I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk with Guardian journalist George Monbiot, discussing his latest book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. I felt like I had been in the lecture theatre before, only I was suddenly the youngest there. The average age of the audience must have been 45-60 years old, and the tweed jackets and scarfs beat on the socialist drum that was pulsing around the room. It felt strange but challenged my preconception that the majority of socialist thinkers in a university city are going to be in the 18-25 age bracket. They seemed to be the last of those who had yet to be picked off by politics’ dead ends.
Monbiot talked about a lot of stuff, but in particular, he spoke about neoliberalism, why it’s problematic, and why we need to create, what he calls, a new ‘restoration story’. Giving the example of the 2008 crash, Monbiot deals with a problem we still face today: idleness in a time of eruption. Despite the shock the Panama and Paradise Papers provoked, we seemed to move on from them—they became old news. The link between shock and indifference is important here, as, I believe, indifference is actually a modest term for ‘normalisation’. When we feel tired and alienated by the world around us, when we no longer have the energy to react to controversies, we’re not just being ‘indifferent,’ we are normalising the change—the eruption. The biggest winners out of 2008 were, in fact, the losers: the crucible of the chaos that occurred in the autumn of 2008 was the normalisation of failure on a vast scale. It was validation to the banks that they were too big to fail, but more importantly, they were allowed to fail. When I stated, ‘it became old news,’ the significance lies in how long it takes to become old news. What keeps news afloat, and what allows it to sink to the bottom of the ocean of information?
Is this critique of our ever-growing desensitisation an indictment of neoliberalism? Yes, partly. The lack of regulation in the economy has social implications too; it has unequivocally led to truth bending in order to sustain the status-quo. Whether or not you believe in neoliberalism, it has created pillars of power that are now too critical to the model, hence why we struggle today with the financial sector’s grip on our economy. But the way in which we react with the truth isn’t exclusive to singular ideologies. Our approaches to epistemology will be forever changing (as long as we stay uncertain, irrational beings), but our relationship with the truth is no longer changing naturally. It’s being torn apart.
We tend to remind ourselves of events that were beyond the realm of control and regulation; the world was left vulnerable in the wake of learning about the Holocaust. Our emotional state was shattered when we watched two jet airliners smash into the two tallest buildings in Manhattan. And thus, the emotional significance doesn’t disappear—the news remains relevant, and we use these past events to shape our future. But can the same be said now? This concept is explored further in a zealous documentary by Adam Curtis: ‘HyperNormalisation’, who reflects on the effects of technology, and how accessibility to a constant stream of information has begun to devalue the important and neutralised our critical thinking as a whole. Nobel Prize-winning economist, Herbert Simon, taps into this very idea, noting, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. We are now fed information that is regulated and processed in a way that puts the videos of sprinkling salt onto a lump of steak next to news stories sharing evidence that suggests that Russia is actively meddling in other country’s democracies. If asked what holds more significance, a large sum of people, without hesitation, will say the latter. When exposed as plainly as this, it’s easy to spot the difference. The problem isn’t this, though; it’s the fact that the Russia story is now undermined by its environment. As Herbert Simon states, this regulated stream of arbitrary information causes a “poverty of attention”.
On top of the arbitrary nature of information processing, the immediacy of information—the emotional indifference in which it is propelled onto us—results in Curtis’ idea of Hypernormalisation. Breaking news is faster than ever now due to the world’s incredible accessibility, but so much so that we no longer have time to reflect. After news is broken quickly regarding terror attacks, and the bleak vividness is spread through Snapchat and WhatsApp, over time, we learn to swallow the information like nasty medicine, rather than taste it—feel its implications and meaning. We normalise the absurd because it is now processed and told in a way that now gives it structure amidst the chaos.
“Despite the increase in accessible information brought about by technology, something counterintuitive is happening: people are rebelling more than ever against valid and relevant information to preserve irrational sentiments.”
