On Truth and Power06-04-2023
On Truth and Power
I’m grading papers for a new seminar I taught this past semester on Truth and Politics. It was one of the most exciting courses I’ve taught in a few years, with simply fantastic students who brought incredible passion and curiosity to perhaps the burning question of our moment. Structured around a close reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s short but brilliant “How The True World Became a Fable,” the students came to understand what Nietzsche means when he says that “truth is a lie,” or “truth is a woman,” or “truth is a fable.” Plato invented truth because of a distrust of opinion. Confronted with the trial and death of Socrates, Plato was convinced that political opinion in a democracy was dangerous, unstable, and irrational. What was needed was training of the best, those able to see beyond the shadows and deceptions of the human world, those who could step out of the cave of human affairs and focus their attention on the supersensual truths of the ideas. These philosophers claimed to know the rational truth, and from this they claimed the right to rule as philosopher kings.
Nietzsche traces the progress of truth from Plato, through the Christians for whom truth was unattainable to mortals but known to the pious and wise, to Kant for whom truth became unknowable in the “ding an sich,” the thing in itself, but for whom truth still possessed a compelling and authoritative claim of imperative. Then on to the positivists like Auguste Comte and the utilitarians like John Stuart Mill who no longer believe in a knowable rational truth. If truth is unattained, it is no longer obligating. Thus truth is no longer valuable, it becomes a fantasy, a fable, a useless idea, something to be dispensed with. Truth is now seen as simply what those with power are able to persuade others to be true.
Nietzsche’s own approach to truth is paradoxical as it is profound. Truth is a lie, a deception, an expression of power by those whose interests it serves. But the lie that truth is- that lie is also necessary. Truth is a needed lie in the service of life. First, because man as a social being needs truths that unite him with others and keep the peace. Just as Plato understood that the plural and conflicting opinions of the masses needed to be trained by a philosopher king, so Nietzsche saw that any collective life requires a “peace treaty” that is something like an agreement on basic truths, the foundations of our common world. Second, truth is necessary because it is an expression of the power of those with the power to assert their truth. Since life is will to power and since life needs to exert power, the achievement of transforming a lie into a truth serves the progressive force of power in life.
The question of the course became simply: If truth is a lie, is it a lie we should cherish and protect, or should we in the name of truthfulness call out the lie and reject all claims to truth. In other words, if truth is simply what the powerful have accomplished, should we reject truth as simply an instantiation of power? Or should we recognize, paradoxically with Nietzsche, that while truth may be a lie in the service of power, we humans cannot live without truth.
This last point is at the heart of Arendt’s powerful reflections on truth in her two essays “Lying and Politics” and “Truth and Politics.” We can live without justice, Arendt writes, but we cannot live without truth. Truth, as she puts it at the end of “Truth and Politics,” is the ground we walk on and the sky above us. It is the common world. Without truth, there is simply nothing that holds our world together. But truth, for Arendt, is hardly Platonic or even Kantian. She recognizes that truth may be a lie and a fable. But it is a lie we need, which is why it is better to be wrong with our friends than to pursue a truth with our enemies. We need to believe in truths that ensure the trust and meaning of our common worlds.
To understand the importance of truth even when truth is a lie and to commit oneself to upholding truths while knowing that those truths are manifestations of power is the paradoxical situation we find ourselves struggling with today. To think about this challenge we read a number of contemporary books, including Steven Shapin’s The Social History of Truth and Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Truth. These books taught us that truth is something we build through institutions that are built on trust. It may be that our social, cultural, and scientific institutions have their roots in 17th century norms of being a gentleman in England as Shapin argues, but it is also true that those norms have changed and modernized. Persons of any race, gender, or class today can be a scientist, but they still must follow norms of impartiality, curiosity, and openness to scientific falsification. It is true, of course, that all our truths are partial and open to doubt and eventual disproof. For Rauch, however, the institutions of liberal truth are worthwhile because they are constantly open to being revised, improved, and made accessible. Yes, all institutions represent interests and are expressions of power. But there is an openness to revision in the name of justice and equality that makes the truths of liberal institutions worth defending.
So many today want to tear these institutions down, to sacrifice what Rauch calls The Constitution of Truth. Many of my students began the class believing that if one side lies and cheats to get what they want, it is foolish to hold oneself to norms of truth. Some held to that view throughout the course. If the right-wing press embraces alternative facts, the left-wing press should respond in kind as part of the resistance. It is of course true that the Supreme Court is not only a legal but also a political body, but if we treat it fully as a political body and pack the court to serve our interests, we lose the very idea of legal authority that lends our politics authority and stability. And it is true that the liberal rules-based world order does serve the interests of America and its allies, but to abandon that order to regional power bases would end the decades of peace and global integration many of us are used to. What the course brought them to see is that they are right in their critiques of journalistic standards, legal neutrality, and international law as lies that inform and protect certain interests; but it also forced them to see that it may be deeply dangerous to simply tear down the institutional constitutions of truth that our liberal institutions embody.
