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Post Truth

It has been declared, rather dramatically, that this is a post-truth era. In making a case for this, people point to Trump lifting himself into the presidency on an unrelenting spew of untruths as well as the surging success of fake news. On the one hand, this view is appealing: untruth seems to have emerged victorious over truth. On the other hand, this view is obviously false. Truth remains, as it always has and always shall. In discussing this matter, I will begin with a metaphor.

Imagine, if you will, people in a tent located within the jungle of the real. Between the fabric walls of the tent, the inhabitants weave narratives about all manner of things and are rewarded or punished based on whether others believe or reject their tales. Some realized it did not matter whether their tales were true or not and found that lies were lapped up like the sweetest honey. They became convinced that all that mattered was their stories. But they are wrong.

Outside the tent, stalking the jungle of the real, is a tiger whose name is “truth.” The tiger does not care about the sweetness of narratives. The thin fabric of the tent is no match for her claws. The tiger might pass by the tent (and perhaps the dwellers grow a bit quiet and nervous) time and time again while doing nothing (allowing the dwellers to return to their noisy tale telling). But someday, perhaps soon, the tiger will come through the thin fabric and her hunger will not be satisfied by even the sweetest of lies.

While a metaphor is not an argument, it is easy enough to make one based on the tiger story. The tent is analogous to the society we construct that serves as a fabric between us and the rest of world (the jungle of the real). The people in the tent are us and the untrue narratives are the lies. The tiger is truth, which is how things really are. As in the metaphor, no matter what lies people tell, the truth remains true. While people can often get away with these untruths and perhaps avoid the consequences for a while, reality remains unchanged for good or ill. For example, consider the narrative woven by the sugar industry about sugar, fats and heart disease.  This tale, told within the tent, has shaped the American diet for decades and served the sugar industry well. However, reality is not changed by such narratives and the consequences for health have been rather serious. The tobacco companies provide yet another example of this sort of thing. Perhaps the best example is climate change. Some think that it is lie told by a global conspiracy of scientists. Others think that its denial is a lie fueled by those who profit from fossil fuels. Regardless of one’s view, one side is weaving a false narrative. But the tiger is out there—the fact of the matter.

It could be objected that few believe that this is really a post-truth era in the sense that there is no truth. Rather, it is that truth just does not matter that much in certain contexts, such as politics. In one sense, this is true—Trump was, for example, rewarded for his relentless untruths and he might usher in a regime of untruth with great success. Some of those peddling fake news have also enjoyed great financial success, thus showing (once more) that there can be great profit in lies. On this view, Ben Franklin was wrong: honesty is no longer the best policy, lying is. At least in the context of politics and business.

In another sense, this is not true. While lying has proven an effective short term strategy, it will still ultimately run up against the truth. Going back to the metaphor, the tiger is always out there. As an example, while the narrative of climate change might result in short term success, eventually it will prove to be a long-term disaster. Those who believe it is real recognize the disaster will be the climate change. Those who deny it claim that the ruin will result from the catastrophic environmental policies imposed by the green gang. So, both sides assert that reality will impose a disaster—though they disagree on the nature of that disaster. While both cannot be right in their claims about climate change itself, they are both right that ignoring the truth will be a disaster—something that is very often the case.

It could be countered that my view is mistaken because I am considering the impact of such lies broadly—that is, how their consequences can impact people in general. I should, instead, focus on the advantages to those engaged in the untruths. In philosophical terms, I should embrace ethical egoism—the moral theory that what is right is to maximize value for oneself. Alternatively, I should just accept selfishness as a virtue.

While it is true that an unskilled liar can end up in trouble, those with a true talent for untruth can ensure that they benefit from their untruths and that the harmful consequences impact others. One obvious way this can occur is that the harms will take time to arrive. So, for example, lies about the climate will not harm the liars of today—they will be dead before the greatest consequences arrive. Another way this can happen is that the harms occur to other people and are avoided by the liar by physical distance from the harms of their lies. For example, lies about the safety of a town’s water would not impact the health of a governor who does not live in the town.

A third way is that the liar might be able to protect themselves through their wealth or position. For example, a rich straight white Christian who lies about things impacting Muslims, blacks, gays or poor people does not reap the harms of those lies. These consequences fall upon the others.

A selfish reply to this is that most of us are more likely to be harmed by broad lies than benefited by them. This is because most of us care about our relatives who will be alive when we are gone, because most of us live in the impact zone of lies, and because most of us lack the status and wealth to escape the consequences of broad lies. As such, we have a selfish interest to oppose lying—it ultimately hurts us far more than truth.

