- ITI Thought Leaders
Teams America, Part II
No Compromise? The Truth about Democracy
Bryan McCarthy (philosopher)
"To put it mildly, America has a truth problem. And it’s starting to get dangerous."
What are we to make of Dr. Milliner’s experience, in Part I, concerning the Doughboy memorial statue?
At the outset, one must applaud the detective for not merely assuming Dr. Milliner had marshalled his army of activist students in service to an aim he had (on the podcast) specifically identified as less nuanced than his own.
You might be thinking this is just part of a detective’s job and therefore unworthy of applause, but this is not a time of consensus about how often police officers fulfill or even aim at the platonic form of their role. There are, in fact, good police officers simply interested in protecting and serving our society, but not everyone acknowledges it.
A second point of interest is the outrageousness of the impersonator’s action. Imagine if the detective had not done what is ‘just part of the job’ and instead botched the due process. Any among us would cry foul at such injustice being administered in our own case.
Outrageous but hardly surprising, for this sort of episode is now commonplace. It used to take at least a few credentials to ruin another person’s life in print, but with the speed and democracy of the internet (both good things, need we stipulate?), this thread of protection has become one of those quaint relics nostalgists lionize.
And it could have gone the other way. Dr. Milliner describes himself as being co-opted by Antifa. But since he presented a nuanced position—a dash of Blue Team here, a pinch of Red Team there—it would have been just as easy for some yahoo to wrap him in a confederate flag and threaten hate crimes in his name. At which point we could only hope the detective got to his case before Twitter did. Such a state of affairs, too, would have been at once outrageous and commonplace.
Indeed, commonplace to the point of banality. Another person’s life destroyed because of national politics? Whatevs. Let’s see if I have any new followers.
"The roots of the contemporary deterioration of truth are actually much deeper [than our president]. Our problems are ours, as are our actions; we’re more than ‘The Orange Man’."
And that’s the issue. This scenario is just a snapshot of a broader, national problem. President Trump routinely complains about the willful bias on display in what he calls ‘fake news’ (entirely lost is the history of this term’s meaning, but that’s another essay). Not that he’s a lighthouse of truth, mind you. I don’t think anybody believes that if he were in the journalist’s chair, he’d be especially open to the faithful representation of positions opposite his own.
But he’s not wrong about the media’s intentions. Once upon a time, journalists at least attempted a modicum of objectivity, not so much to hide or suppress their view as to serve a public whose intelligence they didn’t disdain. The point was to give people enough information to form their own judgements. Now, in contrast, America’s most celebrated pundits continue to gain a hearing on the basis of this historical role, only to act in the opposite spirit by parading their bias as honesty and expertise.
Such exaltation of opinion is unsurprising in a country where half the talking heads—from Donna Brazile to Oprah to Michael Cohen and even Jordan Peterson—are telling us to ‘speak our truth’, or maybe just letting us know how terribly important it is that they speak theirs. It’s also unsurprising in a country where nearly everyone who boasts about their ‘speaking truth to power’ has an obscene amount of power themselves.
Oh, and then there’s that little matter of the coming election. Zuck is supposedly very, very worried about our divisiveness giving way to all-out bedlam. And who can blame him, now that both sides are suggesting they might not accept an unfavorable outcome (first here and now here)? Especially since half the country held Zuck responsible for last time’s outcome, on account of facebook’s contribution to the rubbish information out there.
To put it mildly, America has a truth problem.
And it’s starting to get dangerous. A new study by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) in collaboration with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Institute (BDI) found that under 7% of this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests involved violence or destructive activity. The problem is that when we’re talking about a total of 10,600 protests, 80% of which were connected to BLM, that’s well over 500 violent/destructive protests in a single summer.
"How did we get to a place of such volatility and division that human decency and goodwill get left behind in the triage and that we can no longer even agree on truth?"
The point here is not to blame BLM for this staggering figure but just to note that U.S. citizens are more and more inclined toward violence in responding to the nation’s political issues. Indeed, both sides are saddling up: A BLM leader in D.C. told a crowd that if the U.S. Senate and Congress ‘ain’t going to hear us, we burn them the f— down.’ And, incredibly, NPR conducted a softball interview with Vicky Osterweil, who just published a book in support of looting during protests as a legitimate means of political action and redistribution of wealth. On the other pole, the Boogaloo boys (actually ‘bois’) are arming themselves for a ‘second Civil War’ they both anticipate and encourage (see here and here) and the Charlottesville tiki torches demonstrate that Red Team extremists are prepared to use fire as well.
Back to Dr. Milliner’s impersonator. It might seem that the detective in this case was being driven by some notion of and commitment to the ‘truth’ while the impersonator was not. But is that really so clear? Black people have been unjustly killed by cops. True. Something must be done. Right. (And here are nine possibilities.) What else could matter?
