When facts don’t matter, democracy dies.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

– Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The reason people think facts are subjective is that facts are not self-evident, they require context to be understood. We could say that Belgium invaded Germany in World War One. Unless someone knew about Belgium, Germany, and how the war started, they could not disprove that claim. To prove the fact is true requires other facts such as evidence of Germany’s invasion plans, Belgium neutrality, or eyewitness accounts. What a fact usually requires is a factual context, either other facts, or eye witnesses or other testimony that can be verified. On the surface, when facts and opinions clash the dispute is usually settled by what the majority agree. What makes facts even more unreliable is that witnesses can be encourage to bear false witness. If you persuade a group of people to bear false witness about a fact or facts, then a majority can create a truth that contradicts the facts.[1]

When facts don’t matter the loudest voice wins.

Hannah Arendt in her famous essay Truth and Politics, described how totalitarian regimes twisted facts to suit their “truth”. She had seen how the Nazi tyranny and the Soviet tyranny had succeeded because facts were replaced with opinions. In those regimes, the loudest voice, the most violent faction, was able to impose itself as facts were seen to be opinions, or relative to what could be imposed with force. When facts got in their way they discredited the facts, the speaker, or both. In a normal democracy, a citizen, armed with facts, can hold power to account. To overcome such citizens, a tyranny has to use force which reveals the regime’s true nature. If they do not want to use force, they will use the next best thing. They will replace the facts with opinions so that the loudest voices or the most voices will decide what is right. When opinions replace facts, then the loudest voice, or the most persuasive voice, or the voice with the most supporters will win. In the contest between opinions and facts, the facts are at a disadvantage for facts can only succeed when they are embedded in the truth or in political knowledge. Yet, opinions about political things is easier to display and is often confused with political knowledge, which is knowledge of political things.

Political knowledge is always hidden by opinions

Citizens will have opinions about the political things such as elections, laws, political parties, public records. These political opinions are their prejudices or guesses about political things. From these opinions, we can create political knowledge through discovery and reasoned debate. When people compare and discuss their opinions about the facts they can create political knowledge. However, political knowledge is confused with opinion so truth based in the nature of political things remains elusive. However, as long as we can discover the nature of political things, by discovering and debating political facts based within the nature of political things, then political truths are possible. As the nature of political things cannot be changed by an act of will in the way an opinion can be changed, we have an agreed foundation within which to build decent politics. In turn, political knowledge is sustained by a web of facts that anchors it in reality. As Arendt explained, facts are embedded in the fabric of history. A fact torn from its context is easily spotted as a falsehood. If someone were to claim that President Abraham Lincoln died in 1965, we could see that as an obvious falsehood. Yet, political knowledge is often hidden by, or confused with, political opinions. It is these opinions about the nature of political things that governments will want to control. Any government knows that it is easier to shape public opinion than to change facts.

To destroy facts one has to destroy the trust needed to sustain a political community.

A regime’s resistance to facts, though, is not limited to totalitarian politics, it occurs in any regime. A regime finds it easier to control the public domain when they can rely on an opinion instead of working to facts that might contradict them. When facts don’t matter, then any “fact” can be shaped to fit the “truth” the speaker wants to claim. When Donald Trump expresses his political opinion that Barack Obama is not an American citizen, he wants his opinion that the President’s birth certificate is fraudulent to replace the fact that it is genuine. He asserts his opinion to create a doubt about the facts. His opinion, is only the problem’s surface. What makes his behaviour insidious and destructive is that he wants to pull apart the historical fabric within which the fact exists and makes the birth certificate valid. To achieve this outcome, Trump and his “truthers” attacked the common good. They tried to unravel the web of trust our democracy requires. They tried to sever the birth registration process within the government bureaucratic process from the system of public records. To do this, they sought to destroy the integrity of all the people in that web of trust. When such a practice of tearing apart the historical fabric is accepted as normal within a democracy, it destroys the common good. In effect, Trump’s claim means that any fact he disagrees with must be false and his opinions are true. His claim of doubt about any topic, be it Obama’s birth certificate or the Clintons’ marriage, is true. When facts don’t matter, democracy dies for there is no political knowledge and no political truths that can hold the society together or hold the majority to account. When facts don’t matter only the loudest voice matters and a community based on that belief soon decays into demagoguery and mob rule.

When you can have your opinions considered the truth, there is no limit to what you can do

Like all demagogues “truthers” wants to discredit political facts as a common standard for behaviour within the public domain so their opinions can take root. Without a common standard of truth, based on political facts, the common good that binds the country together decays. When the common good decays, then factions can rule. The faction which can promote its opinion most strongly wins. Yet, that does not allow for us to judge the opinions since a demagogue like Trump can shape his “facts” to fit what his audience expects since his facts are simply his opinion. We saw this in the UK during the recent EU referendum. Nigel Farage made claims about £350 million a week being sent to the EU which would be returned to the NHS.[2] He was challenged on it and claimed it was true and those who doubted it were trying to scare the public. After the referendum, won in part on claims such as that and other claims, he and others recanted on that statement. They said it would not happen. Yet, their opinions passed as political truths had succeeded.

