In the summer of 2002, reporter Ron Suskind met with a senior advisor to George W. Bush who famously accused Suskind of living in the “reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from (a) judicious study of discernible reality.” Suskind writes:
“I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment (sic) principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
That conversation was frankly frightening. The president of the United States basing world-encompassing decisions on something other than reality?! But that was then and this is now. Thank goodness the Bush years are behind us and the imperialistic worldview and lack of respect for fact-based reality his administration embodied has been thoroughly discredited. Except that…
In the summer of 2016, The Huffington Post reports that Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord told CNN’s Brian Stelter that “he doesn’t think fact-checkers — as in, people who verify whether politicians are using actual facts or just making stuff up — have a place in today’s political campaigns.” As The Huffington Post reports:
“Lord’s comments came in response to a question from Stelter, who asked if Trump should ‘be more careful’ in his speeches, given that fact-checking is critical of Trump ‘across the board.’
‘I honestly don’t think this “fact-checking” business … is anything more than one more out of touch, elitist media-type thing,’ Lord said. ‘I don’t think people out here in America care. What they care about are (sic) what the candidates say.’”
So, in the space of 14 years, objective facts have been reduced in some minds from a competing theory of reality (constructivism vs. empiricism), to an “out-of-touch media-type thing” to be casually backhanded into a dusty corner of history. What is going on?!
Well…in this day and age of partisan politics, logic and fact-checking are simply too difficult for many to attempt. Logic and fact-checking require education, emotional restraint, patience, and intense mental effort. In the past, when German totalitarianism and Soviet communism were still relevant, American citizens at least paid lip service to these Enlightenment ideals, but lately many have become much less willing to make the effort. German totalitarianism and Soviet communism are passé and we are in the midst of a frightening sea-change to multiculturalism, which is sparking a corresponding and desperate global resistance. The mainstream media, struggling to hit the right balance between the traditional ideal of “objectivity” and the subjective demands of our modern zeitgeist of individuality and self-absorption, can’t be relied upon to clarify what is real and what isn’t while their overtly partisan counterparts provide a safe, fact-fluid space for true believers. For these reasons, and others, facts have become, to many citizens, just an inconvenience to be whimsically discarded. For them, the winner of the American presidential race should be the one who makes the most compelling emotional case, facts be damned.
So here we are, back to being frightened. But there is hope. For most of humankind’s history, facts were practically unobtainable by common folk. Reality was composed and disseminated by elites. Then, 576 years ago, the printing press began eroding that state of affairs. Photography, radio and television broadcasting, computers, cable, satellite systems, and the Internet followed. Now every “bit” of public information is recorded by someone, archived somewhere, and retrievable somehow and all of this is literally at our fingertips. Motivated reasoning and related cognitive behaviors are being thoroughly investigated, and these investigations are yielding actionable results. The mainstream media are testing new strategies for “objectivity,” that include baldly stating when a newsmaker is lying or misinformed. The economic and psychological downside of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, the current implosion of Trump’s campaign, the political theater performed by Democrats in Congress who are finally fed up with domestic massacres, are all, arguably, consequences of the anti-fact trend. In other words, ignoring facts, as effective as it might have been in the short-term, does not appear to be working in the long term. Facts appear to have a strong future, in spite of the current fad of denying or ignoring them.
But what about Truth? If we are to live in a global village we must be as concerned about Truth as we are about facts. What is the difference? Let’s say a space alien visits the Earth and a human starts to describe our planet: “This is a property of that, and this happened at that time, and when you do this you get that as a physical result.” Facts. The space alien replies, “So what?” Truth. All humans, when faced with incontrovertible physical evidence, can – theoretically – agree on a fact. Truth is a different story. As we approach the eventual integration of Earth’s many cultures, histories, religions and philosophies, Truth will prove to be quite a sticking point. How do we meet this challenge?
To answer this question, we must take a closer look at what Truth is and how we find it. Now, epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge – Truth, facts, etc.) is not for the faint-hearted. It is a tangled, Gordian Knot-like, impenetrable, seething conglomeration of twisting, intertwined snakes eating their own, and each other’s, tails, but a very simplistic stab must be endeavored.
One might say the first source of Truth was Divine Revelation. Humans heard “God’s voice” directly. (Check out Julian Jaynes’s classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind for a plausible and fascinating explanation of this phenomenon.) The second source of Truth was conceivably Authoritarianism. That which was heard directly was recorded and enshrined as the ultimate authority. Authoritarianism defined the Middle Ages. Then came the Enlightenment and Rationalism . Rationalism’s method was logic. If it didn’t make “sense,” if it wasn’t internally consistent, than it wasn’t Truth, no matter who said it. Science was the culmination of Empiricism, a fourth source of truth, which depended on physical perception and accurate measurement of an “objective” world. Finally, American philosopher William James described a fifth source of Truth – Pragmatism. If a belief, when applied, led to expected results, greater simplicity and integration, greater understanding, etc. – if it worked where the rubber meets the road – then it was True. There are many other theories of Truth, but these are five of the most prominent.
While Divine Revelation is rarely employed in the public sphere, we depend upon Authoritarianism every time we google something, follow tradition, or consult a doctor, parent or teacher. Some of us still aspire to use Rationalistic logic and Empirical facts on a daily basis, and Pragmatism is easily learned and still relevant. Of course all these sources of Truth have shortcomings, Divine Revelation and Authoritarianism most of all, and none of them is sufficient in and of itself. So what do we do? One suggestion is to use several simultaneously. If a belief makes sense (Rationalism), matches the facts (Empiricism) and works (Pragmatism), it is likely to be “True.” If it is also espoused by an authority (Authoritarianism) so much the better. This approach seems eminently workable, except there is one more variable we who live on a shrinking planet must now take into consideration – the context.
Those of us who have to surf contexts in our daily lives understand that what is “True” in one context (our home for instance) is not necessarily “True” in another (at work or at the nightclub). And what is “True” in a small context is not necessarily “True” in a larger context. For example, that which makes sense, matches the facts and works within a group of 100 white, middle-class, Southern American, middle-aged Christian males might no longer apply when a young, brown, upper-class, Hindu female foreigner joins the group. The context has enlarged and changed and new “Truths” must be determined.
This is where Progressives come in. We, as a species, have always had the potential to self-destruct. As we accelerate into the Age of Aquarius, we will absolutely need a core set of essential Human Truths to peacefully coexist, and Progressives’ insistence on equality and inclusion and our dedication to facts and rationality will be crucial to the formation of these Truths. It is, in other words, difficult to overstate the importance of the participation of Progressives in human society. Modern neo-conservatism and Trumpism have done us a service by clarifying what not to think and what not to do in an emerging multicultural world. The importance of fact, reality and Truth might not have become so obvious if these philosophical concepts had not been grievously assaulted. But now they have been, and we are clear-eyed and ready and doing something about it. And that’s the truth.