The politics of facts: The importance of social philosophy in the “post-truth” era

(By Kyle Curlew, Queen’s University)


It has been over a month since Kellyanne Conway excused her political deceit as “alternative facts” in a live NBC interview. However, I suspect we will be feeling the repercussions of this excuse-turned-political-doctrine for some time. The birth of “alternative facts” in the White House shows a shift in the way political institutions produce and share knowledge to a divisive public. The shift in relations between the press and the White House has set fire to journalistic conventions. President Donald Trump and his allies have made the White House unreliable and unpredictable. This cannot be ignored.

Jar Rosen, a professor of Journalism at NYU, has been advocating the barring of Conway from the press in order to strip her of a platform through which to spread lies. CNN responded by declining Conway airtime on the “State of the Union” news. Even though CNN dropped this policy after 48 hours, proponents of the media are beginning to ignore Conway and her “alternative facts”, noting that her descriptions of events have little journalistic merit. Barring this political mess from the public eye is a compelling and satisfying thought, but a counterproductive one.

There are already multitudes of people who accept the Trump administration’s claims as fact rather than fiction. The last time we underestimated the power of these “facts,” Donald Trump was elected president. People’s beliefs and the structures of those beliefs are of great interest to sociologists. Unfortunately, these objects of study have not received a lot of attention in the past. But times are changing. We have been rapidly thrust into a world of “post-truth” that allows “fake news” to spread. The problem is exacerbated further when the president calls reliable journalists “fake news.” We are experiencing a shift in the way people understand and consume knowledge, as the lines between fact and fiction have become blurred. We have no choice but to critically analyze the news we consume. The sociology of knowledge must become an indispensable analytical tool as we face this increasingly unreliable style of politics.

With the changing paradigms of truth, a different perspective may be useful in combatting this complicated sociological issue.) Though an unpopular opinion, Kellyanne Conway was right: alternative facts are indeed facts. They illustrate how we understand the reality around us. People consume these facts and share them through social media, regardless of their reliability. Though seemingly harmless, these alternative facts have consequences that shape how people perceive and practice reality.

This existence of infinite truths can be referred to as “ontological politics”—a rather complex and perplexing philosophical understanding of how we perceive and understand multiple renditions of reality. It is a philosophical toolbox used by sociologists such as Annemarie Mol and John Law, though the ideas have been developed and implemented by many others. Ontological politics seeks to explain the messy world we live in. There are countless competing ethical and moral value systems based on diverse experiences of the world. Because there are so many different understandings of the world, reality is not fixed, but is in constant flux. Not only does reality change with time, people can harness resources to consciously shape it. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter which ideas are the most factual. Instead, it is important to recognize how certain facts make up the belief systems that shape how people perceive the world.

Understanding how “facts” shape society is of critical importance in a “post-truth” world. As science historian Donna Haraway cleverly describes these political sensibilities,

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”

Having accepted that there are multiple competing renditions of the facts that define reality, we can apply this perspective to the political issues at hand. The political issue is: which “facts” do we take seriously? Who benefits from a particular rendition of the “facts”? And how do we shape beliefs towards a more accountable and reliable system of believing?

Many of us, subscribe to scientific facts that are worked out by experts with rigorous methods and devices. But there are people who believe in facts that do not have scientific merit, such as the Earth being only six thousand years old, vaccines causing autism, and the idea that terrorists populate every disenfranchised group of refugees. These facts are not supported by rigorous methods, nor by the institutions for which the scientists, experts, and journalists do important work. These facts will never send someone to the moon or protect people from diseases and terrorists but instead can lead to horrible events. They lead to people like Trump storming the US political system. They lead to brutal, racist regimes.

Facts cannot be produced from nothing, because as John Law points out, they take a lot of work. Organizations are routinely practicing the art of “truth creation”. These organizations include political parties, non-governmental organizations, religious organizations, academics, activists, and journalists. Great amounts of resources and efforts are pulled together in order to generate reliable, or at least practical, claims of truth. Each of these groups has followers that consume those “facts” and spread them around the world. To much of the left wing, the infamous “pro-life” sentiments are a prominent example of claims that ignore scientific facts in favour of a particular ethical system.

The many practices of ontological politics are not trivial, even if they are embedded in everyday life practices or “common sense” knowledge. They are important and have immense consequences. They are pre-meditated and produced by people with intentions to shape the world in particular ways. Ontological politics is a divisive battle of knowledge that serves to shape what is right and wrong, normal or abnormal, belonging or excluded.

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