An altruistic reply is that we should care about other people and the harms they suffer. This can also be argued for on utilitarian moral grounds—that this lying will create more unhappiness than happiness for everyone. There is also the religious argument—most religions endorse the truth and enjoin us to show compassion for others, to love each other as God has loved us. As such, the post-truth world should be rejected. Honesty is, as Ben said, the best policy.

 

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The Murder of Truth

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

-Merlin

There is an old joke that asks “how do you know a politician is lying?” The answer is, of course, “you can see his lips moving.” This bit of grim humor illustrates the negative view people generally have of politicians—they are expected to lie relentlessly. However, people still condemn politicians for lying. Or when they believe the politician is lying. At least when the politician is on the other side.

In the case of their own side, people often suffer from what seems to be a cognitive malfunction: they believe politicians lie, but generally accept that their side is telling it like it is. This sort of malfunction also extends to the media and other sources of information: it is commonly claimed that the media lies and that sources are biased. That is, when media and sources express views one disagrees with. What matches a person’s world view is embraced, often without any critical consideration. This sort of thing presumably goes back to the invention of politics; but it also ebbs and flows over time.

In the United States, the 2016 election has created a high tide of lies. While there is a rough justice in saying Hillary and Trump are both liars, it is trivially true that we are all liars. As such, it is important to consider the number and severity of the lies people tell when assessing them rather than merely pointing out the obvious truth that everyone has lied. On the face of it, Trump has a commanding lead in the realm of untruth. This should not be a surprise, given that the ghostwriter of “Trump’s” Art of the Deal attributed to Trump the tactic of the “truthful hyperbole.” As I have argued before, truthful hyperbole is an impossibility because hyperbole, by definition, is not true. While Trump has told many spectacular untruths, one of his most impressive is the narrative that he was the one who finally settled the birther movement and that Hillary started it. Given Trump’s role as the point man for the birther movement, this assertion is beyond absurd; but it merely assaults truth in general, rather than being aimed at undermining institutions that are supposed to committed to the truth. Unfortunately, Trump has also engaged in such undermining. Being in a field dedicated to the truth, I find the attacks on truth and the casual acceptance of lies anathema. As should anyone who values truth and condemns lies.

While it is tempting to some to place all the blame into Trump’s hands, Trump is merely following a well-worn path to the battle against truth. A key part of this battle is the sustained attack on the media, broadly construed. In the United States, attacking the media for an alleged liberal bias goes back at least to the time of Nixon. While it is reasonable to be critical of the news media, a sweeping rejection based on alleged bias is hardly a rational approach by someone who wants to think critically.

Trump has, however, added some new twists to the attack on the media. One is that he expanded his attacks beyond the allegedly liberal media to engage any reporter who dares to be critical of him—even people normally beloved by conservatives. In this regard, he has broken outside of the usual ideological boundaries. However, this seems to be the result of his personality rather than an ideological commitment on his part—he cannot not respond to any criticism that gets his attention.

It could be replied that Trump is merely engaging a dishonest, lying media—a media that has crossed ideological lines to join forces against him. This would require accepting that these reporters are liars and that they are manufacturing the evidence they use in their reporting—such as videos of Trump saying and doing the things they claim he does and says. While this is not beyond the realm of possibility (we could, after all, be in a Twilight Zone episode in which the twist is that Trump is the only honest man facing a vast conspiracy of liars of all political stripes), the more plausible explanation is that Trump is the one saying the untrue things.

Another concern is that he has engaged in a level of vitriol against the media that has not been seen in recent presidential politics. In general, he seems to have two main tactics for dealing with claims made about him that he dislikes. The first is to simply deny the claim. The second is to engage in intense ad hominem attacks on the source. Since fact checkers like Politifact expose Trump’s untruths, he has accused them of being biased and part of the conspiracy against him. While he is willing to engage in name-calling against specific people, he also engages in sweeping insults against the press in general. His attacks are taken quite seriously, so much so that Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that Trump is a threat to the freedom of the press.

It could be replied that Trump is merely giving the media what it deserves and his attacks are true—the reporters are “nasty”, “sleazy” and “not good people.” It could also be claimed that it is true the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

While there are no doubt some “not good” reporters, they do not seem to be as awful as Trump claims. Of course, Trump is known for his hyperbole and saying untrue things, so this should not be surprising. In fact, it would be out of character for Trump to describe things as they are. He seems to be locked permanently in hyperbole mode: everything is great or garbage, with little or nothing in between.

