Category Archives: Argument

Fake News and The Semantics of Post Truth

This enigmatic term – “post truth” – has been around for some time now and it is confusing for most people. Since the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that the concept of post truth was significant enough that it was identified as word of the year in 2016, we are certainly justified in trying to make more sense of it. What does it mean and how did the concept of post truth get so central to the interpretation of some important ideas in contemporary culture? It is no accident that the concept of post truth exists at the same time as ideas such as fake news. What follows is an explanation of post truth and how it informs the notion of fake news.

Briefly, post truth is the idea that objective facts are not so important in shaping opinion as opposed to emotional appeal and personal beliefs. The “anti-maskers who refused to wear a mask or quarantine during the Covid crisis because they didn’t recognize the validity of the science behind immunology or network theory are one example of a group of people who represent a post truth mentality. Some theorists have argued that political policies are no longer developed on the basis of facts and the distinction between fake and real is unimportant. Consequently, democracies become emotional political processes.

If facts become unimportant or nonexistent then they become victims of a strong social construction; that is, it becomes possible to have everyday citizens be the determinants of what gets defined as a “fact.” There is something terribly paradoxical about this. Facts are supposed to be the sine qua non of stable truth. If anything should not be subject to the whims of human emotion and variability, it is facts. How can you argue that facts are pushed to the background and unimportant? Are not facts supposed to be stubborn and true? The answer, within the post truth theoretical tradition, is “no” facts are subject to the same social influences as any other construct and hold no privileged position in political discourse. Facts can be redefined, manipulated, and reinterpreted to mean anything and the key issue is how many converts can I create.

Trump set about the business of delegitimizing the press. Of course, the press is the one institution that holds Trump’s feet to the fire. The single institution that fact checks him, exposes his lies and manipulations, and records his indiscretions. So, it makes sense that he would go after the press and he did so by making the distinction between fake news and real news. Of course, real news was only stories supportive of Trump. Anything critical was labeled fake news.

Facts are under siege. They are becoming highly politicized where people express their own facts – what they believe to be facts or want to be facts – in order to turn the concept into a rhetorical weapon. The term fake news is a good example. It is appropriated by political actors in order to attack opponents. The concept of “fake” is no longer a measurable or precise definitional question but one of political authority because the issue is who gets to control the definition in order to use it for his or her own purposes and is therefore in a position to dismiss others.

Trump’s appropriation of the term fake news is so extreme as to be laughable. A skilled manipulator of meaning will exploit certain commonalities of meaning in order to lend them some credibility. Those who accuse liberals on the left as being socialist have been effective because certain concepts and ideas that emerge from the political position termed “liberalism” do in fact have at least some similarity to positions emerging from theories of socialism. That is why those who attack liberals by deploying the word socialist have been successful. They conflate the two terms (liberal and socialist) sufficiently such that the relationship between the two terms is plausible and the narrower more aggressive and distasteful ideas associated with “socialism” are more easily transferred to “liberalism.” But Trump declared even before the election that if he did not win the process was rigged. He baldly asserted the “fact” that there were election improprieties even though no charge was ever accepted and not a single claim supported.

It is clearly possible to cite more precise meaning and fact-based issues that distinguish liberalism from socialism, but this is not my concern at the moment. Because the role of communication is so central to democracies, these democracies are saturated with disagreement over what is “real” and what is “false.”

Part 2 of this essay will examine the nature of democracy and how one discourse follows another in terms of how much accepted disagreement it can tolerate. I will clarify how post truth rejects a rational political discourse that results in consensus; thus, post truth contends that maintaining a multitude of political voices, all contained in their subjective reality, is a more accurate reflection of the work of democracies and must grapple with the idea that logical and rational problem-solving is the definitive approach to managing differences, which is the goal of democratic processing.

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

New Ways to Argue in America

America has always benefited from the tradition of rational discourse. It is part of our political DNA. And more than many other political cultures, we have at least approached the Habermasian ideal of moral communication conditions and the value of the best argument. The bases of American political history – that is, the foundational ideas upon which the nation is based did not fundamentally begin with religious precepts, the divine right of kings, or an oligarch’s economic theories. This is not to say, however, that we are not a religious country. We are. But a country in which Jeffersonian pragmatics and democracy were more important to our founding ideals then kings or religions.

There is no arguing with kings and religions. They have an immovable set of principles and everything is measured against those principles. The epistemology of ignorance begins with moral absolutes and the desire to consistently reproduce their truth value. It is what Jacob Siegel writing in Tablet calls the arguer-commander or that person who believes himself to be the deliverer of justice. It used to be the case that the American tradition of rational empiricism in the political realm sought truth and logically justified inferential conclusions. In the true scientific sense, it was possible to change your mind, be wrong, or accumulate new information that intellectually forced one to change or consider new options.

But the argument-commander, who rejects science for example, emerges more from a tradition of religiosity than deliberation. This new form of argument is populated by people who do not represent the tradition of reasoning from empirical premise to conclusion but consider themselves rhetorically untouchable. For example, a racist who holds a set of distorted beliefs about racial characteristics that he or she considers inviolate, thereby concludes that certain issues are beyond dispute. The person will consider a right to be beyond argumentation.

And holding these moral commandments that are so true they are beyond justification is not the sole province only of the left or the right – although it is more characteristic of the right – because both positions can hold commanding precepts that the arguers are more interested in perpetrating than in some type of genuine deliberation.

Holding a moral-political position that one considers so fundamentally true that it releases him or her from the normal requirements of reason and reflection is related to the polarization in American society.

The basic component of the epistemology of ignorance is that ignorance underscores distortions in thinking such as racism, sexism, or ethnic stereotypes and establishes arguments based on different assumptions; it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices. Rather, they play a role in promoting racism and white privilege. But ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool to wield against white privilege and white supremacy.

There are distinct and deep-rooted traditions of rational empiricism and religious sermonizing in American history. But these two modes seem to have become fused together in a new American mode of argumentation that is validated by elite institutions like the universities, The New York Times,  and especially on the new technology platforms where battles over discourse are now waged. Intermingling the technical vocabulary of reasoning with endless moral generalities about rights and truths, held passionately by individuals, results in the corruption of defensible discourse. The arguer-commander is animated by rhetorical purgatory—unremitting racial oppression that never improves despite myths about progress and society as a ceaseless subjection to identity assault. “In possession of justice, the arguer-commander is free at any moment to throw off the cloak of reason and proclaim you a bigot—racist, sexist, transphobe—who must be fired from your job and socially shunned.”(See Siegel reference above)

Practitioners of the new argument bolster their rationalist veneer with constant appeals to forms of authority that come in equal parts from biology and elite credentialing. Again, as Siegel points out “Have you noticed how many people, especially online, start their statements by telling you their profession or their identity group: As a privileged white woman; as a doctoral student in applied linguistics; as a progressive Jewish BIPOC paleontologist —and so on?”

 In the end, the execution of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Treyvon Martin and others is a white supremacy lethal public health issue that should be treated as such. I will continue to make the case but increasingly “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore.”

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