2. “I do think dialog and empathy are something of a short supply in American politics today.”
  3. “I also feel a greater understanding now of the appeal of Trump to certain strata within our society… along with a renewed sense of how dangerous he really is to all of us (not to mention the rest of the world)!”

At the same time,  these three letter-writers also detailed their parameters of difference from (and similarity to ) Vance’s hillbillies:

  1. “By the way I am black, liberal, I most often vote Democrat and I don’t like Trump (for Reasons too high in number to state).”
  2. “I’m Californian, a progressive and a Sanders supporter, a former Nader supporter, a former UAW organizer, currently a medical devices engineer in [state], and have a Ph.D. in engineering. I grew up in a town 5 miles north of the Mexican border in south San Diego, and grew up among Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented… they were my neighbors, my friends, my elders. I myself am an immigrant, came here as a kid with my parents, who were liberals who wanted something better than that right-wing dictatorship in [another country] // But I did grow up around the poverty line. My parents fought hard to stay out of welfare, to stay together, and to teach us the value of work.”
  3. “I speak as a socialist, agnostic, gay white male who’s never voted Republican in all his years! As a lifelong resident of the suburbs of Houston, Texas, it’s long occurred to me how insulated I am from the struggles of poor and working-class folks today; however my family started out poor, with my parents divorcing when I was six.”

All three writers testify to having experienced a moment of empathy, sparked by an appreciation of the social differences they detail – and to the extent that empathy extends the imagination, that’s a positive.

On the other hand, the media coverage of the book left me with a nagging suspicion about how far this particular mode of empathy will go, in terms of changing the terms of engagement across ideological lines.

While the NYT managed to remain mostly nuanced, the sub-title on the National Review’s piece was: ‘A harrowing portrait of the plight of the white working class’. What strikes me about that sub-title is the clear emotional valence of it (it borders on sentimental), and the equally clear moral/political valence.

That clarity is cognitively satisfying, but rather than extend the imagination, I think it undermines it and deceives it. It promises that your categories work, and that your sympathy bridges the gap.

As for whether Vance’s book itself manages to bridge the empathy gap, I think this reviewer’s suggestion that ‘Vance is very skilled at generalizing from very small pieces of evidence’ is worth weighing as well – really his suggestion is that generalization is Vance’s primary skill, and that in his evaluation, Vance hasn’t actually represented the challenges and situation of the region very faithfully at all.If he had, it would probably have been a different book; but would Vance’s Elegy have been as enthusiastically received among such broad constituencies if he’d generalized less? If not, then perhaps it can’t be expected to reconfigure those fundamental alignments very much either.

3.

At lunch, we got to talking about how ‘fact’ is also discursively bound and socially constructed – always a bit of a morass…

The case I was struggling to make was that the psychology of those constituencies that get cast as ‘post-fact’ isn’t necessarily reducible to hindbrain-driven tribal behavior, or to a desire for emotional gratification/validation. Considering things from a different angle, Trump’s blatant self-contradictions (“I love the Mexican people”) at least signal the ability to consider those objections that the better-informed seemed to ignore. That’s a powerful signal, if your disagreements and your ‘facts’ seem never to be represented, only ever misrepresented, and never responded to in a way that means something to you. Trump voters get cast as either haters or suckers – because isn’t that what they have to be, if they’re swallowing what Trump’s selling? – but there is an alternative: that perhaps ‘they’ also have a capacity for cultural theory, media studies, and criticism.

I really don’t think the genius of Trump is his unusual syntax (try reading that Slate article, and see if it doesn’t strike you as condescending) – if anything, it was his ability to resist commentators’ power to represent him at all.

Not that I put it in exactly those terms; still, the reply I got was that his constituency can’t be that sophisticated.

4.

Once, I took a series of buses across half the U.S., from Minnesota down to Tennessee. I went on my own with food, clothes, and a tent, to get to a music festival.

Being at the festival was a strange mix of the familiar and the alien. In some sense, I was the alien in the middle of a gigantic farm in Tennessee. On the other hand, part of how I got there involved feeling convinced on some level that I knew what I was going to be experiencing: the bands, the songs, the fans.

Adding to that strangeness was the fact that places like music festivals are also where signs and icons come to life. Imagine the memes and reposts on a trending topic, except people are waving the signs and shouting the words, wearing the costumes or carrying the near-life-size dummies, etc.