As someone who writes horror adventures for games, I like a good conspiracy theory and routinely work them into my fiction. However, if the media is engaged in a conspiracy to elect Hillary and defeat Trump, they would seem to need to go back to conspiracy school. The fact checkers check her and the media relentlessly cover stories that are harmful to her chances, such as the undying email scandal. The media, via its massive and free coverage of Trump, helped him win the candidacy and they unceasingly keep him in the spotlight. Ironically, this excessive coverage of Trump is a frightening sign of the media’s role in the erosion of truth—the focus on what is spectacle, rather than what is significant. There are also those in the media who do manufacture claims or present things in ways that cast shadows over the truth—they, too, should be held accountable for their role in murdering the truth. Be they on the left or the right.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that worries about the erosion of truth are overblown: while Trump seems to be going for a gold medal in untruths, this will have no real impact on the world. This claim does have some appeal. After all, doomsayers predict that so many things will lead to dire consequences and very often they are quite wrong. I certainly hope this is the case, that in the 2020 election cycle we will be back to our normal levels of untruths and the attacks on the media will be back to being a matter of rote rather than rage.

 

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The Erosion of the Media

A free and independent press is rightly considered essential to a healthy democracy. Ideally, the press functions like Socrates’ gadfly—it serves to reproach the state and stir it to life. Also like Socrates, the press is supposed to question those who hold power and reveal what lies they might tell. Socrates was, of course, put to death for troubling the elites of Athens. While some countries do the same with their journalists, a different approach has been taken in the United States. To be specific, there has been a concerted effort to erode and degrade the free press.

While the myth of the noble press is just that, the United States has long had a tradition of journalistic ethics and there have been times when journalists were trusted and respected. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are two examples of such trusted and well-respected journalists. Since their time, trust in the media has eroded dramatically.

Some of this erosion is self-inflicted. While the news is supposed to be objective, there has been an ever increasing blend of opinion and fact as well as clear partisan bias on the part of some major news agencies. Fox News, for example, serves to openly advance a right leaning political agenda and shows shamefully little concern for objective journalism. Its counterpart on the left, MSNBC, serves to advance its own agenda. Such partisanship serves to rightly erode trust in these networks, although this erosion tends to be one sided. That is, partisans often put great trust in their own network while dismissing the rival network. Critics of the media can make an argument by example through piling up example after example of bias and untrue claims on the part of specific networks and it is natural for the distrust to spread broadly. Except, of course, to news sources that feed and fatten one’s own beliefs. A rather useful exercise for people would be to apply the same level of skepticism and criticism they apply to the claims by news sources they like as to those made by the news sources they dislike. If, for example, those who favor Fox News greeted its claims with the same skepticism they apply to the media of the left, they would become much better critical thinkers and be closer to the truth.

While the news has always been a business, it is now primarily a business that needs to make money. This has had an eroding effect in many ways. One impact is that budget cuts have reduced real investigative journalism down to a mere skeleton. This means that many things remain in the shadows and that the new agencies have to rely on being given the news from sources that are often biased. Another impact is that the news has to attract viewership in order to get advertising. This means that the news has to appeal to the audience and avoid conflicts with the advertisers. This serves to bias the news. The public plays a clear role in this erosion by preferring a certain sort of “news” over actual serious journalism. We can help solve this problem by supporting serious journalism and rewarding news sources that do real reporting.

Much of the erosion of journalism comes from the outside and is due to concerted war on the press and truth. As a matter of historical fact, this attack has come from the political right. The modern efforts to create distrust of the media by claiming it has a liberal bias goes back at least to the Nixon administration and continues to this day. Sarah Palin seems to have come up with the mocking label of “lamestream media” as part of her attacks on the media for having the temerity to report things that she actually said and to indicate when she said things that were not true. It is not surprising that she has defended Donald Trump from the media’s efforts to inform the public when Trump says things that are untrue. Given this long history of fighting the press, it is not surprising that the right has developed a set of weapons for battling the press.

