Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Roger Berkowitz opened the Arendt Center Conference "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis": "In the early years of our federal-constitutional-democratic-republican experiment, cobblers, lawyers, and yeoman farmers participated in Town Hall meetings. Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern and we have lost the habit of weighing and judging those issues that define our body politic. Why is this so? Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear that participation in governance is a personal responsibility? Do the size and complexity of bureaucratic government mean that individuals are so removed from the levers of power that engaged citizenship is rationally understood to be a waste of time? Or do gerrymandered districts with homogenous populations insulate congressmen from the need for compromise? Whatever the cause, educated elites are contemptuous of common people and increasingly imagine that the American people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the American people, for their part, increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed government that provides social services cheaply and efficiently. It is against this background that we are here to think about 'The Educated Citizen in Crisis.' Over the next two days, we will ask: What would an educated citizen look like today? Read the whole talk; you can also watch his speech and the whole conference here.
Clare McCann points to a surprising fact about government student loans: "Most people typically have undergraduates in mind when they think about the federal loan program, but in reality, the program is nearly as much about financing graduate studies as it is about undergraduate programs. Sure, graduate school can cost more than an undergraduate education, but that's not necessarily why graduate loans feature prominently in the breakdown. Actually, it's because the federal government does not limit how much graduate students can borrow." Perhaps more so than loans for undergraduates, loans to students entering grad programs can lead to enormous debt loads that they can't afford.
David Palumbo-Liu considers the role of the public intellectual in the internet age. He argues that amongst the proliferation of intellectual voices on the web, the role of the public intellectual must change: "A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today's public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently. This distinction is critical." In other words, what we need are more public intellectuals who write and think as did Hannah Arendt.
Andrea Bruce's new photo project, Afghan Americans, depicts a group of people with a particular dual identity alongside quotes from its subjects. This work grew out of work she did as a photojournalist in Iraq, where she sought to "show that Iraqis weren't all that different from our readers... that they, too, love their children. They care about education. They have to deal with traffic and health care in ways that are surprisingly similar to Americans."
In an interview about, among other things, whether a machine can help us separate art we like from art we don't, essayist Michelle Orange answers a question about why we like formulaic art, and the consequences of that preference: "In the 1960s there was a great hunger for tumult and experiment at the movies that matched the times. I often wonder about A.O. Scott's line on The Avengers: 'The price of entertainment is obedience.' When did it happen that instead of gathering to dream together, we trudged to the movies to get the shit entertained out of us? Robert Stone has a great line: 'The way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture goes crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories.' In American culture you find a mania for stories - the internet, social media, the news cycle, endless cable channels. But I wonder if being fed in constant junk-nutrition fragments only intensifies that appetite, because what it really wants is something huge and coherent, some structuring context."
A Lecture by Nicole Dewandre: "Rethinking the Human Condition in a Hyperconnected Era"
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium
Learn more here.
October 27, 2013
Blogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Conversation with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber
Bard Graduate Center
Learn more here.
October 28, 2013
Seth Lipsky Lunchtime Talk on Opinion Journalism
Learn more here.
On the Arendt Center Blog this week, read "Irony as an Antidote to Thoughtlessness," a discussion of Arendt's ironic stance in Eichmann in Jerusalem by Arendt Center Fellow Michiel Bot. And Jeffrey Champlin reviews Margaret Canovan's classic essay, "Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics."
We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.
In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:
In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.
Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.
Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value. We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.
Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.
More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.
For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.
Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post, has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:
- [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
- Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
- Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
- Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
- A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
- In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty
I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.
Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.
It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:
[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.
Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.
I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.
As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.
As I have written before:
To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.
One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.
A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.
It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:
Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.
What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,
Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.
Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.
The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.” In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.
It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.
"If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with that of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth. The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms."
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Arendt's concluding image in The Origins of Totalitarianism leaves us with a bleak sense of how the mass of lonely and isolated individuals in modern society – the desert –can readily be swept into the "sandstorm" of totalitarianism.
