The trouble with comforting truths
‘Fake news’ is the best defence of the truth. No, I’m not being deliberately contrary, nor am I saying that growing awareness of misinformation is driving people to check their sources. Whilst that might be true for some, for many it is not. No, I mean that when someone like President Trump dismisses a story as ‘fake news’ or when he and others spread unsubstantiated stories, what he is doing is invoking and defending ideas of truth and certainty.
This might sound nonsensical. If Trump calls an article, a writer, or a news outlet into question, he appears to wage a war on facts. He often offers no evidence for his denunciations, other than the assertion that the politician is ‘crooked’ or the paper is ‘failing’. In the Trump kleptocracy, financial success is the highest virtue, and lack of it is suspect: if you’re not making money, you can’t be trusted. But this presidential administration doesn’t present itself as promoting a new relativism in which there is no such thing as truth, and anything can mean anything at all (although that might be what happens in practice). The two words ‘fake news’ are so effective and quickly understood, precisely because they maintain a distinction so straightforward that it is taken for granted: some things are true and others are false, and what you’re reading in the New York Times is the latter. Rather than downplaying issues of truth, the phrase actually emphasises their importance for political discourse and marks the starkness of its separation from lies – whilst in fact obfuscating what’s really going on. It also allows the president to act as judge, arbitrating between the two.
If this is an example of politics in the post-truth era, that phrase can’t simply mean that veracity no longer matters and all that counts is emotional commitment to a cause. For the political right more broadly, the idea of truth and the ability to control it, matter a great deal. It just has nothing to do with honesty or facts.
That truth remains an important concept in right-wing politics, can be seen in Trump counsel Kellyanne Conway’s response to accusations of falsehood by citing ‘alternative facts’. She isn’t talking about differing interpretations, nor contrary findings. So crucial is it, to cling on to the concept of truth – these are facts, we offer certainties – that the administration will do so even in defiance of reason. The truth is by definition singular and verifiable: it doesn’t come in a range of options. Conway wants to insist that her facts are facts and they are just as good as yours. The administration aims to give the impression that they are not leaving truth behind at all, but extending its varieties.
What kind of alternative truth and certainty is being offered here? For theorists such as Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and David Wills, right-wing ideology tends to operate through a ‘politics of realism’. According to these thinkers, the right-wing demagogue presents his social and economic changes as not changes at all, but simply a reversion to things as they really are. The conservative image of merely conserving and upholding tradition masks its ideological transformations. Right-wing movements do this by first artificially creating an identity and set of values that bind together a mass of followers. Both Wills and Lacoue-Labarthe use the example of the fascist German Volk – a supposedly natural and destined people, that was actually nothing more than an invention of the 19th Century. But they might as well be talking about a contrived picture of white American society. Having created this group, a politician like Trump simply appears to be mirroring the opinions of an already existing public, reflecting their authentic experience and the truth of how they feel. His policies and speeches offer the reassuring realism of ‘telling it how it is’ or ‘just saying what we’re all thinking’, where it is assumed that we all know who the ‘we’ is, and that this group identifies the same way and holds the same values. Not that I think Trump really is a fascist – he doesn’t have the strength of character – but I do think he uses the methods of, and opens the way for, far right political movements.
Right wing realism is also the ‘being realistic’ of apparent pragmatism, a world of clear cause and effect, and obvious solutions. This logic is not restricted to Trump and his walls. Take David Cameron’s Conservative government in the UK arguing for national fiscal austerity on the basis that anyone running a household budget knows you can’t spend beyond your means. So the metaphor goes, a country cannot operate with a deficit. It appears to make sense, except that government finance and individual borrowing are very different economic systems. The image of the household budget is an appeal to ‘common sense’, where the emphasis lies on the commonality of relatable experience. By drawing upon experiences most people will know and recognise, thereby presenting an affirmative picture of themselves – what Wills calls ‘narcissistic indulgence’ – this realism does not seem ideological, but simply a reflection of a pre-existing reality. In the process truth gets mixed up with the apparent certainties of the familiar and straightforward.