Farage and Trump succeed because they present their opinions as truths.

Farage and Trump’s facts are not based in a verifiable context. They, like sophists of old, can present whatever the audience wants to hear. As they only need to present what they believe will persuade the audience, they will always sound more persuasive than those who have political knowledge or political facts. When those with political facts and political knowledge try to explain these truths, the sophists, such as Boris Johnson and Dom Cummings, can escape by saying “I don’t do details”. Even though the facts are unalterable, Johnson and Cummings can tout their opinions as truths since what matters to them is that they convince their audience. If they have convinced their audience, and made it funny, then they have succeeded. Through the faux humour or faux arrogance, they sound more persuasive since they can make their opinions match to the audience’s preferred beliefs. They have no desire to engage the truth teller in a search for the truth of the matter. Instead, they can say; “The EU is wasteful; the UK is being ripped off” and the audience will find it easier to believe the seductive, because they are comforting, opinions. The truth tellers, by contrast, will sound dour since they can only point to an arduous path needed to understand the political knowledge about political things. When truth Teller like Andrew Tyrie meets these men he has two disadvantages.[3] In such a domain, a truth teller, someone who has political knowledge and knows political truths will be unpersuasive since their facts will appear unbelievable to someone who understands reality as simply an opinion. As there will be many people who will share that opinion, it becomes exponentially difficult for the truth teller to succeed. Second, he has to remain true to the truth as he seeks to counter someone who is completely unmoored from the facts. He can only repeat the facts even as his opponent creates an opinion without any basis in such facts since his opponent does not share his starting premise—that the truth matters.

When you can discredit the truth tellers, who will stop you?

With truth tellers discredited, the “truthers” can impose their opinions as the “truth” without concern for verifiable political facts. The “truther” will insist that any facts they disagree with are simply opinions. (It is your opinion that Obama’s birth certificate is valid. It is your opinion that I said immigration was good. It is your opinion that I said the NHS would receive 350 million per week that goes to the EU.) The political opinion is defended as a constitutional right. In such a demand, the “truther” wants the right to replace facts with opinions. Moreover, they will insist that facts are subjective and their opinions have to be respected as equal to or superior to any facts. If you disagree, they will insist that they have a constitutional right to free speech to speak their opinion that facts are simply opinions. He will assert that he has a right to be wrong, yet no one has a right to be wrong about facts:

Germany did invade Belgium. Belgium did not invade Germany.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. The Declaration of Independence was not signed in 1976.

Trump did lose in Iowa. Trump did not win in Iowa.

 

Without the insistence on facts and the truth derived from them, decent politics begins to wither. When opinions replace facts, a shared understanding of political things begins to decay. In time, the allegiance to an arbitrary opinion is what holds the community together. In that situation, loyalty to the opinion becomes the standard of truth. The common good is defined by that loyalty. In turn, the faction that rules or is the loudest gets to determine the ruling opinion. We move beyond majority rule to a totalitarian rule since the community lacks a standard, truth based on facts, that holds the majority to account. Those opposed to the dominant opinion have no basis upon which to debate or reason since the opinion, unmoored from facts, or the historical context, determines the “truth”. In that moment, liberal democracy dies for it relies upon self-evident truths that sustain the opinion that facts matter.

 

[1] “[F]actual truth is no more self-evident than opinion, and this may be among the reasons that opinion-holders find it relatively easy to discredit factual truth as just another opinion. Factual evidence, moreover, is established through testimony by eyewitnesses – notoriously unreliable – and by records, documents, and monuments, all of which can be suspected as forgeries. In the event of a dispute, only other witnesses but no third and higher instance can be invoked, and settlement is usually arrived at by way of a majority; that is, in the same way as the settlement of opinion disputes – a wholly unsatisfactory procedure, since there is nothing to prevent a majority of witnesses from being false witnesses.”

TRUTH AND POLITICS by Hannah Arendt Originally published in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, and reprinted with minor changes in Between Past and Future (1968) and The Portable Hannah Arendt edited by Peter Baier (2000) and Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions edited by Medina and Wood (2005) p. 304

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/boris-johnsons-brexit-campaign-prints-7943300

[3] http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/04/watch-vote-leaves-dom-cummings-is-grilled-by-andrew-tyrie-this-sounds-like-aladdins-cave-to-me/ see also http://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2016/03/23/boris-johnson-grilled-on-eu-referendum-as-it-happens

Here is an indicative passage.

11.09 – Johnson now being questioned by Wes Streeting, an up-and-coming Labour MP, who predicted that Boris would flounder today (see below). Streeting asks Boris to agree that there would be “an economic shock” to exit. Boris disagrees then Streeting points out this is what Boris’s own economic adviser Gerard Lyons said previously (see below again). “You don’t agree with your own adviser?” Boris (falsely) denies that Lyons said this and insists there will be no economic downsides. “British democracy [and economy] would be galvanised,” he insists.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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