Postmodernism and the era of willful deception.
I’m not the only one worried about a “post-truth” or “post-fact” era. Many think pieces have tried to tackle the danger of making normal the lies and distortions we’re seeing in the world.
But few of them have dealt with why we’re here and what might be a reasonable way to get ourselves out of this situation.
To help facilitate this conversation, I’m going to talk about
3. The Matrix
4. Video Games
and I’ll wrap it up with
1. The death of absolute truth
The trouble with truth began well more than half a century ago. It starts with World War II. A cataclysmic event so massive that “war” is too sanitary a term to describe it. It was so debilitating and traumatic that the world had PTSD for a generation.
This Event destroyed cherished institutions and beliefs and forced us into a series of lose-lose decisions, one after the other.
So out of this trauma comes postmodernism: the world’s attempt to understand how to deal with this new world and its aftermath: the old modern era was firebombed, gassed, and finally obliterated in an atomic bomb, leaving decades of radioactive fallout.
One of the casualties of this event was absolute truth.
Its coroner was Jacques Derrida, a French literary theorist. Derrida pronounced absolute truth’s cause of death as our inability to know or understand an absolute truth.
Here’s where people often stop reading. What they do instead is start thinking they know what this means or where this is going. They theorize the end of truth itself and start blaming Derrida for having a thought others would come to with or without him.
It’s always convenient to scapegoat the prophets.
But if we take a moment to hear the implications, we might better understand where Derrida would send us.
2. Absolute Truth is dead! Long live Truth!
In pronouncing the death of absolute truth, Derrida was opening us up to the subjective nature of our experience of the truth and the variety of ways truth is revealed and made.
Even though we can’t know The Truth, we can still know truth.
It’s important to note that truth hasn’t gone anywhere. What has happened is that we are struggling to see it, know it, or understand what it really is. This isn’t the result of postmodernism. It’s the naming of what we’ve already done to one another.
Tony Jones, in his book, Postmodern Youth Ministry describes this transition in the example of three umpires hanging out after a baseball game.
The first is the premodern umpire. He’s the guy from before the Enlightenment. The one who lived in a world before there were demonstrable facts and unquestioned authority.
The second is the modern umpire. He’s a native of the Enlightenment and relies on discovery and empirical data.
The third is the postmodern umpire. He’s living in the post-enlightenment world in which the hyper-rational age was blown to nuclear ash.
The Premodern Umpire says:
“There are balls, and there are strikes, and I call ’em what they are.”
The Modern Umpire says:
“There are balls, and there are strikes, and I call ’em as I see ’em.”
The Postmodern Umpire says:
“There are balls, and there are strikes, and they ain’t nothing until I call ’em.”
The trouble with today is not that we have trouble finding the truth. It’s that we’re killing off our umpires. The ones who we entrust, not merely to capture reality, but ultimately to create it.
3. Hiding absolute truth from the people.
I’m a deconstructionist. At Alma College, I took to the theory like Jacque Derriduck to the experience of a pond’s wetness.
So when we saw The Matrix on opening night, it was like watching my brain on film. We went back the next day for the matinée. And again later in the week.
I was an evangelist for a film I didn’t expect people to actually like.
Of course the action sequences, the multi-camera innovations, and the underdog story would appeal. But it also was rooted in deep philosophy, gnostic theology, and incredibly dense sequences of dialogue. Who would really get into that but the nerds?
What I took for granted about such a thoroughly deconstructed movie was that people would lose the nuance and devour the gnostic. They ate up the hidden truth and missed the truly unknowable and indefinable in it.
They took a movie about the dual nature of belief and experience in a world whose code we can’t ultimately crack without prophecy and God’s influence and turned it upon our own, forming a dystopian vision of awareness through conspiracy theories and internet celebrities.
In destroying our experts, we’ve also knowingly bought into the testimony and manipulative character of quacks and their crackpot theories. And in doing so, we’ve mistaken rebellion for revelation. We chose the red pill and don’t realize we took the blue one by mistake.
4. Anarchy’s fine when you’re bulletproof.
When Neo realizes he can control time and space and we see these bullets just stop in mid-air, we hardly contain ourselves. The sheer power at his fingertips to manipulate the matter of the world is intoxicating. Man, do we want it.
We don’t realize that we’re all Jesus in the desert with the devil, tempted to accept the demonic power to bend the will of humanity.
We can have the world that we want. And we think we’re the hero. Quite literally.
Of course, The Matrix is only a movie. But it tapped into the zeitgeist so fervently and gave cinematic representation to the long-seething concerns of the turn of the millennium: shifting sources power, revelations of truth, and the awakening of the dispossessed.
So our world, like Neo’s, with our experts reviled, the systems in tatters, and some distorted frankentruth just a click away, a hero will rise. Or several hundred heroes will rise to protect their world from total destruction from an invading force.
Naturally, it would be gamers. Long targeted by the Marines with promises of slaying dragons, the gaming community sought respectability and the opportunity to shed the troll in their parent’s basement meme.
That is until a bunch of them took to trolling and abusing real people on Twitter, rising like packs of hyenas on injured water buffaloes. Iron-jawed and ruthless.
We should’ve cared more about Gamergate.
As Matt Lees writes,
“This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it.”
Claiming grievance and protection from the enculturating influence of being taken seriously as a mainstream medium, gamers flexed their computer muscles through intimidation, verbal abuse, and real life stalking of those video game personalities who dare treat video games like a mature medium, such as television and film.
They aren’t after honest dialogue. It’s verbal violence. And they spread the abuse to their critics.
“This is a challenge the press must be ready to face in today’s political climate: confronting these movements comes with a cost – it has never been possible to write openly about Gamergate without attracting a wave of online abuse.”
