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The epistemic Wild West

Joel Sati, PhD Student, Jurisprudence and Social Policy | December 28, 2016

Post-truth (/ˌpəʊs(t)ˈtruːθ/) adj.: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. 

2016 Word of the Year, Oxford Dictionaries

“Are you real?”

“Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”

Westworld, Season 1 Episode 2: “Chestnut”

I do not remember a year that is as anticipated — or as dreaded — as the one that will meet us in four days. That racism has become shameless needs no rehashing here, except to say that I cannot in good conscience wish the people that matter to me a Happy New Year because the Trump Administration is looking forward to it just as much.

Perhaps what makes today’s strand of racism particular to our time is that it exists in a period where there is supposedly endless information. And among this seemingly infinite web of truth, the idea is that there should be information that disabuses people of retrograde worldviews. But as the 2016 election cycle has shown, the opposite is true: not only do white nationalists have internet fora, but they have hijacked public fora. What happens when echo chambers and political chambers become indistinguishable? What happens when the truth does not matter, but “truthiness?” What happens when society does not value substance, but mere form?

The above questions are not rhetorical; to say their answers are important is an understatement. Consider the phenomenon of “fake news.” Journalists are struggling to define the phenomenon, but I’ll define it as the intentional spread of false or misleading information, in both content and presentation, through various media with the aim of skewing public opinion and manipulating current events. In combating the rise of fake news, social media giant Facebook, among others, has enlisted a multi-pronged response to find and eliminate sites that propagate fake news. Yet just as quickly, “fake news” has become the label that conservatives and the neo-neo-Nazi contingent apply to information that goes against their worldview.

Such co-optation indicates the central problem: the terms used to assess the truth of claims: “fake news”, “critical thinking”, “Fair and Balanced”, are not disinterested assessments of truth. Instead, these labels obscure the biased perspectives of a media-savvy, insidious elite and confuse the public that consumes news from the “No-Spin Zone”.  Further, media that traffic in falsehoods make it so that the public is not merely ignorant, but is motivated and rewarded for such ignorance. This is “He who pays the piper calls the tune” writ large—“the tune” of the information consumed constituting an important part of how how millions of people, as political subjects and as human beings (if difference exists in such a distinction), make sense of the world around them.

The above brings to bear the following: the battle over truth in the news indicates that  information is a site of power and domination. In her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, philosopher Miranda Fricker argues that marginalized peoples suffer from two kinds of epistemic injustices that, until recently, have received little attention: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. Testimonial injustice is defined “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.” Thus, a hearer not only loses out on potentially valuable information—an epistemic wrong—but disrespects the speaker as a knower. Since recognition as a knower of information is a capacity essential to human value, testimonial injustice also constitutes an ethical wrong. Hermeneutical injustice, in turn, Fricker defines as happening “at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.”

Marginalized communities whose dehumanization relies on dismissing them as incapable of knowledge and political participation and denying them the ability to articulate claims, continue to be made invisible. As a personal example, I was unable to fully grasp my experiences as both Black and undocumented until the UndocuBlack movement came along. The myth of objectivity—central to both laypeople and Western thinkers alike— is the prion of contemporary discourse, controlling it to the point that all which is necessary to secure power is not the possession of a substantive claim, but a captivating simulacrum of one.

Sadly, I must admit I am bereft of solutions to this issue. Initially, I reverted to my admittedly liberal reflex of pushing for more critical thinking and philosophy courses in our K-12 curricula (If I had any say, a blend of political philosophy and epistemology would be particularly timely). But my experience as a public school student tells me that the kids will learn only as much as the parents are willing to let them. I bring this up to say that education reform, though worthwhile, is woefully inadequate and misses the mark. It is adults who voted for Trump, it is adults who peddled untruths, and it is adults who helm education systems where, for example, slaves are referred to as workers.

If one thing comes from this article it is this: more than just fighting between competing views, we must investigate the nature of the very debates in which some have outsized influence and some are suppressed. There are many equivocations that plague our debate, and it seems that no one is trusted enough to be the arbiter of truth. If we’re taking suggestions, maybe we could go Orwellian and establish a Ministry of Truth? I kid—could you tell? Nevertheless, I doubt we could handle the truth, if we knew what it was.

Welcome to the Epistemic Wild West.