31 May What is a “Fact”*
What is a “Fact”
The dictionary defines a “fact” as “a thing that is known or proven to be true,” “something that has actual existence” … or, simply, “a truth.” Straightforward, no? A seemingly simple exercise in separating reality from opinion and fantasy. Whether or not something is “a true fact” after all depends on objective research, a set of tasks that each human being is quite capable of performing. Although agreement among human beings requires a common evidentiary framework and a common methodology, reality means that something either is true or it isn’t. “Fact-finding” therefore is not an exercise in relativity. Although that might appear obvious and the determination process itself self-evident, what is “factual” for some people has become a matter of debate for other people, and often the basis of intense disagreement. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as conflicting truths. There is only one reality with “truth” as an objectively ascertainable fact. Civilization depends on it. Society cannot survive if there are different “facts” for different members. There of course will always be those who have difficulty distinguishing reality from opinion. For them, “fact” means whatever they choose to believe. There is no such thing as “truth,” no “real world.” Nothing is objective. Everything is subjective. “Actual” is a fluid concept, the scientific method someone else’s hobby, and reality a choice among alternatives. Those who do not sign onto the societal reality therefore normally exist outside of mainstream society. Successful societies cannot survive if there are too many such outsiders.
Societies today have a great many such outsiders.
Without a common understanding of and belief in a shared reality, human co-existence becomes a struggle … and human progress becomes an impossibility. Communication fails. Tribalism flourishes. Conflict becomes inevitable. A Tower of Babel comes into existence, a Tower that is not merely a parable. It is an illustration of the origins of war.
As TLR previously noted in “The Widening Divide,” the proliferation of social media has led to a sundering of common perceptions and, consequently, of a shared reality. It has resulted in a surge in tribalism. Media have a vested interest in capturing targeted audiences to further their pecuniary interest in creating loyal audience bases. Doing so unfortunately provides an appropriate set-up for those seeking to create their own realities – for some to proselytize and for others in which to shelter, all seeking like-minded colleagues who, in their consequent communications, reinforce a common belief system, share alternative “facts,” agree on what is and what is not “truth,” and live in their semi-cocooned – and very much tribal – reality. As and if that process continues, the glue binding a civilization dissolves.
Holocaust Denial provides one example of the role that social media can and do play in reinforcing tribalism. History provides overwhelming evidence that millions of Jews, gypsies and others were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany during WWII. Historians have studied that reality, found it to be true, and labeled it “The Holocaust.” There are, of course, historical “experts” who have asserted a different history and publicized shared their dissenting opinions, discounting the oral and written accounts even though the perpetrators themselves documented “the Jewish Problem” … and its planned-for solution, the “Final Solution.” The Nazi death factories remain today as a testament, as well as a memorial, to their planning. And yet there are any number of Holocaust Deniers – including national leaders – who dispute these facts and, in their denials, reject reality. There is no amount of evidence, no information, that can shake their belief that there was no such thing as The Holocaust. For them, truth is relative …, and their opinions trump the truth. In addition to the Deniers, there are those who are dismissive of The Holocaust, asserting that had Germany won the War, there would be no account of a holocaust. “Truth,” they believe, is determined by those who get to write history. It’s a relative term.
But truth isn’t relative.
Vladimir Putin would agree with the relativist reasoning of the Holocaust Deniers. He’s been rewriting Russian history for two decades as part of a campaign to portray himself alongside a rehabilitated Joseph Stalin as the embodiment of law, order and justice – despite the historical reality that Stalin was a tyrant responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Russian citizens. In doing so, he also has recast the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a triumph of Russian diplomacy that benefited both the Soviet Union and its neighbors – the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus – the same states that he is now trying to return to the Russian empire orbit. Putin’s revised history is now “fact” in current Russian history books. But that doesn’t make it “truth.”
