A notorious recent exposition of the vicissitudes implied by post-truth culture is Jeff Orlowski’s documentary titled The Social Dilemma. At first blush the show elucidates just how far social media has permeated our culture and our consciousness. Yet, when pressed to describe the problem in words (not only feelings, as would fit the standard definition of post-truth as an urge to see the world as we want it to be rather than as it is), the key presenter and protagonist seem stymied. Long pauses ensue and, in life as in film production, pregnant pauses speak volumes. Where’s the truth hiding when we aren’t sure what to say?
Finally, toward the end of the movie, the expert consensus admits that they were most worried about “bad actors” as defined by they the presenters. They proceeded to claim that “populism” is an “existential threat” to society and, indeed, the problems of our time stem from “the worst in society” working to “erode the fabric of society” aided and abetted by a “religion of profit”. One might be forgiven for asking how populism; that is, community involvement in the political process, is so bad for democracy? The answer, of course, is that the presenters of The Social Dilemma, after much stammering and stunned silences, don’t like the versions of reality they see emerging aided and abetted by the technologies they helped create. They dislike the truth of the world as it is and would prefer to substitute their own. Truth is made by those with authority, they seem to say, and the authority ought to be us.
So it seems that bottomless newsfeeds, scrolling to infinity, are serving to “erode the fabric of society”. But can you desiccate what ‘s not already flimsy? Here’s the meat of the show: in back of the “supercomputer pointed at my brain” is the reality that intellectual indolence has precluded serious inquiry into reality and the social world around us. The world online pretends to have all the answers for us to learn as we scroll. Thus, we at AU are faced with a real dilemma: do we apply our brain cells to maximal force in our studies or do we relax and wile away our lives, our only lives, on social media? Distance education can be an unforgiving beast; no one is minding us or watching over our dalliances. There’s no Mary Poppins conducting merry pop-ins to dole out sugar cubes laced with attention span vitamins.
Come Together for a Common Good—But Not Like THAT
The same question of solidarity gathered around shared truths arises in a recent book review of Upswing by Robert Putnam: “They offer a detailed sociology of decay followed by vague sermonizing about revival. But what would a sociology of revival look like? How, specifically, does a society like ours recover from the kind of broad-based breakdown of solidarity we are experiencing?” Apparently, populism is toxic unless it recreates the boring and ineffectual institutions that people find alienating to begin with! But to point closer to home, how can we evade the litany of mindless distractions that tempt our better brains away from doing their schoolwork? Truth is, we have to define the terms of what works for our unique selves and that means personalizing our study regimes.
The More Things Change.
Scrolling aimlessly through social media newsfeeds while sitting on the couch all day is a bad habit for AU study success and The Social Dilemma illustrates the corrosive nature of junk culture info-tainment in fine fashion. But as a kid growing up in the 80s it was clear that Michael Jackson in Pepsi commercials on TV was selling an equally superficial truth based on a big business selling carbonated sugar water. Where marketing is concerned, the truth today is as it was: consumerism drives our culture regardless of our health, mental or physical. So when The Social Dilemma claims that “you are being programmed” into a world based on “fake, brittle, popularity…vacant and empty” it all sounds like the oldest truth in the book.
Yet some of the most authentic and real truths have remained constant from thirty years ago to today; these truths are within and they don’t constantly need to be shared with others. They’re the inspiration that our tutors appreciate when they read our essays and they’re the twinkle in our eyes as we recount our learning to interested interlocutors. Yet, just as adults once worried that kids were becoming zombies in front of the television in my childhood, the same idea that technology is now more than “a tool…it’s seducing you” has a familiar ring to it. Barbarians of brainwash and untruth have always lurked at the gates, it would seem. And without question it’s hard to be inspired when you’re being sucked into a screen, any screen. In many ways what’s amazing is how little our culture has changed despite the insidious infiltration of wifi into every nook and cranny of our souls and into every specially-designed pocket in our jeans, jumpers, and snowboarding snowsuits. Remember when sitting at a desk was boring because it was either crack the schoolbooks or put your head down for a nap? With wifi and smartphones there’s always tasty mindless distractions on offer. Yet, the truth about the world is no more out there now than ever; it’s always a mixture of social creation, faulty reasoning, and dubious methodologies.
It seems we can’t have reality and truth at the same time; truth is extracted from empirical and intelligible reality and deployed to serve interests and power structures. Michel Foucault’s position that truth carries stealthy power verified in truth’s apparent inevitability summarizes as follows: “true power lied in the absence of repression, that power that required no threat but merely a systematic implementation to create habits was the most effective form of power. Institutions such as the education system, justice systems, and scientific institutions were examples of power that created a habitual way of acting toward one another. This power that created societal habits was far more powerful than that of repressive power because its structure was not easily identified and therefore was harder to overthrow and rebel against.” Sometimes, truths border toward fact, but if our personal truth (such as a requirement for a quiet study space) conflicts with the truth of others then we must let our personal truth win out. That’s not post-truth, that’s common sense!
Truth as Historical Unfurling; Whose Flag, Everyone’s Flag
A brief historical example suffices at the political level; nothing clarifies the truthful ambiguity of reality like a little historical awareness. I speak here of the 1964 US Presidential election. In the wake of JFK’s assassination and the looming catastrophe of the Vietnam War, two versions of the free world were presented. Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee. He said “I cherish a day when our children will restore once again as heroes the sorts of men and women who, unafraid and undaunted, pursue the truth…equality, wrongly understood, as it has so tragically in our time, leads first to conformity and then to despotism.” We may all be equal before the law, but that’s different than forcing some down to lift others up. It certainly fails the test of truth in terms of a nation of citizens equal by law.
