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 the 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.

Unhearing

‘We did not see that our slogans had lost their bearing and pointed in the wrong directions. We invoked “democracy” solemnly as in a prayer, and watched while the greatest nation of Europe voted, by perfectly democratic methods, its assassins into power. We worshipped the will of The Masses, and their will turned out to be death and self-destruction. We regarded capitalism as an outworn system, and were willing to exchange it for a new form of slavery. We preached tolerance, and the evil which we tolerated destroyed our civilization.’
Arthur Koestler, “The Chinaman’s Nod”, in Bricks to Babel.

Bricks to Babel is a collection of Koestler’s writings, many of them short pieces. “The Chinaman’s Nod” is a very short piece, about Koestler’s posting to Berlin as a journalist. Koestler arrived in Berlin on September 14, 1930, the day of the election in which the National Socialists dramatically increased the number of seats they held to 107 of 577, from just 12 seats before. Koestler refers to the day as ‘the beginning of the age of barbarism in Europe’.

“The Chinaman’s Nod” is primarily about a disjuncture between the imagined state of political manoeuvres and political discourse, and the actual behavior of the body politic.

Much of the piece takes the form of a depressing run-down of how the various groups that might have been expected to challenge and arrest the rise of the Nazis – e.g. the Liberals, the Socialists, the intellectuals, the Communists – could not (or did not, until the point it was too late), either because their credibility with the people was poor, or because they were apt to operate in an ineffectual way.

If the disjuncture I described above was the problem, the natural question to ask is about how this disjuncture came to be. Koestler’s answer might refer to the preoccupation of politicians (and others) with issues they thought were important, their failure to recognize real danger, etc. However the underlying pathology he diagnoses isn’t something specific to some subset of citizens; as he writes,

‘After the event, people asked themselves: How could we have been such fools to twiddle our thumbs when the outcome was so obvious? The answer is that owing to the inertia of human imagination, to most people it wasn’t obvious at all.’

I read Koestler’s suggestion of the existence of some sort of ‘inertia of human imagination’ as a reference to something we are all subject to.

*

What does the talk about political dysfunction look like nowadays? Words like ‘gridlock’ and ‘polarized’ tend to come up when discussing the health of the world’s super-powered democracy. (A body out of balance, and in need of a cleanse, maybe.) People speculate about how the mysterious algorithms behind things like Facebook’s News Feed create political echo chambers for individuals who are subsequently surprised to find that people who don’t share their views actually exist, and in significant numbers. We worry about the fragmentation of discourse, and wonder if it adds up to a coherent imagination of community.

At home, terms like ‘silent majority’ and ‘the 70%’ come up, sometimes (I get the feeling) from people who seem like they feel disappointed or even betrayed that those who disagreed with them failed to do so in terms more to their liking, in media they prefer. At least ours is a small country.

Earlier I asked the question about how the disjuncture between the imagined state of political discourse and who people actually end up voting for comes to be. While I agree with Koestler that it’s often an imaginative gap, when I think about ‘discourse’ and what makes a ‘healthy’ political discourse, one way to think about it is in terms of who gets heard and who gets ignored. There’s also the question of how we hear, which is both a practical question (what do we tend not to hear/read/watch?) and a question of whether we are aware of our cognitive biases (what do we tend not to understand?).

I actually came across the first passage from Koestler I quoted above on the same day I saw news of J.K. Rowling’s defense of Trump’s right to expression on my FB feed. In truth, I don’t think Mr. Trump needs much help on the media air-time front; can he even be silenced? She might say the question is not whether he can be silenced, but whether he ought to be silenced, and I would have to agree. 

But even in that discussion, I’m not sure the principle of freedom of expression should be uniformly invoked to defend the speech of the powerful as compared to the speech of the vulnerable. Really I think the urgent question is, Whom have we not heard, that we need to hear?

The vulnerable always need advocates, I think; but there are also the ‘not-as-loud’, who might not need advocates, exactly, but whom I think of as having a hard time being understood through the noise. Trump’s voice gets represented, but what about his supporters’? In a democracy where these ‘not-as-loud’ might be the majority, the cost of either not hearing them, or hearing them but not understanding them, may be dear.

