Whose truth is it anyway?

Swallowing the lies – or ‘alternative facts’ – of populist politicians is having profound consequences. NJ Enfield takes a fresh look at a potent old tradition – and suggests a way forward.

There is increasing alarm at the rise of a post-truth doctrine of alternative facts, currently flourishing most notably in the populist contexts of Trump’s ascendance and the recent Brexit campaign. Just one example, from too many of late, comes from White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s stunning statement about the Trump inauguration: it drew ‘the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period’.1 This lie was so spectacularly brazen – and futile – that it went beyond the realm of any rationalization in terms of PR spin or wishful thinking. What is happening?

The situation in US politics may feel unprecedented, but alternative facts are not new. The phenomenon should be familiar in essence: a person asserts something which is plainly false – or at least, is not what it seems – yet asks people to believe it. Anthropologist Chris Knight and colleagues argue that this ‘collective deception’ is the very basis of symbolic culture in our species.2 Groups of people tacitly agree to act as if certain statements were true, yet the truth of those statements cannot be demonstrated, and the evidence may in fact be to the contrary. For creationists, life on earth was created by a divine being. For middle-class Laotians, having a new motorcar blessed by monks will reduce the risk of car accidents. For the Dorze people of southern Ethiopia, the local leopards are devout Christians. Rather than take this last statement to be true – in the scientific sense that it yields predictions that cannot be falsified by evidence – anthropologist Dan Sperber analysed it as symbolism.3

Counterfactual assertions like those encountered in religious contexts function in part as a way of bonding social groups. Group members adhere to the same belief, and this defines both their common membership within the group, and their non-membership in groups that do not adhere to the belief – consider, for example, any two rival religious groups. Further, at the individual level, collective deception requires each person to go out on a limb, committing to the group by agreeing to defend a claim that cannot be proven.

Facts and versions

Is it right to compare today’s post-truth political culture to traditional metaphysics? Many commentators are outraged by the success of the doctrine of alternative facts in mainstream politics, and yet many of the same people have embraced a relativist doctrine of equal validity, as philosopher Paul Boghossian terms it.4 This is the view that different versions of the truth can happily coexist, and are equally valid. Boghossian’s primary example pits Native American cosmology against archaeological science. Did Native Americans originate in timeless subterranean spirit worlds or in human migrations across the Bering Strait some 10,000 years ago? Sebastian LeBeau, an official of the Cheyenne River Sioux, states: ‘We know where we came from. We are the descendants of the Buffalo people. They came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for humankind to live here.’4 If our criterion for determining truth were to demand evidence that is independent from people’s beliefs, then only the migration theory has a chance of being true (putting aside real issues with the evaluation of evidence). Yet many academics have been willing to demote the role of evidence entirely, and to say that different claims can be equally valid, even when these clearly contradict each other.

When we grant validity to a claim that is not supported by evidence, this gives power to those who make it

It might be argued that if we are going to be consistent, we have to treat Spicer’s claim about the Trump inauguration in the same way that we treat LeBeau’s claim about his people’s ancestral origins. Either we accept both as valid or we reject both as not supported by evidence. Yet many people would be uncomfortable with this. Many would vehemently dispute Spicer’s inauguration claim while defending the validity of LeBeau’s Native American origin claim.

A way to understand the apparent inconsistency of attacking the doctrine of alternative facts in one case while defending the doctrine of equal validity in the other is to recognize that the issue is a political and moral one, not a rational one. When we grant validity to a claim that is not supported by evidence, this gives power to those who make the claim. It does this by allowing the claim to stand as a reason for further claims, decisions, or demands, without demanding the usual accountability to evidence that goes with any claim to know the truth. This is understandable when used as a strategy for defending those who are powerless in a world of social inequality: a good example being the Native Americans cited by Boghossian. The claim that a group’s ancestors emerged from an underground spirit world may not be confirmable by evidence but it could provide much-needed legitimacy to a disenfranchised group struggling to determine legal rights over land and natural resources.

True believers

Looking through this moral lens, it is similarly understandable that we are neither obliged nor inclined to suspend the usual accountability to evidence in the case of Sean Spicer and other Trump surrogates. If false or unverified assertions are allowed, so are the consequences that follow from those assertions. Insisting on evidence is a defining element of accountability, and it is crucial to the checks and balances that are inherent to the ideals of democracy.

The post-truth trend is a danger to these checks and balances because it conflates two things that should be kept separate: opinion and fact. Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, recently stated, ‘Whether there’s widespread voter fraud or not, the people believe there is.’ He was putting forward the non-evidence-based beliefs of a group of people as a justification for political action – in this case, the introduction of increasingly restrictive voting rules. Woodhouse’s remark is particularly instructive, as his appeal is not to any evidence for the belief, but the mere fact that the belief exists. Here we see the path toward a complete conflation of belief and knowledge that leaves no room for accountability in public decision-making.

The post-truth trend is a danger to the checks and balances of democracy because it conflates two things that should be kept separate: opinion and fact

If truth is determined by reference to evidence, then the doctrine of alternative facts and the doctrine of equal validity are one and the same thing. But this would miss the point. The point is that rational principles are outranked by political and moral considerations. When we allow assertions to be made without or against evidence, we are coming to the defence of the agents of those assertions. The question is a moral one: who should we be defending? Different groups will have different answers.

If allowing a group’s non-evidence-based claims to stand as truth is a way of unifying and empowering the people in that group, then it is hardly surprising that populism is a place where the doctrine of alternative facts has taken off. When people commit to the truth of unverifiable assertions, they are simultaneously signalling their membership in the group and their willingness to go to some length to signal that commitment. This point is not lost on the architects of Trump’s reign. Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug), a writer on Steve Bannon’s recommended reading list,5 echoes the anthropologists of collective deception: ‘Nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army.’6 In the context of competing versions of the truth, the anti-establishment populist can frame himself as the little guy. The problem? The ‘little guy’ now has his finger on the button.

NJ Enfield is Professor of Linguistics and Head of Research for the Network on the Crisis of Post-Truth Discourse at The University of Sydney.

  1. nin.tl/Spicer-metrics
  2. Chris Knight, ‘Sex and language as pretend-play’, in R Dunbar, C Knight and C Power (eds) The Evolution of Culture, 1999, Edinburgh.
  3. Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism, 1975, Cambridge University Press.
  4. Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge, 2006, Oxford University Press.
  5. Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols, ‘What Steve Bannon wants you to read’, Politico, 7 February 2017, nin.tl/Bannon-read
  6. nin.tl/Yarvin-quote