One approach, exemplified by Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” approach is to simply engage in ad homimens and the genetic fallacy. In the case of ad hominems, individual journalists are attacked and this is taken as refuting their criticisms. Such attacks, obviously, do nothing to refute the claims made by journalists (or anyone).  In the case of the genetic fallacy, the tactic is to simply attack the media in general for an alleged bias and concluding, fallaciously, that the claims made have been thus refuted. This is not to say that there cannot be legitimate challenges to credibility, but this is rather a different matter from what is actually done. For example, someone spinning for Trump might simply say the media is liberally biased and favors Hillary and thus they are wrong when they claim that Trump seems to have suggested someone assassinate Hillary Clinton. While it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of bias, merely bashing the media does nothing to disprove specific claims.

Another standard tactic is to claim that the media never criticizes liberals—that is, the media is unfair. For example, when Trump is called out for saying untrue things or criticized for claiming that Obama founded Isis, his defenders rush to claim that the media does not criticize Hillary for her remarks or point out when she is lying. While an appeal for fair play is legitimate, even such an appeal does not serve to refute the criticisms or prove that what Trump said is true. There is also the fact that the press does criticize the left and does call out Hillary when she says untrue things. Politifact has a page devoted to Trump, but also one for Hillary Clinton. While Hillary does say untrue things, she gets accused of this less than Trump on the very reasonable grounds that he says far more untrue things. To use an analogy, to cry foul regarding Trump’s treatment would be like a student who cheats relentlessly in class complaining that another student, who cheats far less, does not get in as much trouble. The obvious reply is that if one cheats more, one gets in more trouble. If one says more untrue things, then one gets called on it more.

Not surprisingly, those who loath Hillary or like Trump with make the claim that fact checkers like Politifact are biased because they are part of the liberal media. This creates a rather serious problem: any source used to show that the “liberal media” has the facts right will be dismissed as being part of the liberal media. Likewise, any support for criticisms made by this “liberal media” will also be rejected by claiming the sources is also part of the liberal media. Bizarrely, even when there is unedited video evidence of, for example, something Trump said this defense will still be used. While presented as satire by Andy Borowitz (clearly a minion of the liberal media), the fact is that Trump regards the media as unfair because it actually reports what he actually says.

While the erosion of the media yields short term advantages for specific politicians, the long term consequences for the United States are dire. One impact of the corrosion of truth is that politicians are ever more able to operate free of facts and criticism—thus making politics almost entirely a matter of feelings unanchored in reality. Since reality always has its way eventually, this is disastrous.

What is being done to the media can be seen as analogous to the poisoning of the village watchdogs by a villager who wishes to engage in some sneaky misdeeds at night and needs the dogs to be silent. While this initially works out well for the poisoner, the village will be left unguarded.  Likewise, poisoning the press will allow very bad people to slip by and do very bad things to the public. While, for example, Trump’s spinning minions might see the advantage in attacking the press for the short term advantage of their candidate, they also clear a path for whatever else wishes to avoid the light of truth. Those on the left who go after the media also deserve criticism to the degree they contribute to the erosion. The spurning of truth is thus something we should be very worried about. Merlin, in Excalibur, put it very well: “when a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” And without a healthy press, people will get away with murder.

 

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Trump & Truthful Hyperbole

In Art of the Deal Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a promoter, Trump made extensive use of this technique. Now he is using it in his bid for President.

Hyperbole is an extravagant overstatement and it can be either positive or negative in character. When describing himself and his plans, Trump makes extensive use of positive hyperbole: he is the best and every plan of his is the best. He also makes extensive use of negative hyperbole—often to a degree that seems to cross over from exaggeration to fabrication. In any case, his concept of “truthful hyperbole” is well worth considering.

From a logical standpoint, “truthful hyperbole” is an impossibility. This is because hyperbole is, by definition, not true.  Hyperbole is not a merely a matter of using extreme language. After all, extreme language might accurately describe something. For example, describing Daesh as monstrous and evil would be spot on. Hyperbole is a matter of exaggeration that goes beyond the actual facts. For example, describing Donald Trump as monstrously evil would be hyperbole. As such, hyperbole is always untrue. Because of this, the phrase “truthful hyperbole” says the same thing as “accurate exaggeration”, which nicely reveals the problem.

Trump, a brilliant master of rhetoric, is right about the rhetorical value of hyperbole—it can have considerable psychological force. It, however, lacks logical force—it provides no logical reason to accept a claim. Trump also seems to be right in that there can be innocent exaggeration. I will now turn to the ethics of hyperbole.

Since hyperbole is by definition untrue, there are two main concerns. One is how far the hyperbole deviates from the truth. The other is whether the exaggeration is harmless or not. I will begin with consideration of the truth.

