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.

#MeToo exists in an ethical twilight zone

What do we think about when we think of the #MeToo movement? #MeToo is many things—it’s complex and conflicting; it addresses our collective memory (or lack thereof) and history; it touches upon social and economic class, religion, race, and, of course, most of all on gender. And it touches upon the glue of our society: trust.

A few weeks ago, I heard that the Boston Review had decided to keep the writer Junot Díaz on as a fiction editor. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cleared Díaz of allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.

In many ways, the whole “Junot Diaz case” can be placed within the post-truth era of fake news, which again is one of ethics. For example, the journalist Ralph Keyes claims in The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, “Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life.” He goes on to consider that we may have reached a stage in our social evolution that is “beyond honesty.”

The era of post-truth is also an era of moralism. Everything is too easily reduced to good and bad, as if no grey areas exist. This is also part of the rigid identity politics that characterize US politics today, which far too often produce a mindless label—as if only a black person can speak against racism, a homosexual against homophobia, a woman against male abusers. Such assumptions show a lack of imagination. They also avoid staring at all the grey areas. For example, the grey areas are probably the weakest points in the otherwise powerful and very welcome #MeToo movement, in which the Junot Díaz case can be placed since it deals with a man of power accused of behaving badly.

Morality typically deals with whether something is right or wrong. However, being moral is not always the same as being right. For example, a story isn’t true because its moral is, and vice versa. Furthermore, morality is not something unchangeable; rather, it’s a social artefact. Our moral norms change as a result of new knowledge. This knowledge, of course, should be convincing, valid, reliable, and trustworthy. Unfortunately, lack of trust seems to be the protagonist in this particular case.

“Post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight zone,” Keyes writes. “It allows us to dissemble without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is reconceive our values.” Keyes’ point is interesting. One of Díaz’s main accusers was the writer Carmen Maria Machado, who referred to a Q & A session she had with Díaz, where she claims he was “abusive”, “bullying” and “misogynist.” However, when confronted with a recording of this particular discussion, Machado was forced to admit she had been exaggerating, saying, “I’m not a victim of Junot Díaz. I’m a female writer who had a weird interaction with him.”

Weird, of course, is not necessarily misogynist.

Why did she lie? Did she deliberately stretch her wording to fit the #MeToo vocabulary? So far, Machado has not apologized—perhaps because she is afraid of people’s hate and judgment, or afraid of losing face, or afraid of being accused of lack of empathy. Or, maybe, she doesn’t care, maybe she distrust the institutions who cleared him… no one knows. However, what’s “interesting” is that Machado’s accusations violate trust, which we all need to coexist, regardless of age, gender, religion or sexual orientation, etc.

In an essay entitled “Truth and Politics“, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and that facts themselves are not in dispute.” Truth, therefore, is not the same as having an opinion. For example, Machado might have the opinion that the she was verbally abused, but in reality she is fictionalizing the truth, or creating “alternative facts” as we call it today.


The Danish philosopher K.E. Løgstrup said that trust is elementary or fundamental to human existence. Would I leave my three children at a public school every morning if I didn’t trust the teachers? Would I cross the street with them if I didn’t trust people to stop their cars at a red light?

Trust binds us together. It affects marriages, friendships, parents, and society, including politicians and scientists who inform us about the ecological disasters that humans are creating. Løgstrup emphasizes that human interdependence only works if we trust one another. Trust allows me to surrender myself into the hands of another, to make myself vulnerable, because I expect a respectful, compassionate, and trustful feedback.

Therefore, when Carmen Maria Machado lied about Díaz, it was not just a little white lie. Her words impacted everyone. Not only because she accused a well-known writer but because we trusted her. Some may have been skeptical of the validity of the accusations—thinking of sensationalism, etc., but, at the same time, #MeToo taught us the importance of believing the girls and women who had come forward so courageously. For too long, the victim has suffered unnecessarily because being a victim has been associated with shame. Shame is the reason why many women (and men) and children don’t tell about abuse.

When I discovered that Machado lied and didn’t correct her words until she was confronted a month later with an audio recording of the interview, she became less believable. When she was confronted with a recording, she appears annoyed and defensive but, surprisingly, she also appears to be angry for being exposed. “Stop lecturing!” she said. “That’s what’s so fucking weird. The level of condescension.”

And this is perhaps the saddest part. It may cause people to doubt the sincerity of #MeToo. Machado’s behavior perfectly fits with our cultural acceptance of lying. As Keyes notes in The Post-Truth Era regarding the rise in the use of euphemisms for deception: “We no longer tell lies. Instead we ‘misspeak.’ We ‘exaggerate.’ We ‘exercise poor judgment.’ ‘Mistakes were made,’ we say.” It’s as if we—many, at least—have become careless of what is true or not true.

If we want to change society into something better—a society based on equality, respect, and compassion—then we must trust one another. Trust is also the foundation of critical thinking because we assume that people say what they mean for the sake of the truth, not their own agenda (read: self-serving).

We become wiser by admitting our mistakes, that is to say be accountable for our actions and words, but also by acknowledging all the grey areas when it comes to human interaction, not just between men and women but between all kinds of identities—gender, race, age, culture, beliefs, etc. Let’s not forgot that all identities are prisons. They might make us see something more clearly from our own point of view but are often blind to a lot of other aspects. Let’s not forget that men and women should be able to discuss things without fearing being labeled misogynistic. Let’s not forget that nothing is ever completely black or white. Sometimes women lie, use their power; sometimes men are falsely accused.

The great writer Terry Tempest Williams once said that she wanted to bear witness to both the beauty and pain of our world in her writing. By “bearing witness,” she said, “the story told can provide a healing ground.” With regard to the case of Machado and Díaz, healing arises if their conflict is not used to draw a deeper ravine between genders but, instead, to acknowledge that all parties have suffered, and that trust is only gained through apology and change of actions that will make the grey areas less grey.

