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.

Station to Station

Prescient. Warm.

Also all those resonances from having thought about nearly the exact same macro-changes to music (history of genres and popular music, impact of technology and economics) for Dr. Don’s class, a class which in turn sparked further explorations into culture and communication and semiotics (see my excessive tag-list).

Problem: Invoking Technology to Explain Change

Technology is so often an easy scapegoat for undesirable social/cultural/political changes, especially when they are associated with the young. Commentators so often conform to a structure of pointing out how there has been some undesirable change, providing some historical perspective (which, if you think about it, becomes easier and easier to do over time, in more ways than one…), and then writing a paragraph like this:

“Stepford concerns are over-amplified on social media. No sooner is a contentious subject raised than a university ‘campaign’ group appears on Facebook, or a hashtag on Twitter, demanding that the debate is shut down. Technology means that it has never been easier to whip up a false sense of mass outrage — and target that synthetic anger at those in charge. The authorities on the receiving end feel so besieged that they succumb to the demands and threats.”
– Brendan O’Neill, “Free speech is so last century. Today’s undergraduates demand the ‘right to be comfortable’“.

I don’t think O’Neill’s suggestion here is entirely groundless, but in its form it’s a classic example of the kind of throwaway reference to the impact of technology that we read so often, about things other than alleged differences in cultural sensibilities across generations – one might think of terror recruiting, or the polarization of political views.

So the ISM on Black Lives Matter I’ve referred to in a coupla posts on this blog is done, and both my supervisor and I are quite happy with the work. The theory (structure of communications as a way to understand social phenomena) and themes (what constitutes a social movement? what is the impact of technology?) are things I should probably develop further, and I’m writing this post mainly as a bookmark of sorts for the idea.

I don’t think ideas like ‘echo chamber’ or the illusion of being part of some majority (which I think O’Neill suggests, and which is referred to in this article) lack merit, but I think they certainly warrant greater critical investigation, especially as they are invoked so often.

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.

Week 3, Thursday: Social movements and the structure of communication in society

An article I was reading today was Robert A. White’s ‘Democratization of communication as a social movement process’, published in a reader on The Democratization of Communication (1995).

White’s main point is about the overlap between communications theory and social movement theory.

Social movement theory is broadly about why social movements occur, and how to understand their structure. As observed according to the theory, the protagonists and members of a social movement are those who are ‘marginal in some degree to the central communication and exchange networks’ (101) of a society. A corollary of this is that the potential protagonists of a social movement begin ‘in a dependency relationship to the leaders of the hegemonic coalition’ (101), through whom their access to resources and information is mediated (the proverbial gatekeepers and power-brokers).

The overlap with communications theory is that society can be analyzed as some pattern or structure of communications. Social movements can thus be thought of as attempts to ‘renovate’ (93) the communications process. The author suggests that for many societies the structure of communications is largely an ‘institutional’, ‘hierarchical’, and ‘non-democratic’ structure, and thus social movements arise in opposition to this structure and seek to modify it.

A point for further exploration is that while we can think of society as the range of institutions and forces which structure communication, i.e. as that-which-structures communication, society can also be thought of as that-which-is-structured-by communication, which is closer to the frame theorists of mediatization adopt.

White’s analysis of the actions and implications of a social movement is worth reproducing in full:

A social movement begins when the marginal groups cut their ties of dependency through more central exchange and information networks and begin to mobilize an independent base of resources in order to gain more direct access and stronger influence in the collective decision making structure. Often this can mean a fundamental change in the bases of cultural power so that the cultural capital of the subordinate groups has much more validity (101).

Reading the above passage, I found his description of the point of departure of a social movement particularly compelling, and in keeping with his preceding exposition on the nature of what a social movement is. However, I could not resist also feeling that this 1995 analysis is in severe need of an update to take into account the present-day state of technology, and social and media discourse. This is one source of motivation for my case-study.

Something else that White’s analysis illuminated for me was what I found compelling about my case-study. It is really the politics of the situation which I find to be revealing about the nature of communication technology. While the politics of the situation is entangled and fraught, I find it to also be very clearly readable. Reading this into the responses of the various parties to what they understand as ‘media developments’ could tell us something about the nature of communication technology.

The suspicion is just that communication technology has a fundamentally political dimension. In that sense White’s analysis that it is the structure of communication which is the object or site of contest remains as timely as ever.

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).

Chock Full of Notions

This article has been making the rounds a lot on FB. It seems like a lot of nonsense into which one may read a lot of sense. Some thoughts about this mess of nonsense and sensibilities:

  1. “It’s a performance” applies to anything. “Authenticity” is not the opposite of performance, but is also performed – it is, after all, a concept which by definition is only visible in performance.
  2. “Act like a dude but look like a supermodel” expresses a false dichotomy. These 2 dimensions may indeed be the dimensions that society values the most, and it may also be true that for most people progress in these 2 dimensions are a trade-off, while for JLaw it is such that there is less of a trade-off. But there are many other possible dimensions of value one could imagine, and so to count ‘cool’ as measured along these two dimensions is obviously a set-up to say either: (A) don’t envy JLaw, (B) don’t worship ‘cool’, or (C) fuck society for setting these two dimensions up. All of which are valid, and allow you to read what you please. But all of which are smarmy as hell.