The nihilistic tendencies of those on the right and the left today lead many to embrace the critique of truth as power without understanding Nietzsche and Arendt’s response that even if truth is a lie it is a humanly necessary lie. That does not mean that we must simply embrace the truths of the powerful; wc can and should seek to revise and revisit those truths in the name of justice. But even revolutionary action, Arendt teaches us, is a return to foundational truths—a revolving back to the beginning—and not a wholesale rejection of such truths.
These reflections on my course on Truth and Politics come after reading an essay by Thomas B. Edsall. Edsall does a deep dive into the partisan divide to argue that beyond real policy differences, the political factionalization of the country today is driven by profoundly opposed ways of seeing and understanding the world we share. Both Republicans and Democrats are seeing others in different parties as less than human. And this dehumanization shifts politics from a contest of conflicting interests to one of a zero sum game based upon the survival of one’s identity and worldview. In such a political struggle, the desire for power overwhelms the interest in the constitution of truth. Edsall writes.
Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins and the author of “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” stressed these points in an emailed response to my questions, saying, “Democrats and Republicans are having very real and consequential disagreements on matters of equality, social hierarchy and what it means to be American.”
At the same time, Mason continued: matters of status and identity are easy to whip up into existential conflicts with zero-sum solutions. To the extent that political leaders are encouraging people to focus on threats to their social status rather than their economic or material well-being, they are certainly directing attention in an unhelpful and often dangerous direction. It’s much easier to think of others as disproportionately dangerous and extreme when their victory means your loss, rather than focusing on the overall well-being of the nation as a whole.
Alia Braley, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, was the lead author of an August 2022 paper, “The Subversion Dilemma: Why Voters Who Cherish Democracy Participate in Democratic Backsliding.” She and her co-authors argued that “simply fearing that opposing partisans support democratic backsliding can lead individuals to support it themselves.”
In an email, Braley wrote: We find that everyday Democrats believe that everyday Republicans are way more hostile to democracy than they really are. And vice versa. In that sense people are, in fact, operating under a delusion that everyday opposing partisans are willing to undermine democracy. And yes, this misperception seems to cause intense affective polarization.
Partisans, Braley continued, “overestimate how much members of the other party dislike and dehumanize them. Partisans tend to believe members of the other party want far more extreme policy outcomes than they actually do.” These misperceptions “can create a type of downward spiral in terms of polarization,” she wrote, citing Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen:
This rhetoric likely causes Republicans to start to believe that Democrats are undermining democracy. When Democrats see this election denial, they naturally come to think that Republicans are trying to undermine democracy by not accepting election results. The result is a state of mutual fear. Gabriel Lenz — a political scientist at Berkeley and one of Braley’s co-authors — emailed to say “that much of the polarization is delusional.”
“There are two main drivers” of this phenomenon, Lenz wrote. The first “is the need for politicians to mobilize citizens with busy lives and not much of an incentive to participate in politics. There are many ways politicians can mobilize voters, but fear is tried and true.”
The second is speculative: “That humans evolved to survive conflict with the other human groups around them,” he wrote. “This likely selected for people who excelled at sticking together in conflicts. Many of our biases seem explained by this incentive, especially a tendency to see the other side as evil.”
Lenz stressed the point that politicians don’t need to fully convince their supporters of these perceptions to get their supporters to act on them. If I’m only partially convinced that Democrats intend to steal the next election or want to murder babies, that partial belief may still be enough to get me to act.
Even more significant, according to Lenz, is the recognition that some misperceptions are much more important than others. Misperceptions on policy or on the demographic makeup of parties are probably important, but they don’t directly threaten democracy. Misperceiving that the other side no longer supports democracy, however, is a more direct threat to democracy. It’s a more direct threat because it leads your own side to no longer support democracy to the same degree.
He cited a 2020 paper, “Malice and Stupidity: Out-Group Motive Attribution and Affective Polarization” by Sean Freeder, a political scientist at the University of North Florida, who argued that “negative motive attribution — partisans’ tendency to assume ill intent guides out-party interests” is a “key dynamic underlying affective polarization. When asked why out-party members prefer certain policy outcomes, roughly half of partisan respondents offer an explanation involving selfishness, ignorance, hatred and other negative motives.”
Exposure to positive out-group motives does appear to lead respondents to update out-partisan attributions, which in turn leads to increased out-group affect. However, motivated reasoning makes such updating likely only when the out-party motives shown are of uniformly high quality — even one bad apple appears to spoil the whole bunch.
Affective polarization can, in Freeder’s analysis, take on a momentum of its own:
Once partisan polarization begins, negative motive attribution may provide partisans with an easy way to ‘other’ the out-group, which in turn increases the internal desire to further negatively attribute. Such a feedback loop leads citizens to perceive themselves as increasingly surrounded by monsters.