A couple very interesting editorials appeared in the N.Y. Times recently.
One of the columns was authored by a PhD student names Damon Winter, and is titled “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?”
In the article, he states that Donald Trump,“stirs up confusion about the veracity of settled knowledge and, through sheer assertion, elevates belief to the status of truth.”
Interestingly, he goes on to say the following: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.”
What are the ideas of which he speaks? And how have they been re-purposed and “weaponized”? In sum:
Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.
The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.
Later in the article, Winter also quotes from an article by the French philosopher and social theorist Bruno Latour. He quotes Latour, who he says saw all of this coming in his 2004 journal article “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
“Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like ‘truth,’” Winter says,
there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s ‘great’ America, ever existed.
Therefore, he doubles down on his particular kind of critical approach:
…. critical ways of thinking demand that we approach knowledge with attention and humility and recognize that, while facts might be created, not all facts are created equal.
The paper from Latour that Winter notes is a fascinating read, and it is worth looking at it carefully. Maybe I will do that more in a later post, but for now I will simply mention that the article, in part, deals with issues of climate science and the importance of acting on what we know. Speaking of “global warming skepticism,” he notes his own contribution to the matter:
I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a ‘primary issue.’ But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I?
Regarding these “gullible sorts of critique,” he says that “[t]heir serious as well as their popularized versions have the defect of using society as an already existing cause instead of as a possible consequence. This was the critique that Gabriel Tarde always made against Durkheim” (italics mine).
That definitely sounds worth exploring… (but I digress).
In any case, Latour goes on to connect the global warming skepticism with conspiracy theories – which he also sees as relating to his own work as a critical theorist:
What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique? Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but it worries me to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.
He goes on:
What would be so bad with critique for the people? We have been complaining so much about the gullible masses, swallowing naturalized facts, it would be really unfair to now discredit the same masses for their, what should I call it, gullible criticism? Or could this be a case of radicalism gone mad, as when a revolution swallows its progeny?
Enter the debut N.Y. Times editorial column from Bret Stephens, “Climate of Complete Certainty.” Stephens writes:
As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.
Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.
By now I can almost hear the heads exploding.
And, evidently, many heads did explode. At least, according to David Harsanyi at the right-leaning Federalist:
Within this world, there’s no space left for any conversation that doesn’t begin with “You’re right. What can I do to help?” Thousands of educated people will supposedly unsubscribe from one of Left’s most prestigious institutions — an institution that reliably furthers liberal positions on their news pages every day — because it ran one op-ed challenging the idea that man can predict the future with certitude. (On Sunday, The Times published an op-ed arguing that fans of twentieth century Communists were just well-intentioned, naïf-ish do-gooders. This is fine.)
So, I guess we are all conspiracy theorists now. Or — alternatively — perhaps we can talk reasonably about these things… maybe even about shared facts in a world that is not mine or yours – but ours.
Harsanyi, for his part, can’t help but frame things by putting them in terms of wins and losses:
As for the piece, there are two ways to look at the kerfuffle: First, that it reflects a growing narrow-mindedness and illiberalism on the Left, not only by self-proclaimed activists but supposed journalists who would rather bury ideas than debate them. Or we can take the brighter outlook, and point out that The New York Times just published a piece that — very gently — challenged liberal orthodoxy. Let’s see who wins.
Or who “win-wins”? How though, will we know that has happened?