While a hyperbolic claim is necessarily untrue, it can deviate from the truth in varying degrees. As with fish stories, there does seem to be some moral wiggle room in regards to proximity to the truth. While there is no exact line (to require that would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy) that defines the exact boundary of morally acceptable exaggeration, some untruths go beyond that line. This line varies with the circumstances—the ethics of fish stories, for example, differs from the ethics of job interviews.

While hyperbole is untrue, it does have to have at least some anchor in the truth. If it does not, then it is not exaggeration but fabrication. This is the difference between being close to the truth and being completely untrue. Naturally, hyperbole can be mixed in with fabrication.

For example, if it is claimed that some people in America celebrated the terrorism of 9/11, then that is almost certainly true—there was surely at least one person who did this. If someone claims that dozens of people celebrated in public in America on 9/11 and this was shown on TV, then this might be an exaggeration (we do not know how many people in America celebrated) but it certainly includes a fabrication (the TV part). If it is claimed that hundreds did so, the exaggeration might be considerable—but it still contains a key fabrication. When the claim reaches thousands, the exaggeration might be extreme. Or it might not—thousands might have celebrated in secret. However, the claim that people were seen celebrating in public and video existed for Trump to see is false. So, his remarks might be an exaggeration, but they definitely contain fabrication. This could, of course, lead to a debate about the distinction between exaggeration and fabrication. For example, suppose that someone filmed himself celebrating on 9/11 and showed it to someone else. This could be “exaggerated” into the claim that thousands celebrated on video and people saw it. However, saying this is an exaggeration would seem to be an understatement. Fabrication would seem the far better fit in this hypothetical case.

One way to help determine the ethical boundaries of hyperbole is to consider the second concern, namely whether the hyperbole (untruth) is harmless or not. Trump is right to claim there can be innocent forms of exaggeration. This can be taken as exaggeration that is morally acceptable and can be used as a basis to distinguish such hyperbole from lying.

One realm in which exaggeration can be quite innocent is that of storytelling. Aristotle, in the Poetics, notes that “everyone tells a story with his own addition, knowing his hearers like it.” While a lover of truth Aristotle recognized the role of untruth in good storytelling, saying that “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.” The telling of tall tales that feature even extravagant extravagation is morally acceptable because the tales are intended to entertain—that is, the intention is good. In the case of exaggerating in stories to entertain the audience or a small bit of rhetorical “shine” to polish a point, the exaggeration is harmless—which ties back to the possibility that Trump sees himself as an entertainer and not an actual candidate.

In contrast, exaggerations that have a malign intent would be morally wrong. Exaggerations that are not intended to be harmful, yet prove to be so would also be problematic—but discussing the complexities of intent and consequences would take the essay to far afield.

The extent of the exaggeration would also be relevant here—the greater the exaggeration that is aimed at malign purposes or that has harmful consequences, the worse it would be morally. After all, if deviating from the truth is (generally) wrong, then deviating from it more would be worse. In the case of Trump’s claim about thousands of people celebrating on 9/11, this untruth feeds into fear, racism and religious intolerance. As such, it is not an innocent exaggeration, but a malign untruth.

 

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Truth, Carson & Politics

At the end of October, 2015 the remaining Republican candidates engaged in what the media billed as a debate. Many people have been rather critical of the way the moderators managed the debate and the questions they raised. While some attribute their behavior to political bias and present it as evidence of the dreaded liberal bias of the media, a better explanation is that the main concern of the moderators was to maximize the number of eyeballs watching the event. Substantive questions about the nuances of policy and their answers tend to bore people. Questions that compare Donald Trump to a comic book villain and pit the contestants against each other are entertaining and more likely to draw an audience.

While the quality and intent of the “debate” moderators are matters of interest, my main concern in this essay is the matter of truth and its relevance to politics. I am well aware that the cynical view that truth matters in politics as much as Jek Porkins mattered in the attack on the Death Star. While people often shrug and make jokes about politicians being liars when the matter of truth in politics comes up, if truth does not matter much in politics, then we are to blame. We accept the untruths of those who share our ideology, though we pounce with ferocity on the lies of the opposing team. In fact, we even pounce on the truths of the opposing team. This is largely due to well-studied psychological biases. Fortunately, there are those who make it their business to assess the claims of the political class. Most notable among them is Politifact.

