Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Beyond ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’

After the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, a row broke out about the number of people who actually attended the inauguration, in which Trump’s spokesperson was derided for using the phrase ‘alternative facts’. The evidence, as illustrated by the photos, seems pretty clearly not in support of the ‘alternative facts’ offered by the Trump administration, but I’m not interested in discussing the details of that (which have been much debated) here – rather I’m interested in the outrage attached to the idea of ‘alternative facts’. After all, the thinking seems to go, we have the facts here, so how can there possibly be alternative facts? A similar line of thinking seems to be behind the burgeoning phrase ‘post -truth’ – as if we used to know the truth, but now people aren’t accepting that truth any more. My  view is that people who pay attention to evidence and try to develop personal objectivity are not doing their cause any favours by talking in terms of ‘post-truth’, but rather reinforcing the kind of confused thinking out of which the Trump phenomenon has been born.Inauguration_crowd_size_comparison_between_Trump_2017_and_Obama_2009

Let’s first reflect on some basic features of the human condition, that we can all probably find in our own experience. We all have beliefs about the world, but those beliefs have also often turned out to be wrong, even if we held them along with lots of other people. This applies not just to ‘values’ such s the past belief that slavery is OK, but also to past ‘facts’ such as that the world is flat. As an individual, I can confess that I used to believe a number of ‘facts’ that I now no longer accept, such as that sisters are always older than you, that I would never be able to find a girlfriend, or that it’s safe to drive at 60mph over a moor with loose livestock on it. There are also the limitations of our senses, perspective, and most of all our language, which depends for its meaning on our bodies and metaphorical constructions, not some kind of correspondence with potential truth (for more on these sceptical themes, see this article). On the whole then, we must admit that we have no access to facts. It’s not just Trump who is deluded if he claims to know ‘the facts’ or ‘the truth’, but you and me too. Post-truth politics, along with post-truth philosophy and post-truth everything else, thus seems to have begun with homo sapiens as a whole, and our emergence of a capacity to hold and express any kind of belief that we might assume to be true. The first post-truth politician was the Serpent tempting Eve.

If we finger populist politicians for a fault that it can easily be seen that we all share, then, it is hardly surprising if we’re seen as hypocritical. Though I don’t see a lot of the often unpleasant social media output by Trump supporters, one thing that has struck me about a lot of what I have seen is the predominance of accusations of ‘liberal hypocrisy’. If liberals claim to have ‘the facts’ and respond to Trump’s excesses with blustering counter-assertions in a similar style, that accusation doesn’t seem to me wholly unjust. I think there are far more effective ways of responding that identify much more clearly what Trump and his henchmen are doing wrong and which avoid this ‘post-truth’ shortcut. It’s not whther they have or don’t have the facts, or don’t share your view of them, that matters here: but that they don’t offer those facts with provisionality, are not open to correction, are not interested in examining evidence or justification, are not even concerned about gross inconsistencies in their beliefs, and are not at all interested in improving on their beliefs or making them more adequate. In terms of values, they do not respect the truth or the facts. In relation to all these points, I agree very much with Trump’s critics that the new administration’s attitudes are extremely alarming.

If you genuinely respect the truth, you don’t claim to have it, just as if you respect the power of electricity, you don’t stick your finger in a live socket. Truth is a meaningful concept to us, because we use it in all sorts of ways in all sorts of practical contexts – for example, in science, in law, and in everyday conversation. We have set up an abstract model in which ‘truth’ stands for an idealisation – a fabled position in which we could really know what is going on, not just more than we did before, but totally, as in a God’s eye view. But nevertheless that abstract idealisation is just an extrapolation of our much more limited experience: the experience of recognising things we didn’t ‘know’ before, and of confidently interacting with the world around us in a consistent way. Most of the time, our confidence about how the world works turns out to be justified, so we apply this idealised concept of ‘truth’ to that experience, in the process completely failing to take into account the limitations of our view. So it’s very important that ‘truth’ is recognised as meaningful, and not relativised in its meaning, but at the same time recognised as beyond our reach.

Let’s take an example. A child brought up in a household with a  friendly dog, confidently playing with it and interacting with it, thinks it’s ‘true’ that dogs are friendly. When he encounters the first unfriendly dog, though, his whole model of the world is briefly shaken, the ‘truth’ is shattered. There may be denial – the unfriendly dog doesn’t really count as a dog. There will certainly be initial stress, followed by suspicion and unease in a new uncertain relationship with dogs. But we don’t all have to be as fragile as that child, if we stop thinking in terms of ‘truth’ but rather cultivate the awareness that our beliefs are only justified for the moment on the basis of the evidence so far. If we can be aware of other possibilities to begin with, we will be less overwhelmed by the nasty surprise when it happens.

In the realm of politics, that means concentrating on the qualities that actually matter in making our judgements adequate, the ones that involve a larger respect for truth, rather than railing about others offering ‘alternative facts’: namely the personal qualities of provisionality, awareness, imagination and observation. It means setting the example to those who don’t understand this, and teaching children not to ‘tell the truth’, but rather to reflect upon and justify what they say. It means holding Trump to account, not for ‘lying’, but for being grossly inconsistent and failing to offer evidence or respond to criticism.