The book sketches the forces that drive this new form of frenetic political motion, as well as the traditional resources that prevented it earlier: the loneliness of the frightened person as opposed to the solitude of the reflective individual; the community of discussion instead of the techniques of "mass movements."
Of the specific principles of totalitarianism that Arendt raises, few are as intriguing as her recasting of what is now termed polycracy [Neumann/ Hüttenberger/ Broszat], the notion that at every level individuals in a totalitarian society found themselves within overlapping systems of bureaucracy and power, unsure which level was of the most import. "All levels of the administrative machine in the Third Reich," she notes as a principal example, "were subject to a curious duplication of offices, with a fantastic thoroughness." At every level of society, individuals were unsure of how to calibrate actions and statements to their context for self-promotion, defense, or simply to be left alone, since there were often two or more overlapping systems of organization defining their position. The average worker, for instance, might be unsure what factor was decisive for their fate: the role of their actual boss, the party connections of colleagues, the intrigues of the secret police, the family connections of acquaintances, or even their role in apparently secondary organizations such as an automobile association. Ultimately, "regular" politics could never pertain, while the politics of the "movement" always had some traction.
The result in Arendt's telling was often a necessary striving beyond proscribed roles to express alignment with the ideals of the party and in the quest for advantage or mere safety. Unlike aspects of her later argument for the "banality of evil," here simply "fitting in" was not enough. In this manner, later scholars have argued, the decisive feature of totalitarian societies was neither the passive "structure" of organization nor the simple "intent" of members, but rather a new middle term created from the ill ease of masses of individuals.
The "conditions under which we exist today" no doubt still include the original possibilities of totalitarianism, but Arendt would also have us ask what has changed, what new aspects of society facilitate or act as windbreaks, so to speak, for such "sandstorms." Earlier windbreaks passively functioned, as Arendt suggests for even relatively dystopian societies such as tyrannies, through the exercise of clear lines of authority, the existence of an active private sphere of life, and the possible formation of a discursive community of individuals, even if only in small groups.
At first glance, the new social technologies credited in recent uprisings and protests suggest a strengthening of these windbreaks by giving voice to critiques of incompetent and unjust administration, the solitary opposition of conscience, and, perhaps most decisively, the possibility of organizing coordinated discussion and action on wide scales. Yet, apace with these changes there are also darker transformations allowed by vast increases in computing memory and power that make tracking information and people on social media progressively easier. In repressive societies this is already occurring through the aggregation of past communications, the profiling of individuals, and guilt by association with members of one's social orbit.
By definition secret, statistical, and yet deeply connected with personal preference and affiliations, the aggregation of data concerning the individual in the context of social networking presents a real potential for abuse by any number of outside powers. Although most apparent in directly repressive societies, this transformation has the potential for abuse in numerous forms of governance. For if not managed properly, the laws and infrastructure of the internet could increasingly give rise to the sense – and reality – that one's words and actions could be interpreted in any number of contexts and by many forms of institutions. The malign influence of polycracy on individual decision, previously a signal feature of totalitarian regimes, might start to appear in any political system whatsoever.
As data about the individual becomes potentially available to a spectrum of interests and parties, ranging from credit agencies and divorce lawyers to political opponents and work rivals, it is easy to imagine individuals (and software) attempting to "mask" or redefine preferences, interests, and affiliations.
The result would be a pervasive self-censorship, but also – in light of this confusing secondary power – a corollary attempt to act out in the manner that seems most open to reward. The ability of individuals to first believe in the honesty of their own choices and speech, and with this the honesty of others, could be profoundly altered, as would the nature of civil society.
Precisely in first connecting the private and public spheres in new ways, groups of friends and political action, social media has the possibility to atomize anew. Debates over the role of law and infrastructure in shaping these contexts takes on a new relevance for preserving the basis of the windbreaks of civil society, ranging from recent initiatives such as "do not track" to the separation of terrorist investigations from other forms of surveillance (such as occurs in Germany), to larger innovations such as the E.U.'s "right to data privacy" or plan for the "right to be forgotten." Although integral perhaps to preventing the "sandstorms" Arendt warned of, these innovations may also prove critical to amplifying the positive features of individual conscience and civil society allowed by social media.