Well, it turns out, lots of things. But it’s not as if the impersonator was entirely unmotivated by truth. I just named two. And the impersonator could be forgiven if the intensity of these two truths made it hard to see others, like, say, that Dr. Milliner shouldn’t be co-opted into a particular manner of affirming such truths without his consent.
So how did we get to a place where a genteel art historian trying to say something helpful about offensive statues could have his identity hijacked for a far less genteel response to the same? How did we get to a place of such volatility and division that human decency and goodwill get left behind in the triage and that we can no longer even agree on truth?
It’s tempting to point the finger at the president and his penchant for vehemently denying counterevidence that’s right in front of his face, but the roots of the contemporary deterioration of truth are actually much deeper. Our problems are ours, as are our actions; we’re more than ‘The Orange Man’.
To see how this is the case and how we got to where we are, it will be useful momentarily to wander from the comfortable terrain of statistics and current events for a brief excursion through the history of Western thinking. These woods may feel a little dense, but I think they’re rich with materials for building a better future.
A Little Philosophy
The ancient West saw truth as revelatory. In Christianity, for example, God inspired the scriptures, and angels revealed things to people. The ‘pagan’ Greeks had their epiphanies like Zeus’ appearance of true divinity to Semele and Athena’s helping Odysseus regain Ithaca. Moreover, the Greek word for truth itself, aletheia, means something like ‘revelation’: The ‘a’ works like the ‘a’ in atheist and means ‘un’ in English, while ‘leth’ means hiding or sleeping (hence our word ‘lethargy’). So it’s an ‘un-hiding’, roughly synonymous with ‘revelation’, which literally means ‘reversing’ or peeling off the ‘veil’. On this understanding, truth is not, in the first place, propositional but is, instead, what shows itself to you in a way that cannot be denied.
But Descartes and the Enlightenment wrought a change, according to which truth is the kind of certainty we gain through logical and scientific inquiry, which nicely jibed with an emerging secularity that opposed revelation. This new approach to truth wouldn’t go unchallenged for long, though, as Nietzsche argued that, without a ‘God’, modern science was powerless to provide a truly objective, ‘omniscient’ point of view to underwrite the certainty it imagined to exist. Then, Heidegger developed this point by noting that truth is always also a lie in that the illumination or ‘un-hiding’ of one ‘true’ thing inescapably diverts one’s attention from or ‘hides’ an infinite number of others. In other words, if this becomes truth, I can’t even see that anymore, the inevitable result of which is distortion.
Or so goes the Heideggerian account of intellectual history.
Enter Derrida. If Heidegger brought truth to the edge of the cliff, restoring its inherent danger so we could relate to it authentically again, Derrida pushed it into the ravine. Nietzsche and Heidegger had sufficiently undermined the idea there could be ‘an’ objective truth, but each of them affirmed something in its place—Nietzsche the idea that the more subjective truths we inhabit, the more truly we can see and Heidegger a recovery of revelatory truth in an ostensibly pre-Christian guise. While Derrida embraced the subversion of objective truth accomplished by these thinkers, he rejected both of their alternative proposals, suggesting that truth is even more slippery than they supposed: We can ‘do/make truth’ because it happens in change, in revolution, but truth never appears ‘as such’ and is therefore untransmissible, literally un-thinkable.
Unfortunately, many of Derrida’s readers—both detractors and admirers, but, note, not Derrida himself—incorrectly took this to mean that truth does not exist, that there is no truth, and that we are thus left with no other option than play. And the number of these readers has been so large that this misappropriation of his meaning has trickled down to the average college student, who grow up into adults misguided by the same misappropriation. But it’s unstable. People can’t actually operate on the principle that there is no truth, at least not if they want to be able to assert things like ‘rights’, or ‘justice’.
And Derrida very much believed in the importance of justice, inferring it, as he did, from the idea that truth happens in change or revolution and is something we do/make. The question is, to borrow Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase: Whose justice? It’s not as though the character of justice is a matter of consensus. If the current state of our national politics tells you nothing else, it tells you that. So the response that truth ‘is’ justice only moves the problem back a step: Instead of quarreling over what’s really true, we’ll quarrel over what’s really just, because a sense of justice implies decisions about what ought to be true given other decisions about what is true.
But, with Derrida, misappropriated or not, we’ve already ruled out the thinkability of true phenomena. Or, in the terms of the misappropriation, there isn’t any truth, not with a capital ‘T’ anyway. And then a handy invention emerges to vet our sense of justice in its place: the ‘My truth’ (capital ‘Ms’ are okay) of the above pundits. The problem is that if the truth is idiosyncratic, then the justice it vets is too. And that’s how you end up with two sides excited about a civil war and ‘burn[ing] [each other] the f— down’ in defense of their respective social aims.