While politicians grow a bounteous crop of untruths in their minds, I will focus on one interesting example of Ben Carson and his relationship with Mannatech. Carl Quintanilla, one of the moderators, asked Carson about his relationship with this company:

 

Quintanilla: There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer. They paid $7 million dollars to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?

 

Carson: Well, it’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.

 

While some might regard this as a “gotcha” question or an example of the liberal media bias, it is actually as reasonable to ask this of Carson as it would be to ask Hillary Clinton about her various financial connections. These sorts of questions are legitimate inquiries about judgment, character and the sort of interests that might influence a politician. They also are relevant in terms of what potential scandals might emerge.

Carson was also given a clear test of character: would he bear false witness in regards to his own deeds and say something false or would he set himself free with the truth? His choice was to say he “didn’t have an involvement with them.” Unfortunately, this claim contradicts the known facts. The Wall Street Journal has laid out Carson’s ties to this company. Politifact has, not surprisingly, rated his claim as false. They did not, however, apply the lowest ranking, that of Pants on Fire.

No doubt aware that Carson had make an untrue claim, the moderator endeavored to press him on this point:

 

Quintanilla: To be fair, you were on the homepage of the website with the logo over your shoulder.

 

Carson: If somebody put me on their homepage, they did it without my permission.

 

Quintanilla: Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgement in any way?

 

Carson: No, it speaks to the fact that I don’t know those… See, they know.

 

At this point, the audience began to boo Quintanilla, presumably in defense of Carson. This was not particularly surprising: Fox New and conservative politicians have been pushing the “liberal media” and “gotcha” question talking points very effectively and a dislike for non-conservative media is very strong in many conservatives. To be fair to the audience, they might not have known that Carson said something untrue and that the moderator was endeavoring to make that clear—which is what should be expected in a forum that should involve challenging questions.

However, the audience did not need to be aware of the particular facts that made Carson’s claim untrue. There was no need for them to have done research since he refuted his own claim about not being involved with the company in his reply. Carson said, “I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” A reasonable interpretation of the claim that he “didn’t have any kind of relationship with them” is that he had no relationship with the company. Doing paid speeches for the company would certainly seem to be involvement and a relationship. The facts, of course, point to a significant involvement with the company. But, even without those facts, his own claim he was paid by the company shows that he was involved with the company.

It could be claimed that Carson meant something else by “involvement”  and “relationship” and he could be defended on semantic grounds—much as Bill Clinton attempted a definitional defense regarding the word “sex” when pressed by the Republicans. To be fair, “involvement” and “relationship” could be taken to require more than being paid to give speeches. To use an analogy, while a hooker might be paid to provide a man with sex, this does not entail that she is involved with him or that she has a relationship with him. As such, the audience could be forgiven for booing the moderator for endeavoring to take Carson to task for saying an untruth. The audience members might have honestly believed that being paid to give speeches does not count as involvement or a relationship and presumably they would extend this same principle to Democratic candidates who have been paid by various interests yet are not “involved” with them.

When pressed by Jim Geraghty of the National Review about this matter, the Carson camp engaged in an intriguing semantic defense involving the path by which the compensation reached Carson and what actually counts as an endorsement. The reader is invited to view the video featuring Dr. Carson talking about Mannatech and judge whether or not this should be considered an endorsement. To my untrained eye, this seems indistinguishable from other paid endorsements I have seen. As such, it seems reasonable to hold that Carson spoke an untruth and some of the audience rushed to defend him for this. Neither is surprising, but both are disappointing. Especially since Carson’s poll numbers are doing just fine. Either his supporters do not believe he said untrue things or they do not care. Both of these explanations are worrying.

 

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Politics & Alternative Reality Fiction

First issue of Amazing Stories, art by Frank R...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I am a philosopher, it is hardly surprisingly that I also like science fiction. On specific genre within science fiction is that of alternative reality. In this genre, a fictional world is created that is just like the actual world except for some key differences. In the case of alternative history fiction, the key differences arise due to some change in historical events—thus creating an alternative fictional timeline.

The idea that the world could have been different is not only a matter for science fiction, but is also a matter of considerable interest in philosophy and science. Philosophers have long written about possible worlds and scientists got into the game fairly recently. From a philosophical standpoint, writers who create alternative histories are making use of counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact.  For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended, counter to fact, with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War.  A recent example of this sort of counterfactual alternative history is the movie Inglourious Basterds.  This is a rather clever piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.

