A world of “alternative facts”?

In her essay, “Truth and Politics,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute” (all quotes from Arendt are taken from Richard J. Bernstein’s brilliant book, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now).

Let me elaborate on that by referring to the #MeToo movement; the movement is, probably, one of the most interesting—and hopefully—sustainable movements of change in recent years. What concerns me here, however, is not who has the power to tell their story—although this is important as well—but how power shapes what any true story could possibly be. In other words, it’s obvious that most reasonable people welcome that women have both the courage and power to tell their stories, and yet, we should be careful not to let the label—#MeToo—paralyze the need for critical thinking regarding what is being said.

One way of blurring the distinction between fact-based truth (factual truth) and falsehood, as Arendt mentioned, is to claim that any factual truth is just another opinion. When dealing with abuse or violence is it enough to have an opinion about whether or not someone is being abusive? Without any sense of what is a so-called factual truth or facts, we too easily move into a fictional world of “alternative facts.”

Seen in this light, the accusation toward the writer Junot Diaz—to mention one recent example—might seem to neglect this distinction between falsehood and truth. Instead, the accusers tend to represent something Arendt would call propaganda. The issue here is not whether Diaz is a good guy or a bad guy, but how the accusers framed him as an abuser “under” the power of #MeToo, regardless of the factual truth of the matter. In doing so, the accusers have not only undermined the movement, but also showed—as Arendt also predicted—that they knew that many people don’t really care if they lie. Instead, many people will admire them (bandwagon mentality) for their tactical skills in accusing a well-known writer to gain publicity for themselves, or perhaps even to sell some books. As Bernstein writes: “Factual truth-telling is frequently powerless against image-making…”

Arendt also wrote: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”  The possibilities for lying become limitless and, far too often, are met with little resistance. Referring to the Junot Diaz case and #MeToo, one obvious reason for this little resistance against falsehood can be that no sane person wants to appear as if they are against equality and respect, which the #MeToo movement represents. Yet, quite paradoxically, the power of this movement comes from telling the truth; the truth that is powerful enough without being fictionalized.

Arendt noted: “What convinces the masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.” Assuming that #MeToo is such a system, then, like all systems, it is maintained by the culture that the users install. Here, I prefer people who play fair, that care about the truth, that are capable of putting personal agendas aside to cultivate trust, respect, and equality which, actually, is what #MeToo is all about. Following the Junot Diaz case, the accusers appear deliberately to be committing what looks like a character assassin. Why? Some suggest envy, greed, hate, and even racism as motives… I’ve no idea. All I know is that the opposite of factual truth is deliberate lying. (On a similar note, see #MeToo exists in an ethical twilight zone).

Also I know that literature can help us experience the difference between falsehood and truth, it has the potential to confront us with our moral limitations. It can stimulate our empathy and make us recognize our need for compassion. In many important ways, writers and other artists hold a mirror to society that allows it to see its ugliness and its beauty. I think, we need to keep the madness alive—through art. We need this for the sanity of humanity.

In other words, writers must dare not to follow the herd. This requires writers who doesn’t simply moralize but who risk asking the ugly, offensive questions (see e.g. All women are not angels). The artist creates, imagines, and enlarges—and sometimes that is not pretty.

What is far worse than immoral art is when people—citizens in democratic societies—don’t know the difference between falsehood or truth, or when some people don’t really care. The theme that runs through Arendt’s thinking, according to Bernstein, is “the need to take responsibility for our political lives.” Lying and responsibility, of course, doesn’t go hand in hand. It never has. Instead, Arendt showed that organized lying and fictional image-making are techniques perfected by totalitarian regimes, she showed that the banality of evil comes from our inability to think, that is to say, our inability to question, doubt, wonder, analyze, and constantly debate and clarify the relationship between power, truth, and lying. “Thinking is an activity that must be performed over and over again in order to keep it alive,” Bernstein writes in another book called Violence.

The Junot Diaz case shows that we still, all of us, have a long way to go before the world is a safer place full of trust, respect, compassion, and equality for all.

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