there are no such things as facts - post-truth and post-modernism
December 3, 2016
I think I’ve seen a few people talking about the ‘post-truth’ reality of trump and how one of his sock-puppets recently said that there is no such thing as facts. Now. For obvious reasons most of the people I pal around with can be loosely said to be on the ‘left’. Or, perhaps more accurately, none of them are on the right and none of them are even remotely close to supporting trump. But I find it interesting how people are reacting to this statement since it, in a large way, owes a lot to post-modernism and, well, identity politics.
Relatedly, I’ve seen a few people saying that we ought to call ‘alt-right’ just plain facism (or nazism), rather than allowing its adherents to rebrand and make themselves more marketable. But… it is exactly that, imo, that makes the group distinct and why I think it does need to be addressed as a distinct movement/group. In so many ways, the alt-right is a result of white supremacists yielding the discursive field to ‘social justice warriors’ and in so doing, adopt that language and learn how to articulate an old message for a new audience. And its working. Young, white men who would probably never join the kkk are identifying as ‘alt-right’.
In both cases, I don’t think you can understand what is happening without understanding the ways that critical theory (via post-modernism and other white-led theories), identity politics, and discourse on the left have helped create this environment. Perhaps I can see why the right is happily pushing the ‘no facts’ idea because of all the trans news I read. While I don’t always read the articles, I see the headlines from ‘alt-right’ news sites about trans people. One of the main themes is the belief that trans people are trying to force everyone to live according to our delusions. This is the ‘trans is a mental illness/disorder’ strain of thought. As such, for them, this is equivalent to the world indulging my delusion that I’m empress of the world and letting me hold dominion over the world. They say, “b. clearly isn’t empress of the world, why should I subjugate myself to their delusion that they are?”. I’ve already spoken about this.
The idea that there is no ‘objective truth’ has its root in post-modern thought. The notion of subjectivity and its attendent epistemology is one of the key features. Of course, in the case of literature (which is the context I learned these theories), post-modernism was about challenging other critical movements like structuralism and formalism. But also a challenge to ‘modernism’, which in turn is heavily structured by the (white) enlightenment. Given that scientific inquiry is one of the key tenets to the (white) enlightenment, modernism was all about the objective, knowable world.
Post-modernism isn’t ‘wrong’ for challenging and deconstructing this notion. The conceptualization of objectivity in white culture has been the source of a great deal of violence for anyone considered unable to be objective (and thus rational). This means basically anyone who isn’t a white man. This is how (white) women became hysterical and people of colour sub-humans incapable of being civilized. This is clearly a conceptual framework that needed to be challenged. Without it, its hard to see how we could’ve reached the point where we claim that shit like race and gender are social constructions. Within modernism, these things represent some kind of objective reality, rather than being the products of human behaviour.
Where the problem comes in is that… most of the people who crafted post-modernism were also white men. And since even most of them considered the white man as the default human, when they concluded that objectivity is false because of its historical development in white culture, they also concluded (in essence) that there is no such thing as objectivity. For anyone. Ever. At all.
And its within this framework that identity politics emerge. One of the major consequences of the above is an extreme kind of individualism. If there is no objectivity, then everything is subjective and everyone has, more or less, their own ‘truth’. Identity politics rests on this kind of individualism and it informs so many of the things I dislike about most current liberatory discourses. Many of which are dearly held discursive principles that a lot of people I know subscribe to. Which is also why I’m not going to go into specific examples.
The point is, though, that this idea that because white men figured out that they are biased assholes, there isn’t any such thing as objectivity or ‘facts’. And its a notion many of us have bought into. Except… that this conclusion isn’t warranted from the evidence. Just because white men figured out that their claims to objectivity were bullshit it doesn’t actually entail that all claims to objectivity are bullshit. Or, in other words, just because white men realized that a lot of their cherished ‘facts’ were actually lies they created to oppress others, it doesn’t mean that there are no facts. Or that facts aren’t possible. Yet this is exactly how many of us behave and this is, by far and large, one of the most pervasive ideas around today.
