For the last couple of days, everybody has been talking about #alternativefacts. In this medial uproar, many (at least in my own echo chambers and filter bubbles) talk and write as if there were “facts” on the one hand, and “lies” on the other, with (of course) the “other side” being cast as the intentional producers of lies. As all simplified generalisations, this one, too, is problematic – to say the least. It is problematic not only because – as I wrote in other times and places – truth in itself is a multi-headed beast, not only because “lies”, too, is a flexible concept, but also because facts can change.
I’ll give four reasons for why and how facts can (and do indeed) change – not with the intention of saying that there’s never ever any way to tell “right” from “wrong”, or “true” from “false”, but rather with the hope of helping us all to become more skilful in figuring out how exactly to talk about “true” and “false” or “right” and “wrong”, in particular when it comes to understanding, defining, and implementing political directions and decisions:
- All facts derive their validity from a reference system: So-called “facts” are never “true” or “false” in their own right. They only become “true” or “false” when put in context, related to a reference system, connected with some kind of order or structure within which they can settle down and have a place. To give just one obvious example, “10 + 10 = 100” is true when related to the binary number system, whereas it is false when related to the decimal system. In the same way, saying it’s “warm” when it’s 32° is true for most people when referring to Celsius degrees, whereas people living with Fahrenheit degrees would probably consider this temperature “cold”. Similarly, a seemingly factual assessment such as “largest” might be false from one point of view, and true from another. This is one important reason why many dystopian visions include the invention and use of a new language (the all-surpassing reference system we all are stuck in) – such as George Orwell’s “Newspeak” in “1984”. The challenge with this flexible feature of facts is, of course, that in order to understand and talk to each other, human beings need to explicitly and implicitly move within the same reference system (or have working dictionaries to translate from one to the other) – otherwise, communication collapses just like the Tower of Babel. The challenge of our times seems to be that the speed at which new dictionaries are being written by some actors within our political systems is faster than our ability to create appropriate translation tools. In order to make sure we anchor facts in their respective reference system, we therefore need to keep asking: “So when you say ‘Big Brother is ungood’, what exactly do you mean?”
- Reference systems can (and do) change: In addition to the challenge just described, another – equally difficult – challenge is that reference systems themselves can (and do) change over time, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. This is true for language (take examples of words like “negro” or “gay” and their change of meaning and annotated attitudes over time) as well as for all quantitative or scientific systems (take examples like measurements for time and space or the massive scientific shift that came with revising the assumption that the sun revolves around the earth). In the case of science, the change of reference systems – famously dubbed “paradigm shift” by Thomas Kuhn (“The structure of scientific revolutions”, 1962) – has even become a hallmark for breakthrough research. A comparable case is the attention to and abolishment of unconsciously prejudiced language demanded by activists for various groups’ rights to equality. A new reference systems automatically realigns facts, so what was “true” yesterday might be “false” tomorrow, and vice versa. Which also shows that the change of reference system itself is not necessarily “right” or “wrong”, but also can only be judged in the context of another (bigger) reference system. In order to identify and understand others’ (and our own) reference systems, we therefore need to continuously work to uncover their defining characteristics – for example, by asking: “Did you always think that ‘2 + 2 = 5’? Can you think of circumstances in which this might be false? Do you know people who disagree? What do they say? And why?”
- Reference systems are often emotionally loaded: Facts – at least in our everyday understanding of what they are – are by definition considered something rational. Facts are supposedly measurable, quantifiable, observable, reproducible, and therefore undeceiving. Unfortunately, this (meta-) observation itself is only valid within a certain (meta-) reference system (as per the previous points). And reference systems, as opposed to the facts within them, are often emotionally loaded. Believing that the Earth revolves around the Sun means that mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation; believing all human beings are equal means that I, too, can realise (all) my wishes, hopes, and dreams; believing that “2 + 2 = 5” means believing in the ability of political leaders’ and their people to achieve success faster than anticipated. And with such beliefs come feelings of sacredness, fairness, care, autonomy, or loyalty – or equally strong variations on these foundations of human morality and (self-) righteousness. As a consequence, any attack on a seemingly “false” fact which by definition is also (perceived as) an attack on a strongly internalised reference systems becomes an attack on the recipient’s emotional and moral integrity – quickly escalating into fight or flight reactions on the part of those feeling attacked. In order to deal with this in the political arena, we need to be keenly aware of the emotional impact of our words and deeds, continuously asking: “What would be so bad about assuming that the Sun revolves around the Earth (and not the other way around)?”.
- Art is never true nor false: Finally, to end with a rather obvious – but nonetheless important – point, art (as opposed to everything else in our universe, including politics) is one of the few things that are by definition never true nor false. Quite to the contrary: A lot of great art inspires precisely because it plays with the grey zone between “true” and “false” and with the ways in which our own assumptions determine our limited view of the world. The same, as an aside, is valid for many thoughtful forms of humour – although there, the line towards offensiveness is often dangerously thin. Pieces of art – and the good kinds of humour – take what in other circumstances might count as facts and do something with it that cuts through our cherished beliefs. In this way, one might say that great art touches a kind of truth that is somehow deeper, higher, or more expansive – but that can never ever be measured in terms of “right” or “wrong”. This is important in the context of the current debate, because a significant portion of political discourse these days borders on art – just look at some of the more creative signs and outfits people brought to last weekend’s #WomensMarch. At the same time, this amazing ability of art is also its shortcoming with regard to politics: While art can express worries and concerns, point out contradictions, or unmask dishonesties, it can never positively define what needs to be done instead. In order to link art’s achievements back to the political discourse, we therefore always need to ask the next question – which is: “If this is not a pipe, then what should be done?”
I’m painfully aware that a nuanced, multi-dimensional perspective on facts and lies -let alone more generally on truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil – might not be what feels helpful to everybody given the very tangible, practical challenges we are and will be facing in the political arena in the coming days, months, and years. At the same time, I’m also convinced that understanding and addressing the root causes for misunderstandings, breakdowns of communication or interaction, and thereby also failures of plans, projects, or visions is indispensable in order to create any kind sustainable change. And maybe, ultimately, getting to a point were we can jointly and peacefully redefine and recreate a societal and political reference system that a strong majority can agree on is indeed one of the major tasks for our times.
 The six basic dimensions of morality as analysed and brilliantly described by Jonathan Haidt in “The Righteous Mind” (2012). BACK TO TEXT