As I was settling in over the first two days, the music was familiar. I watched Real Estate and CHVRCHES and James Blake. I noticed a few things that were unfamiliar, though, like the meme, ‘Do you like fishsticks, Kanye?’ (I found out later that this was from South Park.)

I knew Kanye was due to play at the main stage on the third day, but I hadn’t been aware of his history with the festival – to cut a long story short, in 2008 a series of scheduling and technical missteps trapped a late-night crowd in a field for a few hours, with the crowd working itself into a mutinous mood that inspired some heartfelt graffiti.

But being unaware of the historical context, the anti-Kanye messages I was noticing presented something of a puzzle.

Another puzzle: Does enthusiastically voicing an effigy of South Park Kanye for three days make you the opposite of a fan, or the best fan?

I ended up watching Kanye’s show with a couple of grad students from the University of Tennessee. I asked them about why they were watching Kanye, and if the crowd really hated him, or if it was something else. I heard that Kanye was classic, and that Kanye was complex, and that, for both Kanye and the crowd, hate was also about self-hate. I also heard about how Kanye had paid Zach Galifianakis and Seth Rogen to parody him in the past (both true).

In my head, I theorized about Kanye’s performance of egotism, and the heroic aspect to the role of rejected villain. From the stage, there were some amazing monologues.

5.

Another response I got at lunch to what I was saying, was that ‘post-fact’ is essentially the construction of deviance. I thought my friend was right, but that it might be a problem if the ideological establishment’s central project is effectively the construction of the thoughts and responses of nearly half the country as deviant.

One area in which I thought I might agree with the suggestion that we have a post-‘fact’ politics was the idea that the central political controversy has become, ‘Whose facts?’ But in a way, maybe that makes ‘post-fact politics’ just politics. Maybe this is just what groups do, what politicians do, and how politics happens.

An interesting idea that Alexio Mantzarlis raises is that ‘at any point in history we can find politicians vandalizing our understanding of reality’. The idea is that the ‘post-fact’ hype is just the perennial condition of political discourse, rather than a novel situation. That politicians make representations that suit their constituencies’ situations is a given. Some representations may be more or less self-interested, and more or less equitable to their non-constituents, but at some level conflicting representations are just part of the process.

An alternative statement of the ‘post-fact’ situation is that the norms that defined the political discourse seem no longer able to accommodate the divergences in discourse – but maybe that’s just how polities evolve.

So maybe it really is just that (I quote a friend), ‘The era of centrism and logics of depoliticized technocratic management in all its manifestations is over,’ which just about covers everything I’ve tried to say about ideology and the discourse around ‘fact’, the ‘fact’-bound, and the people who feel they must own their own ‘facts’.

6.

I think one trap for the progressively minded is that there does come a point when your reference points erode and your slogans change direction. Things like ‘difference’ become templatic, and lose their meaning when their dimensions of reference become incomprehensible.

However, my speaking against the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis isn’t intended as an admonition to arrogant liberals (or any particular group – I truly believe that the inertia of human imagination is a universal tendency). Not all divergences in dimensions-of-reference may be resolvable; some incompatibilities may well be fundamental, and perhaps that’s the basis of all political struggle.

But that’s also why I find that the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis has a cynical dimension, in its passive acceptance of incompatibility.

Mantzarlis (an expert on fact-checking!) is a fellow skeptic of the ‘post-fact’ hype, and in an article from July 2016, he offers this analysis:

‘To some extent, “post-fact” is a coping mechanism for commentators reacting to attacks on not just any facts, but on those central to their belief system. When the political realities are as alien to a liberal-cosmopolitan worldview as Donald Trump’s candidacy or Brexit, it can be easier to explain them away by painting 2016 as an apocalyptic “post-truth” era where people are just not getting the importance of facts.

‘This is not to say there are no grounds to worry. This has clearly been an acrimonious year for politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Facts are getting a thorough shellacking by campaigns which don’t think they matter to the electorate. In the UK, a key donor for the “Leave” campaign said as much, while a supporter of Donald Trump called fact-checking an “out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing” (even that has echos of 2012).’

There’s a lot in there for me to agree with, but I think the point that came out the most clearly for me was about how certain campaigns treated the electorate. Ultimately I think the thing I most actively object to about the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis is that it is a surrender to the cynics.

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