Truth as a Power Game

Introducing the renewed blog

Not long ago, punishing wrong believers along with wrong beliefs was the specialty of the right wing. That was what McCarthyism was all about. Today, the left wing has joined in.

Thus we see Bari Weiss leaving the New York Times with an eloquent resignation letter condemning how everyone not woke enough is the subject of bullying. “They have called me a Nazi and a racist… some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one.”

Which mirrors the sentiment shared in HarpersLetter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by many of the most popular writers and academics online, in which they worry that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted: Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic studies.” 

Finally, in yet another departure letter, Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine also described his publication as in thrall to a rising tide of left-wing censorship.

Now, it is appropriate and entirely right to criticize propositions which we believe are false or immoral. But nowadays what you hear is less often a criticism of the proposition, than a frontal attack on a person. A single ‘offensive’ statement and you are marked as an evil believer, one who has fallen from grace and who by rights should be turned out of society altogether. Apologize, reform, recant, and/or lose your job. Gone is the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.

Some cancel culture skeptics, however, think this is an exaggeration. As Zack Beauchamp, for example, points out in this Vox piece, the right to freedom of speech is something citizens have vis-à-vis the state. The current call-out culture, on the other hand, is a matter between citizens. Since we’ve still got the First Amendment, it follows there’s nothing you can’t say. So what’s the big deal?

But it’s terribly naive to claim there’s nothing you can’t say just because the right to freedom of expression isn’t under assault - that the problem only becomes serious once the state starts interfering with free speech. In fact, contrary to the point cancel culture skeptics are trying to make, cancel culture’s extra-legal character makes it a bigger - not a smaller - problem.

This is because it means you might get in serious trouble even if you didn’t do anything wrong. It means your fate doesn’t depend on the outcome of a fair process, but on whether you have enough powerful friends to prevent cancellation.

Indeed, in such an environment, Beauchamp writes in the same piece, “journalists and academics will be cruelly mobbed on social media and fired for bad reasons.”

Of course, something like that makes people increasingly live in fear that they’ll say or do the wrong thing, or have something they said or did long ago presented before the online mobs, resulting in the cancellation of their careers, reputations, and even lives. Which is why the extra-legal character of cancel culture is not an argument against its existence - it’s actually one of the biggest things wrong with it.

In support, new surveys show 32% of Americans fear their politics could endanger their employment, and 44% under age 30 and 50% of strong liberals support firing business executives who donate to Trump. Relatedly, as a 2018 study by the international research initiative More in Common showed, 80 percent of the population believes “political correctness is a problem in [the United States],” including 61 percent of traditional liberals.

This seems to me to be empirical evidence suggesting that the people who support extreme levels of political correctness are harming rather than helping society.

Now, these people often present themselves as representing the reasonable majority. Maybe they even believe that themselves. Yet I wonder whether the social-justice crowd has become the dominant voice on cultural affairs not because their views are actually the most popular, but because they are so good at silencing the others. The left-wing attempt to intimidate dissenters by calling them “racist” or “sexist” or whatever is nothing but an attempt to replace science and debate with political muscle.

Then again, this might just mean they’re winning.

As historian Sophia Rosenfeld argues in her interesting book Democracy and Truth: A Short History, in practice, instead of a free civil marketplace of ideas, politics has always been a vicious fight over the truth and the power of determining it.

What is perhaps distinctive about today’s post-truth era is that both left-wing cancel culture and the alt-right fake news machine seek to make the determination of “truth” more and more obviously a consequence of brute power alone. Hence the current intolerance of opposing views, vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.

Post-truth’s “key risk”, Rosenfeld diagnoses, is that “the particular, old-fashioned mythology around truth, which remains central to the modern liberal democratic imaginary, will turn out to have outlived its relevancy and its appeal, and we will have nothing to put in its place.”

This newsletter is about solving that problem. How do we, as a society, come to a public understanding about truth? Why do we, individually, believe and act as we do? And how might we, on both counts, do better?

PS. I moved this newsletter party over to Substack, in case you can't tell, mostly because I’ve come to believe it’s the most writer-friendly brand out there. Oh, and, yes, I’m back! Sorry for the ghosting, the publishing break wasn’t meant to last so long. Expect weekly writings from now on! 😁 I have missed you all!