The Arendt Center's Director of Outreach, Bridget Hollenback, has an interesting piece on the use of social media in the 2012 Presidential race which appeared on Media Psychology Impact:
This increase in social media users skewing Republican is interesting, but an easily explained phenomenon. It is not a reflection of Democrats tiring of social media or becoming less active with its use. Rather, technology has become more of a societal norm. Case in point, since 2008, the number of active Facebook users has grown astronomically from 100 million to 800 million. A good percentage of this increase reflects older, and often more conservative voters (many of whom would lean Republican), becoming more tech savvy and comfortable utilizing social media.
- 38% of responders say social media will help determine their voting choices in the upcoming election.
- 60% of social media users expect candidates to have a social media presence.
- 94% of respondents of voting age engaged by a political message on a social media site watched the entire message, and 39 percent of these people went on to share it with an average of 130 friends online.
As the race to choose a Republican candidate rages on, social media has become an inherent part of each candidate’s overall strategy. However, thus far the candidates are using it with varying degrees of savvy and success.
You can read the post in its entirety here.
In the age of rapid- response media, truths are deployed like hard drives, consumed and then over-written by newer, faster, more expedient truths. We want instant insight and commentary, not hard- won wisdom. Contemporary journalism in the United States is broken when there is no culture of analysis to support it, when pundits offer pre-packaged opinions that are wielded with nonchalance by everyone from citizens to senators alike. Debate meanders circularly and there is no resolution because there are no facts or values held in common. This is how something like climate change which is recognized by 98% of scientists can become a matter for debate. The remaining 2% of scientists can become a credible reason for doubt. After all, truth is all in how you tell it, which facts you reveal and which you keep hidden, which are distorted and which are twisted beyond recognition by losing their context and history. The appearance of fact is enough in a timeless, soulless world. What is truth-telling in the age of opinion?
Listening to Syrian- American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum’s album, SyrianamericanA, throws into relief the tensions and richness of cross-cultural experience. The narrator is living a life that is familiar to those who cross between the Arab world and the West. Each verse becomes a meditation on colonialism, Orientalism, the nomadism of “success,” feeling torn between two cultures, two moralities, two inseparable, dissimilar lives. ” Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane,” he sings. “it’s an Arab super hero and he came to bring change.” The voices of truth-telling in the future belong to those who are caught, by chance or circumstance, in between two or more conflicting narratives of power– when ideologies are examined in the light of lives we must live, the story unravels and we can see beyond the frame.
Tunisian revolutionaries have expressed “we don’t want to be called by the names of flowers!” Especially after the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism has marketed the country for years as a land of exotic fragrances and accessible to Europe Mediterranean charm. The Arab revolutions, not “the Arab Spring,” or “the Jasmine Revolution,” offer new possibilities for speaking and thinking from and to the centers of power. Once ignored by the mainstream media, activists, in particular from the Egyptian youth movements, have been featured on Al-Jazeera and honored by establishments of “human rights.” With this recognition, however, comes an even greater challenge. The call by Egyptian activists at the beginning of the revolution was for each man, woman and child to come down into the square. Not only those who have access to blogs, Twitter or Facebook, those who are young, globally connected, or connected to leftist politics were responsible for the events which are continuing to shake the foundations of the world we thought we knew. We all have a responsibility to the cities, the politics we find ourselves in. Hannah Arendt said famously that “freedom has a space, a place.” (The Promise of Politics) These spaces, Arendt says, are the heart of the city or polis and contain the essence of democracy. The Bahraini regime knew this perfectly well when they destroyed the Pearl Roundabout which had been the epicenter of demonstrations in March of 2011. Around the world, public spaces are being reshaped and reclaimed as spaces of dissent, debate and action.
