Is dialogue still possible in this age of post-truth politics and fake news?
By “dialogue” I mean the human, civilized and respectful way through which individuals are supposed to overcome their differences. The alternative is, of course, through the exercise of coercion and violence. And by referring to “post-truth politics” and “fake news” I take two particularly significant and distinctive markers of what’s wrong with present-day society.
I shall try to respond to this in three steps: first, by offering an explanation of the problem; second, a brief analysis; and third, some suggestions on how to move forward.
Apart from being the word of the year in 2016, “post-truth” refers primarily to a style of doing politics in which people take recourse to barefaced lies in order to advance their objectives. We all still remember a few egregious examples from the recent US elections —when Hillary Clinton said she “never received nor sent any material that was marked classified” on her private email server while secretary of state or when Donald Trump affirmed that “14 percent of non-citizens are registered to vote”— as well as from the Brexit campaign (“the EU costs Britain 350 million GBP a week”).
Then comes the spread of “fake news”.
This is due to the troubling abundance of two sorts of people. On the one hand, those who are gullible enough to believe anything they hear —Elvis sightings, for instance— estimated at 8 percent of the population. And on the other, those who lack scruples even to the point of propagating information they know to be false, as long as it supports their agenda, like the Texas-sized garbage island purportedly floating in the Pacific.
Social media should not be blamed entirely for this phenomenon. It is a condition which enables the spread of false news, not the cause. The worse effect, however, is that social media creates echo chambers, such that people end up only reading and believing “news” that agrees and reinforces their own untested and probably erroneous biases.
As a result of the above, society becomes ever more divided and polarized. Citizens are increasingly entrenched in diametrically opposed positions and have become unwilling or unable to reach a compromise. Any social issue can thus turn into an all-out war between two bitterly divided camps, fighting against each other for all or nothing stakes.
Dialogue as shared reasoning
Understanding the structure of human reasoning could help shed light on this problem, bearing in mind that dialogue is nothing more than shared reasoning.
We may distinguish at least four main elements in all reasoning. First are the premises (axioms, postulates and so forth), the truth of which we take for granted. Second are the “propositions of fact” which contain data and other particulars. Third are the rules of logic, such as those of induction, deduction or inference, which we apply to the preceding. And fourth are the conclusions, which in practical syllogisms usually take the form of actions, either as commands or as prohibitions.
We can then test these elements for the ease or difficulty of reaching an agreement. Immediately, we realize that we have to leave the incompatible and contradictory conclusions aside. As for the rules of logic, it should be fairly easy to arrive at a consensus. And although trickier, we may also work out an accord on the statements of fact, as long as the two sides provide scientific proof or evidence.
But in the case of the premises, it is almost impossible, because these are often unverifiable claims. Nonetheless, they form the foundation or bedrock of human reasoning.
Let us give a few examples. Not too long ago, representatives of Podemos (a populist party in Spain which sprang from the “indignant” movement) presented a bill advocating the right to “death with dignity” in the Spanish parliament. A legislator with Christian beliefs may oppose such a bill, based on the fact that euthanasia goes against the fifth commandment of the Decalogue, and he or she would be absolutely right.
But the former could then retort that as agnostics or atheists, such “divine prohibitions” carry as much weight as injunctions from the tooth fairy. End of story.
Similarly, some groups in Spain may strive to roll back government funding for in-vitro fertilization procedures because it violates the “natural law”. As far as we can tell, their inference is quite accurate. But then again, a couple wanting to have offspring through these means could say that they don’t care much about the “natural law”, as long as Spanish social security pays for their baby. Once more, upon reaching this point, the conversation stops.
For some, the situation is a hopeless one and the best we could do is for like-minded people to live together and ignore the rest as best they can. Building walls are supposed to help. If this means the death of society as we know it, so be it. We could then build a community only with people we like and with whom we agree. As isolationists would say, there is a “freedom for community” after all, isn’t it?
Yet no matter how appealing this proposal may seem, I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. Not even the Mediterranean Sea, now a vast marine cemetery, has proven effective in keeping out hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from reaching the shores of “Fortress Europe”. Much less a mere wall, no matter how tall or how long or whoever pays for it.