The way we deal with the truth has changed, because, over the last five to ten years, it has been thrown in with the quotidian narratives of our lives. This is what lies at the heart of the epistemic problem: we are struggling to separate our emotional narratives with our rational, critical ones, because the lines between the two have been blurred. This idea isn’t new; we’ve always had the flaw of bias. But despite the increase in accessible information brought about by technology, something counterintuitive is happening: people are rebelling more than ever against valid and relevant information to preserve irrational sentiments. This is problematic, as our indifference towards news stories is already enough to let the powerful deceive us. We hear that some reckless bully in the U.S. has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and then we go and make a coffee. We learn that the Labour Party have decided their policy on Brexit is not to be in the custom’s union, and then we go out and get pissed in town. A popular response to these observations is usually, “well, I don’t think I can really change these facts.” But this is diverging the problem. We are political whether we like it or not because politics imposes itself on everybody. Therefore, the least we can do is try to remain rational instead of emotional. In an age of tribalism and heightened partisanship, we must disregard our emotional sentiments to our beliefs—even if it hurts. If it hurts, you’ll know your judgement was lopsided. As the truth is so fragile now, we need to challenge those we trusted and loved as well as those who seem relentless in their bigotry. Partisanship is Bad. Jeremy Corbyn was a beacon of hope for many in June, but I do not agree with his policy on Brexit. I will still vote for Labour if an election was called tomorrow, but at least by acknowledging this dichotomy in the party’s beliefs and my own, I am not being manipulated. The way we process the ‘truth’ is no longer good enough—our environment has shaped us to be indifferent. Therefore, more than ever, we need to be critical of both our own beliefs, and the information that we are fed. If it means a period of disillusion, that’s better than a lifetime of delusion.
If the idea of the truth being manipulated by technology, our economic and social environment wasn’t uncomfortable enough, let us imagine a world where those who control us recognise this manipulation, and turn it up a few notches.
We can navigate a vague beginning (in the U.K.) of the sudden spike in systematic attacks on epistemology to Michael Gove’s comments twenty days before the referendum, claiming “people have had enough of experts,” failing to see the hypocrisy in this statement, as he sat on the edge of his seat in the Sky News studio, laying down dogmatic ideas about the ills of the European Union and its supporters. The comment was always going to do well, as Britain seems to still hold its inflated ego. But the hypocrisy was there to be seen. If we’ve had enough of experts, why would you want to act like one? The flippancy of the statement and what it was implying also conveniently leads to lack of enquiry into their own beliefs, too, at least by those who haven’t made up their minds. By playing down expertise, Gove is disregarding not only experts who put forward sound arguments, but also those who criticise his own.
By falsifying known truths and consensus, brought about by qualified experts and years of research, Gove and so many other people of power are able to begin a conspiracy against all information. Is it Fake or is it Real? By simplifying information into the categories of right and wrong, people like Gove are able to convince people to take their line of argument without exploring the facts. Multifaceted propositions such as leaving the European Union become one-dimensional. It almost feels as if Gove is saying, “Don’t listen to people that may change your mind, just listen to me and vote Leave on the 23rd June.” This oversimplification, in turn, creates dogmatism, which, consequently leads to the polarising political spectrum we’re witnessing today.
This idea of discrediting certain information, cherry picking what is brought to the surface and what is smothered, is touched on by David Roberts, writer at Vox, who sheds light on the ugly possibility of an unequivocal truth being simply ignored in the context of the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. election:
“Say Mueller reveals hard proof that the Trump campaign knowingly colluded with Russia, strategically using leaked emails to hurt Clinton’s campaign. Say the president — backed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News, Breitbart, most of the US Cabinet, half the panelists on CNN, most of the radio talk show hosts in the country, and an enormous network of Russian-paid hackers and volunteer shitposters working through social media — rejects the evidence.”
While how we deal with information has been changed due to technology and the structures that define us, politicians, media moguls, lobbyists, CEOs, thinktanks, and so on, have begun to test its threshold. How far can we smother the truth? When Donald Trump joked he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” technically, he was right. Perhaps in Donald World, he was referring to his apparent charm, but deep down, he was probably implicating something slightly more sinister. With the backing of his own party and the neccessary, sensationalist press, he has the components to be immune from the truth, let alone being forced to spin it. If need be, the reaction to his actions can be smothered and replaced with a bogus story about Hillary Clinton, or talking about how great the stock market is doing (helped out by his handy backing at the Wall Street Journal). By constantly pushing the threshold of surprise as well, we gradually become desensitised to such behaviour. While many of us laugh at the sight of the President’s tweets, we cannot view the tweeting as an impulsive, arbitrary habit. Trump’s tweeting isn’t his Achilles heel—it’s his own news show. Behind the humour of how he articulates his tweets, one by one, he’s changing the conversation. By trivialising major issues and flippantly rejecting ideas in such dogmatic fashion, he has shifted our ideas of what politics actually stands for. The age of tidy politics is over, and we are struggling to deal with the rapid change. Oh, has he killed another baby on Fifth Avenue? Dammit Donald. Honey, can you pick up the kids? Oh, look, he’s retweeting unsubstantiated videos posted by an unreliable, disrespected, far-right British political party! Did a parcel arrive for me in the post?