Goldwater also stated that we must not fear the need for extreme acts in defence of freedom; “extremism in the defence of freedom is no vice.” By this he meant that dropping a nuclear bomb on Hanoi, capitol of North Vietnam and the US’s enemy in the conflict, was his method of attaining peace. Meanwhile, his opponent, Lyndon B. Johnson, wanted to hold back the nukes. The latter’s view won the day, and, in the end, the truth is that 58 000 US troops were sacrificed along with something intangible yet vital that sounds all too familiar in 2020: American prestige and moral leadership in the free world through the course of the Vietnam war.
Truths get murky when assessing competing realities. Reality is messy and at times horrific. Who knows for sure which truth in 1964 was better, but, to be sure, there were at least two of them. It’s a double bind, merciless killing or slow slaughter, and one that silences the inconvenient truth that war is always avoidable. Maybe the most important fact about the historical example of 1964 is that the world of competing truths hasn’t changed much since then, nor is it likely to. Truth is a catch phrase for agreement, if not unanimity, among so-called experts. Truth is dispensed downward, like candy at Hallowe’en or tax refunds in Spring. Unified agreement about a truth, more than any childish populism, carries a risk of authoritarianism. We can’t all agree or we’d soon forget why we all agreed.
And Now For A Poetic Word
To speak of truth is already to divorce truth from language; the speaker, her power, and her prestige, are inseparable from the words she speaks. Likewise, essays we write that have a personal flavour usually come across the most forcefully and sound the most, well, true! Yet the dream of a truth that fits all remains in language and spirit. Language is grounded on the idea of expressing a coherence between the inner mind and outer experience; yet a gap of uncertainty naturally bifurcates these two realms. We each, literally, live in our world with its own truths.
The desire for universal truth and justice free from the exigencies of context is caught and teased out in elegant contradiction by the poet Jean de La Lafontaine. Lest we imagine that mutual agreement on the ways of reality be an outcome ordained by nature, Lafontaine tells the tale of a domestic lamb peacefully drinking at a stream before being interrupted by a wild wolf.
Lafontaine’s poem goes as follows
“That innocence is not a shield,
A story teaches, not the longest.
The strongest reasons always yield
To reasons of the strongest.
A lamb her thirst was slaking,
Once, at a mountain rill.
A hungry wolf was taking
His hunt for sheep to kill,
When, spying on the streamlet’s brink
This sheep of tender age,
He howl’d in tones of rage,
‘How dare you roil my drink?
Your impudence I shall chastise!’
‘Let not your majesty,’ the lamb replies,
‘Decide in haste or passion!
For sure ’tis difficult to think
In what respect or fashion
My drinking here could roil your drink,
Since on the stream your majesty now faces
I’m lower down, full twenty paces.’
‘You roil it,’ said the wolf; ‘and, more, I know
You cursed and slander’d me a year ago.’
‘O no! how could I such a thing have done!
A lamb that has not seen a year,
A suckling of its mother dear?’
‘Your brother then.’ ‘But brother I have none.’
‘Well, well, what’s all the same,
‘Twas some one of your name.
Sheep, men, and dogs of every nation,
Are wont to stab my reputation,
As I have truly heard.’
Without another word,
He made his vengeance good–
Bore off the lambkin to the wood,
And there, without a jury,
Judged, slew, and ate her in his fury.
Might makes right during unjust circumstances, to be sure, but the theme of poem is that each side claims virtue as its mantle. The wolf has been persecuted for centuries, in Europe as on much of the Prairies and anywhere colonial culture abides, and in many cases wolves have been utterly extirpated by farmers and ranchers. If they could speak they’d seek retribution and maybe a little over-compensation.
In the end, truth and falsity, and the pursuit of veritas and humility in the face of objective reality, comes down to words and who speaks them. We each come from a different point of view with its own truth, or versions thereof, and any compromise leaves everyone a little disappointed. It’s when we refuse to speak with or even hear those we abhor, and let us be honest we all know that some who feel most progressive may also be the most intolerant, that truth yields to intellectual and emotional despotism.
Truths Build Walls; Inclusion Means the Entrance of What We Abhor
In psychology an exasperated therapist may note that a person has a wall between themselves and their Other. So consider a concrete wall: apparently impenetrable, even pretty sturdy by the hard science standards of physics, but as soon as humans are around the story changes and expands into new realms of opportunity. We bipeds may climb a wall, graffiti a wall, or go around a wall. Animals do this too but the human organism is uniquely evolved to make the wall her own in a way that suits her interests, themes and desires. A wall of “truth” assumes a common denominator, a truth which conveniently matches up with ones own core beliefs. So to really see the expanse of reality and its many truths we have to accept the impossibility of absolution from ambiguity.
Hope though we do for universal truths, be they political in the jungles of social media of pedagogical in the virtual lecture halls of AU, we must come to terms with the tangled web of realities that comprise our actually-existing human lives. And then, only then, can we treat ourselves to a second bowl of ice cream in the manner of a being truly imbued with the spirit of play that is also the impetus to innovation, creativity and even progress itself.