In addition to liking science fiction, I also like politics. Interestingly enough, recent American politics seems to involve some interesting exercises in alternative reality fiction and counterfactual history.

While political narratives typically distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some narratives actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.

In an earlier essay I discussed the extent to which facts have been rejected in favor of what could be regarded as counterfactual views of reality and this matter has been addressed by others. One interesting addition to politicians presenting limited counterfactuals is the creation of entire counterfactual narratives, some of which can be regarded as complete alternative histories and descriptions of alternative realities. For example, the Republican narrative of the Obama administration is that it is some sort of secret-Muslim socialist tyranny that is at once ineffective and a relentless destroyer of jobs and liberty. Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of narrative. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The actor Clint Eastwood also nicely illustrated the counterfactual approach of the narrative by blaming Obama (or rather a chair standing in for Obama) for the invasion of Afghanistan—which happened long before he was president. Romney is, interestingly enough, creating his own counterfactual history regarding his past but also being targeted by the Democrats attempts to craft a narrative in which he is an uncaring oligarch who will take the country back to Bush’s policies. Political people also spin positive narratives, typically creating fictional pasts of an ideal world that never was and also of a wonderful world that never shall be. While I could list examples almost without end, to keep up with the latest truths, lies and distortions from politicians and pundits of all stripes, PolitiFact is an excellent source.

In the case of science fiction, the authors are aware they are creating fiction and, in general, the audience gets that the works are fictional. Of course, there can be some notable exceptions when fans lose the ability to properly distinguish counterfactuals and alternative histories from truth and history. William Gibson presents an innovative fictional example of reality failure in which a photographer assigned to take pictures of surviving 1930s futuristic architecture begins to slide into an alternative reality, the Gernsback Continuum, in which the world of 1930s pulp science fiction became real. This story can now serve as an interesting metaphor for what happens in the alternative realities crafted by the creative minds of political speech writers and political pundits. They are, indeed, engaged in works of creativity: changing facts to counterfactuals and presenting fictional narratives of a world that was not, a world that is not and a world that almost certainly will not be.  As in the “The Gernsback Continuum”, people can become drawn into these alternative realities and live in them, at least in their minds. This creates the fascinating idea of people living in fictional political worlds that are populated by fictional political characters. Naturally, it might be wondered how this would work.

One obvious explanation is that people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices. As I have argued in a previous essay, people tend to not be very rational when it comes to political matters. Even when a factual error is clearly shown to be an error, people who accepted the claim because it matches their ideology will tend to be more inclined to believe the claim because (and not in spite) of the correction. This has the effect of making true believers almost immune to corrections in the case of factual errors. While this is clearly a problem for those who are concerned about facts and truth, this supplies those who spin the counterfactual narratives with the perfect audiences: believers who will reject challenges to the narrative in which they dwell and thus are willful participants in their own political continuum, be that the Republican Continuum, the Democrat Continuum or another one. For these people, art does not imitate life nor does life imitate art. Life, at least the political life, is art—albeit science fiction.

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Sport, Stories, and the Paradox of Fiction

Like a lot of British people, I have had two new experiences in the last couple of weeks, thanks to Britain’s hosting of the Olympic Games. One of these new experiences was a twitch of patriotism, felt while watching Danny Boyle’s impressive opening ceremony. The other was the experience of being emotionally engaged by a sporting event. I’ll come back to the patriotism shortly, in a fresh blog post, but for now I want to talk about the emotions involved in sports spectatorship. As I sat agonising about whether British cyclist Bradley Wiggins could pedal a few seconds faster than other cyclists in the Surrey time trials I had two thoughts. One was “How on earth do keen sports spectators  manage to survive this kind of emotional torment every weekend?” The other was a recognition of some similarities between my emotional response to viewing sport and my emotional response to fiction. Simply because I so rarely get excited about sport, I was groping for some sort of precedent to the kind of emotional tension that I was experiencing. And edge-of-the-seat moments in fiction were what popped into my head. Why? Given that the cycle race in Surrey was real and not fictional, how and why was my experience of watching it reminiscent of the consumption of fiction?