A slightly more modest example of this technique was recently employed by Boris Johnson. Knowing he could work around Theresa May and large chunks of the British press, Johnson saw an opportunity to test his power. After telling the foreign affairs select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “training journalists” in Iran, it took more than a week for Johnson to formally apologise. While he didn’t reach a Trump-level denial of the truth, eventually copping out due to pressure on social media and from some news outlets, the attempt to smother the truth and hope for it to go away was an example of how people in power have recognised the new age of ignoring the elephants in the room.
Perhaps the political discourse of the past was defined by spin—apologising, but apologising in a certain manner, in a certain context. Now, it seems, we are moving into a new form of spin. Just ignore the scandal and move on. Talk about something completely irrelevant and hope it goes away. Another scandal? Move on. Never apologise. Politicians no longer have to stay on topic or expect a consequence, even if that consequence simply requires them to say sorry. If the Democrats were to threaten the Republicans with spin-doctored stories, I don’t think they would bat an eyelid. We are seeing this at the moment with the allegations involving Republican and Senate candidate, Roy Moore, although—I wouldn’t class these allegations as ‘spin’.
Remember: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and not lose voters.”
I earlier talked about ‘truth bending’. This technique unfortunately seems to have mutated into ‘truth irrelevancy’. And people are accepting it. It’s no wonder that last year, Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’. In this interview with CBS, Trump doesn’t attempt to put any sort of spin on his Obama wiretapping claim, instead he just hedges the entire conversation until it goes away. In this discussion between Prof. Brian Cox and Malcolm Roberts regarding the validity of climate change, a similar pattern emerges, only Roberts, perhaps due down to somewhat higher integrity, does try to squander some incorrect observations. Then, if you aren’t exhausted enough already, watch the gradual suppression of the truth in the Republican Party’s shifting policy on climate change. I ask people to watch those three clips and tell me that it’s just hyperbole to claim that the truth is becoming less and less relevant. Unfortunately, past ‘truths’ seem to die young, and denial of these previous truths do not ring enough alarm bells. If they did, surely Trump would have been eliminated in the primaries? How do journalists, trying to spread understanding, combat something so simple yet so effective? What do we do in the face of this problem?
If we go by David Robert’s observation and acknowledge that incriminating evidence against Trump might somehow not be enough to remove him from office, how on earth are we supposed to tackle climate change? At this rate, climate change deniers will be knee-deep in water before the accept their city has been flooded due to the problem they vehemently denied for so long. Amidst the wide scope of problems we find ourselves in due to the manipulation and denial of the truth, climate change is a particularly worrying one. If you’re interested in this, I recommend reading David Runciman’s ‘How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous‘.
When I began writing this piece, perhaps being too contrarian, I actively wanted to avoid the line of argument “Trump is the first chapter in an Orwellian dystopia”. But I sort of stumbled upon it anyway. It’s not that Trump himself created this, rather he is just the perfect vehicle for those who want to exploit the vulnerability of truth and disregard political etiquettes (if there ever were any) in order to progress their ideology. We can hope that the Democrats retake the House in the midterms approaching in order to combat this current Republican Party, but something far more vast is needed in order to reconvince people of tenets once complacently believed to be solidified in our society.
Before writing this piece, I also knew I wasn’t going to produce a materialistic answer for this problem. I think as well people already are all too aware of the observations I’ve made here. But now is not the time to lose sight of them… in my opinion. I can only offer the simple advice to value your integrity not through your sentiments but through your rationale. And remember to differentiate between the two. Always.