Promises of certainty and pragmatism also render the world navigable and less confusing. The popularity of Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures and his book 12 Rules for Life (2018) in part rests in offering what he calls ‘maps of meaning’ – sure and certain directions for living. Like Trump’s sureties, Peterson’s are founded upon identity, although in this case specifically on norms of gender. As Pankaj Mishra has written, the cod-philosopher offers ‘whatever reassures and comforts’ for a male readership who find themselves in a world that is ‘opaque and uncontrollable’. Whilst economic disenfranchisement is largely to blame, Peterson’s supposedly practical instructions – he tells male readers to ‘stand up straight’ – and his picture of a cultural war on men, are more empowering explanations, with their clear enemies and routes for action. Again a readership is fashioned and flatteringly mirrored back to themselves: Peterson describes ‘consciousness is symbolically masculine’ and writes that men are predetermined to control society such that even feminists ‘unconsciously long for masculine dominance’. His work reads something like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, via The Art of War. He backs up his assertions with references to pseudo-science (in 12 Rules he famously invites readers to consider the lobster) and that fail safe source of authority and obfuscation: ‘ancient wisdoms’. He shores up the truth-effects of his appeals to pragmatism, identification and reassurance, by drawing upon normative ideas of gender. Norms that, as queer theorists have taught, are cultural conventions so ingrained through history that they take on the appearance of being natural and innate.
For Peterson, clearly defined gender roles are essential as a defence against the ‘chaos’ and ‘desperation of meaninglessness’ that will be brought about by a conspiracy of ‘postmodern Marxists’ intent on bringing the truths of gender and nature into question. This concocted enemy ignores the fact that Marxists and so-called postmodernist thinkers have often been in conflict rather than cahoots. For example, certain Marxist commentators have seen queer concerns as bourgeois individualism, or the words of Judith Butler, ‘merely cultural’ issues secondary to class struggle, whilst the recent field of sexuality and gender studies has had precious little to say about socio-economic positions.
Yet, the argument that we need to cling to certainties against the meaninglessness threatened by postmodern ideas is not restricted to the right, but also occurs in the work of Jurgen Habermas and Diederich Diederichsen. In his 2011 essay ‘Judgment, Objectivity, Temporality’, Diederichsen argues that Butler and Michel Foucault, in their quest to challenge social norms and values, undo the very basis on which we judge good from bad, true from false. He argues that this troubling of the rules of judgement has led to a crisis in art criticism. Whilst this isn’t solely their fault, he argues that Bulter and Foucault in particular have elevated non-judgement into a philosophical principle. Under their influence one ‘avoids right/wrong alternatives by all possible … means’ – evaluation is indefinitely postponed and meaning is suspended. He gives the impression that Butler and Foucault are opposed to anything normative. Diederichsen expands from arguing that this practice has a pernicious effect on cultural commentary, to imply that this way of thinking could threaten politics as a whole. Norms are necessary to collective political struggle and without them the left is ‘depoliticised’: ‘if there are no rules, there is no judgment’ and it becomes impossible to make decisions, or hold convictions. Without some certainty or agreement on what is good or right, what we value or what we want, Diederichsen implies, we cannot form political movements around specific goals. Without norms, he seems to ask, how do we judge what we are fighting for, or whose side we are on?
But Foucault and Butler’s aim is not to suspend all judgment indefinitely. Nor do they oppose all norms, so that it becomes impossible to distinguish political sides or define a political cause. Indeed, Butler is careful to argue that both thinkers support the use of collective rules and values to galvanise political movements, and that their style of critique should only take place ‘within a wider political context, the politics of norms’. That is, the politics of agreeing on and fighting for particular aims, like those of socialism, for example.