Here are some possible answers that come to mind. First, sport itself, like fiction, has a concentration of “heightened moments” – moments of triumph or defeat, of critical choices, of intense effort against adversity or pain or one’s own personal limits; and, like fiction, it has a final moment of resolution – the end of the competition – in which matters are brought to a fairly orderly and coherent conclusion, a happy ending or a sad one. Second, television commentators routinely build on sport’s inherent drama by supplying us with numerous mini-narratives that make use of standard themes common in fiction. As the camera cuts to a particular competitor, we will be told that he sustained a major injury last year that threatened his future as a cyclist, that he vowed to overcome it, that his mother has said he will not rest until he has won a medal for his country. The commentator has shaped a story for us. It may be a true story, in the sense that it is composed of propositions that are true. But its construction (the selection of some propositions for inclusion, of others for omission) is an artifice aimed at promoting drama, suspense, tension. Third, even though we might feel a little cynical about all this pat storymaking, we seem rather heavily programmed to be receptive to it. When a commentator informed me, at the start of the men’s 400 metre final, that Grenada had never won an Olympic medal, my loyalty for the duration of the race instantly went to the Grenadian runner Kirani James, even though a moment’s reflection told me that there were numerous other available facts that could equally have aroused a loyalty to any of the other competitors in the event. In fact, not only was I receptive to the commentator’s provision of a shaping narrative of the event, I was consciously seeking just such a narrative. I wanted excitement, I wanted to care about the result, and I was consciously willing to found my excitement on the arbitrary bequeathal of salience to the desires of one set of people (Grenadians) rather than another.

This brings me to the reason why I find the similarities between my sports spectatorship and my consumption of fiction rather interesting. Philosophers of literature ask the question “Why do we care about fictional characters?” As we read a novel, we feel anxious, angry, fearful, pleased, relieved, disappointed about the fate of the characters in it. If they are characters who arouse our sympathy, we adopt their needs, wants, interests as our own: we are satisfied when they are satisfied, frustrated when they are frustrated. And all this is the case even though we know that they do not exist. Our intense emotional engagement with a piece of fiction coexists more or less smoothly with our awareness that nothing at all is at stake. This is known as the paradox of fiction. Is there something similarly paradoxical in my emotional engagement with sports spectatorship? Is there, in both cases, a similar parting of company between my beliefs, on the one hand, and my emotional response, on the other? I think that there is. Unlike fictional characters, Kirani James and the people of Grenada really do exist and – let us assume – they will indeed be happier as a result of winning a medal.  But the state of my beliefs as I watched the race did not at all licence my emotional response.

To see this, let’s say that I have a belief that the best outcomes are those that produce the greatest amount of happiness that is compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In that case, my anxiety that Kirani James should win his race would be sensitive to my beliefs only if I had good grounds for thinking that, compared with the victory of other participants in the race, his victory would produce the greatest amount of happiness compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In fact had no idea whether it would or not, and more importantly I didn’t care about that when I transferred my loyalties to him. My normal commitment to the truth of the matter was suspended for the sake of my immersion in a story-shaped experience of the race, with suspense and a happy ending.

It might be argued that this is nothing like the experience of reading fiction: all that is happening as I watch the race is that I am forming a preference without good reason, which is something we do all the time. The goals that we adopt do not – or do not always – have to be sensitive to our beliefs about what is, in fact, most desirable.

But something more than simple “plumping” (i.e. unmotivated, unreasoned choosing) was going on as I watched that race. I formed my preference as the result of an engagement with a narrative that I and the sports commentator had evolved between us (about a tiny nation yearning for accolade in the theatre of all the nations), knowing the narrative to be radically incomplete, and knowing it to be shaped by stock narrative themes and by the commentator’s need to deliver, and my own need to consume, a story-shaped experience of the race. It wasn’t an ungrounded preference: it was entirely well-grounded – in a selection of data which I knew to be partial and distorting because I knew it to be an artifice aimed at dramatic tension rather than truth.

If the above considerations hold any water, it seems that the “paradox of fiction,” or something like it, extends also to elements of our engagement with the real world.

And not only are we willing to allow our emotions this particular kind of freedom from the austere demands of truth-tracking, it seems interesting to speculate about the possibility that we sometimes need to grant them this autonomy – not only by retreating into a good book, but sometimes also in real life. Sometimes, in response to complex situations where the best outcome is far from clear, we need to start from somewhere. We need a stance, an orientation, a set of loyalties, something to guide our action even while we are gathering the information that will hopefully  come to inform those loyalties, refine them, perhaps overturn them. Arguably, one such stance is patriotism, and in my next post here I would like to look at patriotism, and the ways in which, like sports spectatorship, it displays something like the paradox of fiction, by eliciting emotional responses in us that we know are unlicensed by the facts.