These spaces are not given for free. Waves of development have ripped out the collective spaces from cities, turning historic neighborhoods into block of “luxury flats” or boutique hotels which cater exclusively to foreigners. Gentrification pushes families further away from the centers of cities into hard to access suburbs. Beirut’s cosmopolitan charm is largely a fiction invented by the tourism industry. Recently in Beirut, several friends have been wounded by thugs of the Syrian regime. People are pulled off bar stools for criticizing Assad’s regime and beaten up in nearby alleys. The freedom that we struggle for is not an abstract, but a daily sensous reality. It demands an awareness and a greater attention to the small politics of daily life. Sometimes a revolution can be a few previously unspoken words, sometimes it can be a look for or against what is easily apparent. At all times, it is the will to resist “the way things are.”
A friend of ours who was being prosecuted by a military court for his activism committed suicide last week in Beirut. “I die as I have lived,” he wrote, “a free spirit, an anarchist, owing no aliegance to rulers heavenly or earthly.” In the discourse surrounding his death, however, one truth risks being drowned out by the fervor to write his death as a heroic gesture, a revolutionary position. That truth, rather quietly, is that Nour had struggled for many years with severe depression. It seems wrong to paint him as a hero in death when he might have lived as a man. If we were to follow Nour’s example, we would work tirelessly and quietly for the causes we believe in. Truth, in the manner of an enduring wisdom, is always soft-spoken, always humble and often found in unexpected places.
You Can’t Tell it if you Don’t Have It
We cannot be truth-tellers unless we are truth-seekers. So, in a roundabout way, if we want to talk about truth-telling in an age of democracy, we must first think about truth-seeking in an age of democracy.
Changing Times, Changing Truth
We also have to face the fact that the true democracy of our time is not a democracy of structure and process, but instead a democracy of information. Governments are no longer held strictly accountable through an institutional system of checks and balances meant to keep tabs on behalf of the people, but directly by the people, through WikiLeaks, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Our understanding of truth has to play catch-up to the times we live in.
Nowhere has this been seen more clearly than in the Arab Spring. Investigations by government agencies or international watchdogs have been replaced with this:
@AnonymousSyria: Brave protesters defy the terror of machine guns in #Palmyra tonight. Incredible. At least one injured. #Syria
With “a click of the button,” @AnonymousSyria distributed, and continues to distribute, information on the government crackdown to almost 6,000 people following his Twitter. These people re-post the video. International news channels write articles about the video. People in other countries re-post the articles. Information travels very quickly. And most importantly, it by-passes the government.
This democracy of information has also caused an information glut which calls into question the very nature of truth. The internet has made the “truth” more accessible to the average person than it has ever been, but it has also deeply called into question the very nature of that truth. Encyclopaedias held for several centuries the position of books of truth, but today’s (by a long shot) most popular and prolific and expansive encyclopaedia can be edited any person with an internet connection and so much as half a brain. “Seeking” and telling the truth in an age of truth-glut, when truths can be created and deleted at the click of a button, is deeply problematic. It means that the world is full of truths, often contradictory.
Truth-seeking as a Private Struggle
For a long time, “truth-seeking” has meant “demanding the truth.” In democracy, the energy with which we seek truth is the energy that fuels a healthy civil society. That same energy arguably almost toppled the British government this summer when the News of the World hacking scandal broke out and the whole British government was found to have been living cosily for over a decade in Rupert Murdoch’s pocket. The scandal was old-fashioned in the sense that the British public still felt they had to “demand the truth” from the politicians. Scandals of this kind are becoming a rare breed, because politicians are no longer the merchants of truth. We have Wikileaks for that. Anybody with an internet connection can access a world of information. Truth-seeking does not happen in the public – and by that I mean institutional – arena anymore. Instead, it happens on the personal computer. Truth-seeking has become a private struggle. The truth-seeking of our age is one of which Hannah Arendt would approve.
Don’t be Fooled
But in that privacy, it is easy to be misled. And likewise, it is easy to mislead others. That is why attention is required anew as to how to be truth-seekers and truth-tellers. In the age of Wiki, we are so deeply beset by information that dresses itself as fact, that the question has become, How do we know when a fact is actually true? If institutional systems no longer hold the keys to the vaults of truth, how do we as individuals certify truth when we find it? Wikipedia is hardly the answer. What, then, are we left with?