What they aim to tackle is the way such norms quickly transform from ideological beliefs into unquestionable, and natural ways of being: how a belief becomes a truth, or a reality. How an ideological position – the state should support the family – can suddenly seem immutable and exclusive – this is the definition of the family, it must be defended. The cementing of norms as just ‘the way things are’ or ‘should be’ is of a piece with how ideological right-wing realism appears to be just a reflection of reality, as if the two were one and the same. Butler and Foucault support rules and norms only insofar as they are not dogmatic, but can be revised so as to allow new ways of thinking and being, increasing the proliferation of power in society. Not, as in Peterson’s claims for male supremacy, or in systems of class oppression, where they only serve the interests of one social strata. The suspension of judgment they propose is nothing more than the ability to step back and question the values of a group. It is the ability to ask, for example, whether feminism is really serving all feminists equally? And is the current dominant form the only way of being a feminist?
The norms of a society or political group – the rules to which Diederichsen refers – are the basis upon which one makes a judgment, so the challenge is to figure out how one can place them on pause, separate oneself from that habitual way of thinking to question its validity. This distance is not a skill possessed by some idealised, fully independent person, free of social influences. It’s the result of an individual suddenly coming across an impasse, a hypocrisy or something unworkable in that world view, that gives them pause for thought. When the unspoken values of a particular group don’t provide the freedom for you to be who you want to be, they no longer seem to be natural, but rather arbitrary and unfair. The individual subject then gains a degree of separation from previously embedded social norms and is able to ask if they are really right at all: I know what is good and just as a feminist, but does my feminism have a class bias that I had not recognised before? It is simply giving the individual the freedom to question the core beliefs of a group from within, rather than an attempt to do away with collective politics in favour of a kind of chaos, where there are no principles at all. Far from a dangerous relativism, in which no decisions can be made, or a liberal individualism without principle, what Butler and Foucault suggest is a check on the systems of judgment as they exist within political movements. Have norms, but just so long as they are recognised as such, and can be rethought if necessary.
If right-wing politicians lie and manipulates by offering reassuring certainties in the guise of realism, then it becomes the task of any counter-movement to practice a degree of strategic uncertainty, rather than claim truth and reality for itself. Unfounded accusations of ‘fake news’ or its actual spread through ‘alternative facts’ would seem to be uncertainty enough. How does anyone know what to believe amidst so much misinformation? But the problem is that people do know what to believe, and are affirmed in their prejudices. The right’s obfuscation works by treating comfortable norms as truths. What strategic uncertainty, in the manner of Butler and Foucault does, is offer a chink in the armour of those reality effects, and an opportunity for independent reflection. Ideological claims to truth or fixed terms of collective identity run the risk of turning the beliefs and constituencies of even progressive political movements into inflexible truths, or exclusive entities. A practice of strategic uncertainty would be one that puts nothing above debate, even one’s own authority to judge. This could start with the simple questions: what can I not do? Who do my views serve and who do they not?
 Wills, David, Dorsality, 2008, University of Minnesota Press, p. 168. See also, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, Heidegger, Art and Politics, p.166
 Leith, Sam, ‘Cameron and the Might of a Simple Metaphor’, Financial Times, January 19th 2015, https://www.ft.com/content/b2ba3a4e-9d7c-11e4-8946-00144feabdc0
 Wills, David, Dorsality, 2008, University of Minnesota Press, p. 168. See also, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, Heidegger, Art and Politics, p.169.
 Mishra, Pankaj, ‘Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism’, NYR Daily, 19th March 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/
 Peterson, Jordan, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, 2018, Penguin Random House.
 Peterson, Jordan, Facebook post, 28th September 2017, https://www.facebook.com/drjordanpeterson/posts/1546167995447330
 Peterson, Jordan, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, 2018, Penguin Random House.
 Butler, Judith, ‘Merely Cultural’, New Left Review, no.227, Jan-Feb 1998.
 Diederichsen, Diederich, ‘Judgment, Objectivity, Temporality’, in Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, 2011, Projectile Publishing.
Paul Clinton is a writer and art critic based in London. He has recently been appointed as lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths College, University of London.