O, Ingratitude, Where Is Thy Sting?

‘Opposition ingrates’ is a phrase I’ve seen floating around recently on social media. I found it fascinating, because while clearly meant as a stinging epithet within the very current context of GE2015, I found myself thinking: Couldn’t they have thought of something less anachronistic than ‘ingrate’?

As I understand it, the logic behind ‘opposition ingrate’ is that for a right-thinking Singaporean, your vote is owed to the political leaders that built a successful Singapore.1 This is not at all a difficult position to decipher, but I think it is a position worth examining in terms of the discourses and ideologies it implicates.

To return to the moment I first registered the term, to my ear, the use of ‘ingrate’ as a political epithet seemed out of sync with what I thought was the mainstream attitude towards politics and society. Wherefore gratefulness, in a meritocratic society where no-one is owed a living? Likewise, a persistent message of elections rhetoric is that you, the voter, have not been as well served as you have the right to expect, and the relationship between the state and you is that of service-provider and client, with the elections candidates being competing contractors.

In neither of the above schemas does gratefulness seem like the most relevant candidate for a social or moral value. It was in this sense that I saw what I called ‘mainstream attitudes’ being at odds with the notion implicit in ‘ingrate’, that it is your obligation to render your political support to the benevolent authority that maintains the social order.

This notion of a social order maintained by authority itself was something I would’ve thought was outmoded, or at least at a greater degree of remove from a current and popular political event. I’ve tended to encounter the idea in more hermetic contexts, e.g. in discussions about the history of political thought. In contrast, I saw current political news and its attendant media commentary (including satirical commentary) as tending to either start off from a different presumption about its audience’s political and social consciousness2, or identify anti-authoritarian/anti-establishment views with the popular consciousness. Basically, the idea of a social order wherein gratefulness to authority had significant moral weight seemed quaintly traditional, in a vaguely retrograde way.

Against this context, the question of whom exactly the people who use the epithet ‘opposition ingrate’ saw as their audience, was something of a puzzle. It would work, somewhat, as a message of solidarity, among some imagined majority of traditional, conservative folk with old-fashioned values; however, the audience against whom the force of the epithet is directed is, presumably, exactly the kind of anti-establishment advocate for whom ‘ingrate’ could hardly be expected to make sense as a moral criticism.

I wish I could call the situation I’ve described a novel one, but really it seems more and more like the template for political disagreement nowadays: call it the culture wars model, if you will. I might have called it ideological disagreement, but that would suggest more self-consciousness than appears to be in evidence, and I think the essential feature of this situation is the preclusion of the possibility of coming to terms.

*

The title of this post was also informed by my other, more superficial investigation of the instinct I had about the word ‘ingrate’ being somewhat anachronistic.

I went with Google Ngrams first, and we see clearly that you’re much more likely to be called ‘ungrateful’ (and even ‘faithless’) more than ‘ingrate’. ‘Ingrate’ is about as commonly used in the English corpus as the term ‘carpetbagger‘ (an epithet with a rather culturally specific context that, when used in a general sense, means ‘any opportunistic or exploitive outsider’, and when used in a current political context, might be fairly applied to a certain Son of Punggol).

ingrate-ngram

Next I went on BYU’s GloWbE corpus.

ingrate-glowbe

Nigeria registered an unusually high rate of the token, and though there were a few repeat instances, it appears that ‘ingrate’ has found a place in the idiom of Nigerian film dialogue (choice example: ‘As for Awolowo, he is an INGRATE & a BETRAYER!’). There appear to be several examples from real-world political commentary as well (specifically, politicians’ comments on each other).

In Pakistan, the examples were almost exclusively from religious texts (‘Verily! Man is an ingrate […]’). This is a fairly common use-context for other countries as well.

The other fairly common use-context is football, which is where this gem of a user comment on an article about a returning sports star:

‘you are ingrate. Show appreciation small to nation builders for their contributions. You are a reicarnate of somebody in the biblical times who would shout crucify him, crucify him (Jesus) after getting drunk from the water he turned into wine.’