It may well be that most of those who complain about lack of truth, when pressed, would actually agree that what they value in practice are these ways of justifying and adjusting our beliefs. But while they continue to use ‘truth’ and ‘post-truth’ as a lazy shortcut, I think they will play straight into the hands of people like Trump. All that such populists have to then do when challenged is to turn back to their unsophisticated supporters, deny the criticism, and offer their own ‘alternative facts’. The discussion will then stay at the completely unfruitful level of mere claim and counter-claim. As our beliefs about the world are wrapped up with our goals, our ontological obsession with what is or is not ‘really’ the case is our biggest weakness, the absolutizing vulnerable spot in our cognitive abilities. It’s only by putting ourselves in the messy middle zone of neither accepting nor denying these ‘realities’ that we can make progress, whether in politics or any other area of human dispute.


Picture: Comparison between inauguration crowd sizes for Donald Trump in 2017 (left) and Barack Obama in 2009 (right). Images copyright to 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee (left) and ewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images (right), and are used at low resolution under fair use criteria. 

The Middle Way on Trump

When polarities become extreme, we need the Middle Way more than ever, and the election of Donald Trump as US president polarises not just the US, but the world. That’s not just a polarisation between those who voted for him and those who desperately oppose him. Amongst those who do not support him, some urge adaptation to new ‘realities’, others eternal resistance to the normalising of this unpredictable new power in the world. The new US administration currently seems to offer horrible visions for the future: galloping global warming, mass round-ups of US immigrants, potential abuse of executive and legal power in the US on an unprecedented scale, and the untrammelled exercise of autocratic power by Russia.

What is the Middle Way in response to such? It’s not a compromise or just an appeal to moderation. As always it requires us to go back and rethink our starting assumptions. The Middle Way involves the identification and avoidance of absolute assumptions, both positive and negative, and in many past political conflicts, those absolutes have been ideological ones. Bush caused conflict because of the inflexibility of his neo-conservative view that liberal democracy could be imposed on Iraq. Reagan and Thatcher caused conflict because of their inflexible faith in market mechanisms.donald_trump_as-a-young-man

But Trump isn’t like that. He is not an ideological absolutist. He has changed party at least five times. Has been recorded contradicting himself on numerous occasions, for example on this video. Nobody can accuse him of being inflexible in terms of ideology. He crosses the lines between traditionally liberal positions (e.g. investing in infrastructure) and traditionally right wing ones (e.g. tough on immigration). So does that mean that Trump is a pragmatist who exemplifies some version of the Middle Way between ideological extremes? Unfortunately not. His positions are so variable because they apparently don’t even have a basic level of reflectiveness and consistency behind them of the kind that we generally expect from successful politicians. Far from being stuck in a dogmatic, left-brain model of how the world is or ought to be, he apparently hasn’t even reached first base in assembling a basically coherent ideological view of the world about which one might be dogmatic.

So what is Trump’s absolutism? From the evidence available to me, it seems to be just egoism. His view of the world is that he can’t be wrong or acknowledge weakness regardless of his inconsistency, and the beliefs that he holds to absolutely are just that what Donald Trump believes in right now is right. That makes him an ultra-pragmatist in the worst, not the best sense – that is, of someone who will follow political expediency based on very narrow values. He doesn’t flip-flop because he’s so integrated that he’s provisional, but rather because he’s not even integrated enough to hold an ideological position.

What about the thinking of those who voted for him? The dominant absolutism here seems to be one of nostalgia or idealism about ‘making America great again’, together with absolute rejection of ‘the establishment’, crudely identified, regardless of their actual merits or demerits. You don’t have to go into any further social or psychological profile of Trump voters to identify that tendency. These feelings seem obviously to have been absolutised, because they have not been weighed up against any assessment of the strengths and weakness of Trump’s policy or personality. Of course I don’t know whether or not that’s the case with every Trump voter, but there seems no reason to question it as a reasonable generalisation.

So, of course, Trump isn’t absolutely wrong, and nor are his voters. But I agree with his ‘liberal’ critics in being extremely concerned about the situation. His level of dogmatism is not even grown-up, to the extent that many people in the world have no idea how he is likely to act or how far he means what he said in the campaign. The Middle Way is quite compatible with overwhelming confidence in one position or another, precisely because we have recognised that we have no justification for absolute positions, and therefore a respect for evidence and the power of coherent provisionality and a clear rejection of absolutism. That confidence has to be politically opposed to Trump.

But what about the ‘you can’t normalise this outrage’ argument verses the ‘realpolitik’ argument? The Middle Way always requires us to accept the conditions, but one of those conditions is the tendency for people to socially normalise what was once considered utterly unacceptable and then forget that they have done so. That can work positively to make people forget how much better today’s world is for, say, for ethnic minorities, women, children or LGBT people than it was even 50 years ago. However, it can also work negatively to  enable the persecution of minorities to become normalised when it wasn’t before, as it did in Nazi Germany. We always need to maintain a wider awareness of the possibilities than the people in power would like us to have. So, recognise the reality of Trump but don’t normalise him. Don’t let him take over your consciousness too much. Take breaks from politics to get perspective. Remember the standards you had before Trump.

As a British person, I’m not in a position to contribute to bringing down Trump, but he is nevertheless likely to affect my life profoundly. I’d like to support all Americans who oppose him, and wish you the best of luck in removing him as soon as possible (whilst, of course, trying to engage positively with the Trump voters). That’s a politically partisan wish, but not one coming from unreflective absolutism. As far as I can see it demonstrates an application of the Middle Way, which is a method of dealing with both internal and external conflict without false neutrality. Your understanding of the Middle Way, of course, may be different because it depends on the conditions you are addressing in your life. You could conceivably reach a different conclusion whilst sincerely and reflectively applying the Middle Way. But since most readers of this blog are likely to share many features of the overall cultural and political context of the modern West with me, I doubt it.

Related: Introduction to Politics and the Middle Way

Picture: Donald Trump as a young man (public domain picture)