The following is an extract from Bernard Keane’s new book Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit.
What is a fact? For some important philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, there’s no such thing.
In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, American philosopher Daniel Dennett railed at the role he believed post-modernist philosophers had played in legitimising political lying, in particular the rise of Donald Trump:
Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: ‘Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.’
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Tim Williamson, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, said something similar the same year to the Irish Times, complaining of philosophers introducing “bogus complexity”:
The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies … Obviously it wasn’t mainly post-modernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.
Some reject this criticism and accuse the likes of Dennett for caricaturing and exaggerating the influence of philosophy. But it’s a hard charge to refute when Richard Rorty, a self-described post-modernist, stated in a 1988 essay, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy”, that “the very idea of a ‘fact of the matter’ is one we would be better off without” and that objectivity “is of little relevance when one is trying to decide what sort of person or nation to be”.
Such a statement was problematic when Rorty made it; given the state of politics in recent years, it now looks tailor-made to justify the likes of Trump and his white supremacist followers. What’s the point of trying to understand the history of the United States — or any other white settler society — through a more objective lens, incorporating the perspective of, for example, Black Americans, or Native Americans, or victims of American imperialism? A thoroughly white perspective, even a white supremacist perspective, is every bit as valid as any “objective” perspective. There are, Rorty seems to suggest, very fine people on both sides.
Blaming philosophers for providing intellectual cover for political liars might overstate the impact and role of even the highest-profile public intellectuals. But the claim illustrates something less arguable: that the tools of analysis and critique developed by critics of Western institutions and social structures, as part of an effort to deconstruct and expose their use of power to maintain existing systems of privilege, can be readily deployed against everyone, including by the powerful and privileged.
Thus one could argue that no one group in society, even a government, should dictate what is true to another group when they have no understanding of what it is like to be that other group. The experience of each group, and each individual, is different. Trying to override that experience with some externally developed “fact” that fails to take into account those feelings and experiences is surely intolerant of that individual or group, if not oppressive of their human rights. And, once accepted, that argument can be used by any group, no matter how absurd their claims.
For the working policymaker, whether elected or not, such arguments are useless. They must deal with the real world, with real budgets and imprecise policy tools. Facts must have some objective value in order to guide policy and make life better. You need facts to guide decision-making. In a democracy, facts provide the accountability to determine whether one policy, party or politician may better serve the electorate than another.
Policymakers must be philosophical pragmatists who understand that facts must meet a communally agreed test of truth and serve a practical purpose. They must work in the real world, for more than one person. Those who make decisions in the public sphere, who purport to serve the public interest, who govern others and manage the public purse, are stuck with facts, whether they like them or not. And Scott Morrison, it seems, doesn’t like them at all.
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