The Gaddafi loyalists and mercenaries who were holed up in abandoned offices and apartment blocks and houses on the outskirts of Tripoli and in the town of Bani Walid last month may very well have been “demanding the truth” about the situation. But imagine that they receive two conflicting reports – one report states that Gaddafi is alive and well and has opened a counter-offensive on the rebel stronghold at Benghazi. The other report informs the men that Gaddafi has surrendered himself. The rebels, though they demand the truth, will be far more likely to openly accept the former report as the true one. They are not consciously lying to themselves. Likewise, when they rush to their comrades and tell them that Gaddafi is on the counter-offensive, they are not consciously choosing to tell a lie. Truth-telling, then, is not necessarily about actively choosing to tell the truth over a lie and neither is truth seeking the mere act of “demanding the truth.”
If You Aren’t Getting any Closer, You’re getting Further Away
Truth-telling as it applies to a healthy democracy is an honest relationship to facts and the nature of ‘fact.’ The Gaddafi soldiers have fallen back on instinct and belief as their compass for truth. What we have to realise is that we too are falling back on instinct most times that we decide between truths. Congresswoman Bachman is a good example – though we might disagree with her views, her unrelenting belief in the creation myth is a product of her humanity, not of her stupidity. Falling back on instinct may be useful when, as Frost would put it, you come to a fork in the road, but when it comes to our system of governance and collective decision-making, instinct just will not cut it. As truth-seeking becomes a personal struggle, we need to acquire the tools to engage with information on a personal level. For each “truth” that we find ourselves believing, we should ask of ourselves, “Why do I believe this?” If we cannot satisfactorily answer that question, then we cannot trust the information. We must, I believe, settle for a constant sense of unease with the facts. Our challenge in the age of Wiki is to accept that we can never get to truth, we can only ever be in either a state of approximation to it, or distancing from it.
How to be a Truth-Teller in an Age of Wiki
Truth-seeking must therefore become constant state of seeking the truth, instead of just a way to know when the truth has been reached. Real truth-seekers do not find and settle on a truth and move on. They establish what they can by the available information – and they keep seeking, motivated by a healthy dose of scepticism and a strong aversion to the complacency of “knowing the truth.” When we go to Wikipedia, we must read the sources. When we have a good conversation, we have to remember that its goodness, and not its content, was the only true fact about it. And for every news article we read, we must read three more, from different sources. We must, to be true truth-seekers, settle to be like Moses; we must accept that we will be denied the Promised Land. We are denied pure truth just as much now as we were twenty two years ago, when I was born. The impossibility of truth, and therefore of proper truth-telling, remains a stubborn fact that we must grapple with. What has changed is that our struggle to draw near truth is now a personal struggle. And, like Moses, we must never lose faith that it is out there. As truth-tellers and truth seekers we must be relentlessly tenacious. It is that faith and tenacity which will keep democracy alive.
If this is the necessary truth-seeking for our age, the correct truth-telling will therefore be an understanding of the limits of our ability to attain truth, and a respect for the great power we wield to relay facts and for those facts to be taken as true. In other words, truth-telling is about simultaneously believing we are powerless, while acting as though we have a great and potentially destructive power.
Moral of the Story: Ask Questions, Because You Know Nothing
I remember when we read King Lear in my freshman year of college. All my classmates said that the Duke of Gloucester began to see the truth only after he was blinded. We all agreed that this was the great irony of the play. But what Gloucester really does is what we have to begin doing as truth-tellers in an age of Wiki – his blindness makes him realise the limits of his ability to know the truth of the physical world, so he starts to ask the right questions. The great irony of our time is that the unprecedented wealth of information at our disposal really only shows that we know nothing for certain. And so, in the age of Wiki, we have to ask the right questions, every single day and every hour – not of governments, but of each other and, most importantly, of ourselves.