(Source: http://ghanasoccernet.mobi/kwarasey-trains-before-home-crowd-for-the-first-time/)

This comment was directed at another user, who favored another player as first-choice keeper.

But taking all of these observations together, my suspicion is just that ‘ingrate’ is used where they study more Shakespeare (and used less where they used to study more Shakespeare).


1. Relevant context here is the fact that the message, ‘The PAP led the building of Singapore,’ was clearly the message most thoroughly developed in public discourse, in a year that afforded several occasions to invite Singaporeans to collectively reflect on the nation’s history.
2. E.g. Singaporeans are politically apathetic and individualistic, Singaporean youth are influenced by Western liberal ideas and aren’t conscious of local history, etc.

The Problem with ‘Integration’

On Quora, the question was asked, ‘What do Singaporeans think of the vast immigrant and non-native population in the country?

In one of the answers, I read: ‘But something seems different about some of the new immigrants, and that is worrying Singaporeans. As the numbers of foreigners have increased, there is no longer a compelling need for them to integrate to survive.’

I vehemently disagreed with this, and the orientation of the rest of the answer. I am cross-posting my response here (initially here).


 

I would broadly agree that a desire to integrate has value for anyone in any community or society, but I could not insist on this as a kind of standard for accepting immigrants (or not).

Desire to integrate is a tricky criterion to stand by, I think, for two reasons. The first is that it runs both ways, in that, if we are being consistent, other countries have as much of a right to demand this of their immigrants. The second is that the judgment about the ‘right’ level of desire to integrate is going to vary.

Where do these two facts leave migrants? It might not be a problem for Singaporeans; we might well expect Singaporeans abroad to manage to integrate, because we regard their ability to do so highly. But remember that not all migrants are equal (apart from being human beings); we might not all have a home state (one that we like, anyway), or be as economically free to make the choices we would rather make. I would imagine that, more often than not, migrants leave more behind than they might like.

Given the above two facts, as well, I think it is a trap to view the desire to integrate as a value, in that the agency is devolved to the migrant rather than the community as a whole. If we truly believe the community as a whole is worth integrating into, then shouldn’t the community value being open and accepting over demanding that newcomers integrate?

From the broader perspective, comparing different countries, for example, I think we will find some places easier or harder to integrate into. Is that ease or difficulty due to the migrant not trying hard enough, or is it simply the result of how open to immigrants the society decides to be? There is only one immigrant, or one family, or one sub-community of immigrants, ultimately.

Societies do have that right to decide, I think, but it is precisely for this reason that I think ‘desire to integrate’ is a terrible criterion to adopt. It facilitates a potential kind of hypocrisy in our relationship with migrants, in that it is not because we’re not accepting, but because the immigrants don’t want to integrate.

*

Personally speaking, my view is that Singapore should value being open and accepting, for reasons of geography and history. I think that our capacity to do so is going to be determined by our sense of community as a society, and perhaps our sense of identity as a ‘nation’ (a problematic category too).

Locke’s Second Treatise on Government

Sections 1-15; 84-89; 95-99; 123-131 from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, for ‘USP3509 Law and Violence’.

I think the overarching question of today’s class was, ‘What is a right?’ One useful leading question was about why ‘might is right’ seems intuitively wrong (although this also had the side-effect of leading to silly refractions around the sense and semantics of ‘right’). The most intuitive bases seemed to be equality and liberty affirming the effectiveness of reciprocity as a social policy, but this view presumes the necessity or value of the social. As we persisted with the question of why the power of ‘might is right’ seems to be something we prefer to distinguish from the right to use power, the notion of a right being something ‘deserved’ rather than something due to chance or luck, like a native capacity for strength or intelligence, came up.

The final thought I had was that if qualities granting power don’t seem to cut it, then we are either going to be looking for a quality of qualities, like hard work, or we’re going to be looking for things like needs and wants. Someone mentioned earlier in the class that perhaps a reason why power seems inadequate as a moral basis is that power shifts, so perhaps a quality of qualities would be the quality of enduring.