Regrettably, the relative realities of the Putins and the Holocaust Deniers are found worldwide … with synthetic fact-creation spreading. Read the speeches that Xi Jinping, Rodrigo Duterte, Benjamin Netanyahu, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about how those who are not members of their tribes aren’t human to be tolerated. These leaders practice the playbook that autocrats have been using for centuries – they mold the facts to fit their needs. They practice “relative truth.” Media “influencers” have learned to do the same.
TLR previously addressed the 21st Century rise of “relative truth” in observing that the Senate’s acceptance of Bill Clinton’s definition of “sex” and “is” during his impeachment hearings was a critical moment in the erosion of public trust … with its attendant destruction of the meaning and importance of “facts.” Clinton told America that fellatio is not “sex.” That was false. “Sex” itself, and the act of fellatio, are not ambiguous terms. The facts, as they used to say, are the facts. Clinton, the President of the United States, measurably lowered the bar on truth-telling. He did not originate the practice of creating “relative realities,” but he significantly advanced the cause …, and a majority of Democrats in Congress validated alternative truth-telling when they absolved him of lying under oath.
Lying is now endemic. Relative realities have lives of its own and have grown with media polarization.
Lying is not new. What is new is the ability of human beings to instantly communicate with one other and find support for their opinions, to invent a “fact” and reinforce the alleged validity of such “fact” by consensus – led in part by social media’s capacity to mold information-flow and cherry pick from the quantity of information and data available, a quantity that individuals cannot easily access, decipher and address. Media filter that information. The process of filtering means that the lies of some become the truths of others, even when they have no basis in reality.
How many people in today’s complex world have either the time or the inclination to engage in the level of fact-checking that would be necessary to discern “truth” from artfully-crafted lies? Google provides a ready tool, but why bother when one’s own “tribe” can make those determinations? In a world that inundates individuals with information, why not rely on a source that reinforces already-held views?
The late 20th Century was The Golden Age of News. Larger-than-life newscasters earned the public’s trust … and proved they were worthy of it. They policed the activities of governments, businesses, and courts. Americans welcomed Edward R. Morrow into their living rooms. They trusted what he told them. He was their expert in deciphering national and international affairs. He had no political agenda. He didn’t engage in the practice of “yellow journalism” previously purveyed by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Heart. He told the truth. America trusted him to report the facts. The same was true of Walter Cronkite. Today there are no Morrows or Cronkites.
Bill Maher in 2015 adopted a satirical segment that he called “I Don’t Know it for a Fact, I Just Know it’s True.” His routines have an eerie resonance with reality. They highlight how easy it is to ignore fact when asserting a personal opinion based on photos, rumors or out-of-context quotes. Unfortunately, what was presented as satire is mainstream news reporting today. Most often, what is reported has been molded to fit the preconceptions and expectations of the “tribe” of watchers/listeners/readers. Any news that doesn’t fit that mold is dismissed as “fake news.”
News reporting today is about entertainment. Media have learned that fact-checking is both old-fashioned and expensive … and unnecessary to capture an audience. People don’t care as long as they hear what they want to hear – news that reinforces their opinions, their fears, their preconceptions and their prejudices. Media companies have the data to determine who their audiences are and what they want to hear … and they use that data to both reinforce their audiences’ views and motivate them to stay tuned … an intentional slide down the slope of fake news. With no expert having earned the credibility of sorting fact from fake, the Fox Newses and MSNBCs of the world play to their constituents. They do not attempt objectivity. They do not trade in truth.
Where can one find “truth”? Clearly not from newscasters who could lose their followers … and their jobs. Not from influencersÔÇöthey could lose their lucrative positions. Not from the media – that’s not their function. The only place to learn the “truth,” is by searching it out for ones-self … admittedly a time-consuming and often painful quest. That’s the problem with truth. The choice, however, is to be led by the nose or to cease being a follower and become a fact-finder, an independent thinker. The road to Hell, future historians may say, is being paved by media’s alternate versions of reality.
Finally (from a good friend)
*┬® Copyright 2020 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.