I think, rather, that as human beings, we are condemned to live with each other, as Sartre would perhaps say. This is our greatest challenge and, at the same time, it could be our best accomplishment, if we tried hard enough. But how?
Having trained as a philosopher, my initial inclination, when faced with the problems of “post-truth” and “fake news”, would be to roll out a metaphysical discourse on the defense of truth, first of all indicating the inherent contradictions of epistemological and moral relativism through the “reduction to the absurd”. But I have lived long enough to realize that this is not effective. Instead of insisting in doing something which has repeatedly failed —the mark of a crazy person, so they say— perhaps I should be humbler and try a different tack.
I would begin by focusing on the form, not the matter or content of my argument. Certainly this may not be the most important part, but it still is the first step, without which all the rest is moot. The form is what influences the perception that interlocutors have of me and is based mainly on the language, both verbal and non-verbal, that I employ. Below are a few tips:
1. Although negative events catch our attention, positive events are the ones that inspire us.
One plane crash in almost a hundred thousand safe flights daily may make the headlines, but most likely, it won’t change people’s travel plans. Compare this with, for instance, the news of how a few schoolgirls from Barcelona raised more than a million euros for cancer research through the sale of bracelets they themselves made, in solidarity with a classmate, Candela, who grew ill with leukemia. Doesn’t this make you want to rise from your seat and do something similar?
2. Take advantage of whatever good you find in those who disagree with you and build on it.
The musician Sting, first as part of “The Police” and later, as a solo act has always formed part of my life’s soundtrack. His song entitled “Russians” speaks of the looming threat of a nuclear war in the 1980s. Yet the lyrics end with a hint of hope that “what might save us, me and you/ Is if the Russians love their children too”. In any case, never ridicule your opponents or engage in what Italians call “extravincere”, that is, heaping abuse on those who have lost and fallen in dialectical battles.
3. Use empirical data, figures and statistics freely.
People are usually fascinated with numbers and tend to believe whatever is accompanied by them as scientific truths.
4. Employ metaphors which stimulate the imagination and learn to tell a good story, all the better if it is based on personal experiences.
Story-telling creates an emotional bond with the listeners which abstract ideas will never be able to achieve. In other words, address the full human person and not the rational part alone.
5. Let people draw their own conclusions from the argument instead of rubbing it in their faces.
Don’t be afraid of sharing your own doubts, weaknesses and difficulties in arriving at decisions. It’s much easier to relate to fallible humans than to robots or androids. Oftentimes, understatement —in which the British are supposed to excel—works best. Never impose or even sound like it.
Only when the proper form of reasoning has been found will it be convenient to attend to the matter or content.
We live in societies largely characterized as “liberal”, “democratic” and “secular”. Taken in the best of lights this means we indisputably value freedom, equality and benevolence or altruism, without need of any motivation outside of our shared humanity.
We need to learn to work with and around these principles. For example, some authors recommend developing the notion of a “human and social ecology”. Who has not felt seriously worried by pollution, climate change, global warming or the extinction of plant and animal species?
By arguing on the basis of a “human and social ecology” we implicitly acknowledge several crucial beliefs. Firstly, that we ourselves and everything else in our environment exist thanks to a fragile balance which, unfortunately, we can no longer simply take for granted. In some sense, this balance represents something “sacred” or “inviolate”, acceptable to both the religious and the secular among us. This principle could even be understood as “transcendent” insofar as it is bigger, beyond and superior to each one of us and all of us put together. In caring for this “human and social ecology” we then have to pay attention not only to our individual autonomy but also on how our particular actions impact the common good or welfare.
At the same time, this analytical model speaks of the importance of both individual and collective responsibility, therefore, and the hope that our collaborative action could actually entail the preservation or improvement of the current state of affairs.
Thus is how I believe that dialogue could still be rendered possible even in a world fraught by post-truth politics and fake news. How we could progress from here, however, would require an altogether different essay.
Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. He is Editor-in-Chief of the recently published “Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management” (Springer, 2017).