Hopefully, the raw materials at hand are now clear enough to work toward building a better discourse.
Being a philosopher involves a strange mix of optimism and pessimism. The job is, at bottom, one of problem-solving—an optimistic endeavor—but justifying such activity often involves laboring to demonstrate the existence of the problem. And then you look like Chicken Little.
I’ve tried to demonstrate that something has gone terribly wrong with our society’s conception of truth in hopes of convincing you that pursuing a solution is worthwhile. The solution itself, as you’ll see in a minute, is nothing terribly earth-shattering in its innovation. The point is to persuade you that the stakes are high enough to implement the rather ordinary recourse that always works—when we let it. Because you’re not going to like it; no one, including me, ever does.
That’s it. Well, that and a little, equally quotidian mechanism to grease the wheels it takes to get there: Compact.
First the compromise. As plenty of minds more astute than mine have observed, there are three things that do not and cannot go together: multiculturalism, democracy, and a lack of compromise. If you have a small enough group of people who agree on most things and who, therefore, do not need to compromise all that often, you can have a stable polity based on input from everybody. And people who see things very differently can coexist in a polity where everyone has input, if they’re willing to compromise. But if a bunch of people who see things in extremely different ways refuse to compromise, there are only two options: Those people must go their separate ways (irreconcilable differences) or one party must force the others to bend to its will (I’m not being flippant in continuing the metaphor: domestic violence). So what are our options with respect to this triad?
America is ineluctably multicultural. We invited it from the beginning. It’s in our Declaration of Independence, where we complained that King George III, among other things, ‘endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither’. And it’s on our Statue of Liberty, the ‘Mother of Exiles’ who tells the ‘ancient lands’ to keep their upper class, for she wants the ‘refuse’ of their ‘teeming shore’. No one wants to get rid of our multiculturalism; it’s who we are. And even if anyone did, it couldn’t be done democratically so it’s here to stay as long as democracy is.
That leaves democracy and lack of compromise. If we want the former, we simply must abandon the latter. I do not use this ‘if’ lightly. I recognize that some of the above groups no longer value democracy over their private agendas, but I do not share their position, and I’m hoping you agree so we can preserve our republic, as a colleague of mine and I have argued elsewhere. To do so, we simply must find a way to compromise with our political opponents. No one will get everything they want, but if we bravely assume good faith in each other and work hard, everyone will get a lot.
Some of us have been attempting this where I teach. This summer, our campus offered a team-taught course on COVID-19 and, right up front, we promised students they would be hearing from many different perspectives, some of which would not cohere easily, and that it was their task to integrate what they learned.
And this fall, in my politics course, we made a compact together and signed it, in hopes of averting what every student said they fear in talking politics (it was a ‘quiz’ question): misunderstanding, judgement, loss of friendship. The compact lists rules that students said would make them feel more comfortable discussing politics and current events.
Of course, it’s possible that these rules will occasionally be forgotten in the heat of debate and I will have to remind them where we’ve all said we want to go. But everyone is clear and agreed on the latter.
It’s fashionable to say that Gen Z is going to save us from the problems I’ve adduced (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). I think this is not quite true and I’m not the only one (see here), but it’s also fashionable to say a similar not-quite-true thing, which is that Gen X is going to save us from those problems (see here, here, here, and here).
Insofar as there is even a kernel of wisdom to either of these pontifications, and I think there is, I have just offered as a solution to America’s truth problem what some Gen X professors and Gen Z students are trying to do on our campus. When my left-leaning and right-leaning students (the ‘leaning’ language here is deliberate: none of them want to be construed as being on a political ‘Team’) discussed immigration, they were surprised to discover they agreed much more than they thought. That happened because none of them were extreme to begin with and because they convinced each other of a few things along the way. A bit like what happened with Dr. Milliner’s unexpected dinner companion and what would, no doubt, have happened even more, had Dr. Milliner been able to ‘return the favor’ of challenging some of his companion’s political assumptions.
I think that if our citizens junked their polarizing ‘news’ sources—social media feeds, Fox/CNN, etc.—and took a cue from the example of these students, we’d discover the same thing they did: We’re not as extreme as the media we consume. While we’re probably not going to reverse America’s post-Derridean truth crisis, we can accomplish quite a lot through the very unsexy, somewhat annoying, and sometimes seemingly unethical but very much tried-and-true method of compromise and compact. To wit, we can be good to each other. If it’s working for some college students, maybe it can work for the rest of us.
But then, what choice do we have, really, given that multiculturalism is here to stay? Well, I guess we could always say goodbye to democracy.