Mod det falske

Løgn, manipulation og strategisk forførelse er, og har altid været, en del af den politiske dagligdag. Nogle vil mene: en del af alles dagligdag.

Jeg vil forsøge at tydeliggøre, at et for ensidigt fokus på ”post-truth” reelt overser noget mere essentielt, nemlig en tiltagende skødesløs omgang med livet. Internettet og især de sociale medier har fremmet en nonchalant tilgang til livet, der har forvandlet os til forbrugere uden reel indsigt i, hvad vi vil. Vi er blevet forført til afhængighed. Det indebærer også, at information opfattes som gyldig, i det omfang den stemmer overens med vores egne interesser – i det omfang den er brugbar for mig.

Læs resten af essayet i Eftertryk

Life is a shockingly hairy crotch

“The smooth is the signature of the present time,” writes philosopher Byung-Chul Han in Saving beauty. This kind of smoothness, he continues, “connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing.”

Han claims that today smoothness is the same as beauty, and this concept embodies today’s society of positivity. We live in a society that offers no resistance; we simply look for others to like us or like what we have posted. Smooth, smoother, smoothest = good, better, best.

Another way of saying this is that a lot of contemporary art works in concert with neoliberal capitalism, instead of resisting or working against it. For instance, Han contends that Koons is, “arguably the most successful living artist at the present is a master of smooth surfaces.” In other words, Koons is playing the capitalistic game. What determines success is the ability to sell your art. Success is here being defined as being known and admired.  Koons’ version of art does not require the artist to open an “echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence,” as Han writes. “The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether.”

Koons is about as progressive as a Brazilian waxing.

For readers, who are familiar with Han’s work, Saving Beauty unfolds the same arguments against today’s achievement society. Han discusses the transparent, porno, and burnt-out society we have become. What is sad, of course, is that art, apparently, has also been reduced to something kitsch: shiny tulips, balloons, and smoothness.

This book is full of startling, precise statements. For example, he says, “A selfie is precisely such, an empty, expressionless face.” The addiction that our current society seems to have with taking selfies only illustrates an actual emptiness of the ego. It lacks character, and instead, it is smooth and easily likeable.

The core argument in Savage beauty is that today, beautiful equals smooth, clean, and transparent. In contrast, in earlier times, like during the era of Plato, Kant, and Hegel, there was no distinction between beauty and the sublime. Experiencing sublime beauty is not supposed to be pleasurable; rather, it hurts. It makes you fall and stumble. It is similar to falling in love because you can lose yourself and act rather stupid.

“The sight of beauty does not cause pleasure, but shocks,” Han stresses. I must admit that although I attend exhibitions monthly, I rarely am affected. Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao earlier this year, I had a chance to experience Koons’ tulips, which was a pleasurable experience. However, they did not affect me like Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time did. With Serra’s work, I found that his huge iron sculptures opened for me an encounter where I interrelated with the work in a way that affected my equilibrium. The viewing his work made me become someone else. That is the beauty of experiencing your own fragility.

“Instead of opposing the sublime to the beautiful, one should return to beauty a sublimity that cannot be subjected to inwardness,” writes Han. Art can shake us, make us see the world differently, and make us perceive our own limitedness and flaws. “The longing for beauty,” Han says, “is ultimately the longing for a different mode of being, for another, altogether non-violent form of life.” Unfortunately, the digital nature of beauty in our current age has removed all negativity or otherness that might have existed. All there is left is something likeable. Yet, following Heidegger, Han suggests that concealment is essential to beauty since “transparency and beauty do not go together.”

This reflects how information cannot be veiled, whereas knowledge can retreat into secrecy. Art is related to the secret story as Roberto Bolaño once said. It conceals something for us, but it often does so in a way that it painful and not pleasurable. Art  requires hard work. “Without injury, there is not truth,” Han claims. The smiles and likes of today, “lacks any intensity, any quality of a shock.”

Beauty is located, somewhere “between disaster and depression,” according to Han, “… inherent to beauty is a weakness, a fragility, and a brokenness.” I have experienced that feeling with the artwork created by Serra, not with Koons’ work.

In today’s transparent consumeristic society, art is rarely contemplative. The ideal consumer, Han argues, is a person without character. The ideal worker or citizen in today’s neoliberal and capitalistic society tolerates everything as long as it sells. Nothing is avoided because there might exist a market somewhere for it. “Facebook is a characterless market,” Han writes. Art, when it is made smoother, is characterless as well.

Still, why all the fuss about saving beauty? Why must we fight to save it?

“Beauty promises freedom and reconciliation,” and “truth is freedom,” as Han writes. In other words, a world of smoothness is false; it’s a world of “post-truth.”

For Han, the beautiful is both true and good, it’s almost like the Korean-German philosopher is turning Platonic.

Han is a strong critic of contemporary society. He elegantly hides his own moralism (most of the time). When “beauty frees me from myself,” Han points out, then saving beauty is also a way to rescue the other. It represents an opportunity to save the negative and that which constitutes me as another.

Han ultimately ends up embracing the philosophy of Alain Badiou, especially, his idea that the task of philosophy is to be loyal or faithful towards whatever binds us together. (Han also ended up with Badiou in his essay, The Agony of Eros).

If there is a morale, it is that we have to show fidelity to what takes place. Fidelity is unconditional in that it presupposes commitment. That means, that we once again should try to become capable of matching all parts of life, not just when life is pleasurable and smooth. We must do so even when life is a shockingly hairy crotch or chest. To do so is to save democracy. Or as Han finishes his essay: “The saving of beauty is the saving of that which commits us.”

I recommend the book.

See also my review of Buyng-Chul Han’s In The Swarm.

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