As a result, I really think that no one should be surprised that while we say, ‘I’m living my truth as a trans woman’ conservatives are calling us delusional. To the conservative (and some groups on the left) it is an undeniable ‘fact’ that I am and always will be male and, thus, a man. I’ve seen very few trans people argue the opposite: that its an objective truth that I’m female and, thus, a woman1. Instead we have a language crafted from subjectivity. That I am a woman is ‘my’ truth rather than the truth. And we invest so much currency into this notion that it impacts almost every part of teh discourse.
So enter a group of educated white people. Who look at this discursive context and say, yeah, sure, ok. Who embrace it rather than trying to argue that their mythology is the objective truth. Who can say with a straight face that climate change is a lie. Or, better yet, who can say with a straight face that white men are the ones being oppressed now. And they feel justified and good about this because they feel oppressed. Which is pretty much equivalent to how a lot of actually oppressed people talk about their lives. I actually think someone on reddit once accussed me of putting ‘feels before facts’. This is how they see us.
But in a discursive context wherein subjective claims are treated as gold, this is a situation wherein anyone smart enough to understand can use the discourse as a weapon against the very people who crafted it as a way to speak out. This is how you get a white gay man exploding all over the internet because he doesn’t want to be called ‘cis’. And that labelling him such is violating his truth that he is not cis. It is taking away his right to self-identify.
This conceptual framework has been extremely useful in dislocating the narrative of whiteness as default. It absolutely was necessary to disrupt the idea that the white worldview is some kind of objective observation of reality. But the consequences of this have been hard cultural relativism, linguistic determinism, some varieties of idealism, and just about any other theory that argues against the existence of an external, knowable world.
So much of our current discourse rests heavily on the incommeasurability of human experience. On the notion that we all have our individual subjectivities that are never knowable or coherent to anyone else. Cis authors should never write books about the trans experience because they’ll never understand it and the ‘representation’ will be wrong, oppressive, exploitative, co-opting, or inauthentic. We live in a world populated by strangers we can never know and understand. Sure. Some of us try to form communities based on ‘shared’ experiences/reality, but these almost always fracture because we don’t really have the tools anymore (if we ever did) for trying to establish some external (thus objective) reality that aren’t based on white supremacy.
Or rather, this isn’t quite right. We don’t have very many (if any) secular tools for establishing a shared, collective reality. All of what I’m saying here doesn’t apply to religion or spirituality. If you adhere to some theology wherein there is no external world (or objective reality) that’s fine (I’m talking about stuff like the belief that the world is an idea in God’s mind or the idea that the world is empty/nothingness both of these have secular articulations – idealism and nihilism respectively). Almost all of the modern, mainstream secular solutions for this come from white people (see marxism and liberalism amongst others). Its only in the secular world that ‘facts’ must be derived from some object, external reality. In christianity, God is a fact, regardless of what we do or do not know of the external world.
As far as I can tell, I can’t think of any current, secular philosophy or stream of thought that attempts to conceptualize the possibility of an object, knowable, and external world. At least not in a way that works against the white held notions of it (ie, that only white men have access to this knowledge) and isn’t based on a religious or spiritual system. Well… except my newly coined philosophy of malayaism. :P
In a post-modern world, what exactly is a ‘fact’? If ‘my truth’ is supported only by my internal self, why should anyone else take it as ‘fact’? We’ve created a context where we are forced to either believe everyone or believe no one. So yes, we live in a post-truth world. Except that this is our fault, not the fault of ppl on the right or conservatives. This is simply them accepting an idea that we’ve been pushing for decades now. For a long time conservatives were pretty staunch on their classic, white notions of objectivity and truth. A lot of them still are (this is where the belief that I’m a delusional male comes from). This is simply them using our language and frameworks against us.
The example that first comes to mind is blackfoxx, a Black trans woman, who has definitely made this assertion. ↩