When my own piece on Gamergate went live at 7:00 am on April 27th, 2015, I had two dozen tweets calling me names within 5 minutes.
That isn’t normal. It isn’t dialogue. And it isn’t an honest debate.
5. Eclipsing the truth with terrifying SEO.
The challenge of seeking truth in the internet age has been the free speech boogeyman for two decades. Anonymity and being able to say anything leaves many to dismiss the entire online endeavor.
But most of us have gratefully adapted to the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Just one Google search away.
While many snicker at Wikipedia and our anecdotal evidence of the wrong people getting access to the wrong pages, on the whole, it is an amazing repository of accurate and up-to-date information. It’s the perfect example of how we’ve taken the internet as a whole: mostly good with a few bad actors.
But the weapon for abuse has always been there. A weapon so powerful, that paying it no attention will literally make organizations cease to exist.
A couple of years ago, Jake Dell wrote about the need in the church for better SEO: Search Engine Optimization. He used the example of the LDS Church and how it quickly turned around its online appearance.
As late as 2008, looking up Mormon online lead to mostly negative stories about the LDS church. Think polygamy stories, court cases, and Fundamentalist Christians railing about the dangers posed by Mormons.
But by 2010, they had turned everything around. And then some. Within two years, they were dominating search on Google. Not just for their neck of the woods, but for some of the most basic search terms, like Jesus, church, and church music.
This is the power of SEO to game Google’s secret search sauce.
It can literally change what people find online.
Now it’s being weaponized and deployed to change the way we think. In a must-read piece, Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian shares her experience of the way Google directs one’s search to places they wouldn’t go through its algorithmic voodoo. And she invites us to imagine if this were a newspaper or a billboard.
“The more people who search for information about Jews, the more people will see links to hate sites, and the more they click on those links (very few people click on to the second page of results) the more traffic the sites will get, the more links they will accrue and the more authoritative they will appear. This is an entirely circular knowledge economy that has only one outcome: an amplification of the message. Jews are evil. Women are evil. Islam must be destroyed. Hitler was one of the good guys.”
What Cadwalladr describes is not a little thing. This doesn’t come because one person games the algorithm to draw some eyeballs to his site which convert into cash. It’s a swarm of political parasites preaching hate with a concerted effort to change reality and make a new truth.
6. The rise of the professional liar.
Hopefully, by now the problem is becoming apparent. While the ability to know an absolute truth died, the truth itself hasn’t. Nor has the ability of many experts to get a really good read on truth.
But we can’t hear them. They’re being drowned out by a cacophony of misleading and manipulative alternatives riding on a wave of distrust.
So we’ve done precisely what they hoped. We stopped trusting, then stopped listening, and then started calling it all equal.
We’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water.
But we didn’t stop there. We let some nefarious people kill off the baby’s family in a bloody massacre. Then sent bounty hunters to get proof of death and hit squads to take out neighbors. Now they’re searching for people who might be sympathetic to the family to get them too.
It isn’t that our experts are MIA; they’re willfully ignored. And many replaced them with professional liars.
Truth isn’t dead. Absolute Truth with a capital T is dead.
But some are using that confusion to their advantage. They think it’s all relative and opinion now. What I call down, they can be allowed to call up. It’s opinion. We’re both right.
As Patrick Stokes lays out in this piece from 2012, the idea that we can use “everyone is entitled to their opinion” in place of an actual argument, is fallacious. It confuses the right to an opinion with the soundness of an argument.
“If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.
“But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.”
For this sense of false equality or crafted falsehoods to pass as political opinion isn’t some reflection of a postmodern world. That’s willful ignorance and an abhorrent disregard for truth.
This is where our concern for fake news comes in.
Not the fake news of twenty years ago when The Daily Show first spoofed Dateline or The Onion spoofed the local newspaper.
Nor does this speak of click-bait or tabloid journalism; peddlers of stretched truth are as old as journalism itself.
No, we’re talking about intentionally misleading stories in which half-truths and lies are spread to muddy the waters and convince the faithful. Here, the conspiracy-mongers meet the political influence-peddlers in an unholy alliance of distortion and manipulation.
From Breitbart to Alex Jones to some click-seekers in Macedonia, they offer outright lies as truth. And justified as opinion. But they, in all honesty, are neither.
7. We’re still searching for the truth
Jonathan Albright has discovered that new forms of media have formed a web of distortion around the media structure as we know it. Like a swarm of parasites, they’ll eventually consume the life of the host.
But it’s persuasion, rather than truth. They seek to win converts to their racist and nationalist causes by latching onto corporate media using those SEO tactics and trading in opinions like arguments.
But we act like truth can honestly be found in this new marketplace of ideas. An open market with miles of stalls hawking cheap knockoffs and stolen contraband. Distracting, distracting our gaze, from what? Why are we here? What are we trying to find? Why do we even think truth can be found here in this way? Not with all this noise drowning it out.
Today it looks bleak.
We’re lost in confusion. We’ve killed our idols and destroyed our institutions. We’ve littered the field with our hopes and what remains of our civility.
But we’re still searching, aren’t we? Seeking it.
Truth is it? The thing. And as long as we’re looking, there’s a chance.
“I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.
But we still haven’t found it. Not yet. We’re still looking.
This isn’t the end. Or how life plays out. There’s more.
Truth isn’t dead. Yet something is dying.
Perhaps it’s only the illusion that truth can be known.
Or better, that a secret truth can be known. Like modern-day gnostics.
The false search: that’s what’s dying. An excuse. For power. The quest for power.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Which gives me hope. It’s still out there.
It doesn’t mean facts aren’t facts. Or that common experiences are suddenly individual. It means the world we observe requires more fidelity to get to truth.
So we move right past exploitation and power to the heart of our common condition and the very moral fabric of our society. Without the games and turf wars. Lies and manipulations. To something we know is true.