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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Politicization destroys knowledge

Politicization turns knowledge into a tool to gain power. In so doing, it loses its connection to the truth.

W e tend to think of knowledge as ratcheting upward indefinitely, as new facts are discovered and new technologies allow dissemination of ideas more cheaply. But it's not necessarily so. The number of facts can increase without bound, but knowledge, which is the subset of facts that we can trust and believe, doesn't necessarily increase. Indeed, politics is the greatest destroyer of knowledge ever devised.

We've all seen it. A new fact is discovered, and political activists glom onto it and re-interpret in terms of their ideology. Their opponents, threatened by the perceived advantage, dispute the fact, and soon belief in the fact is determined by which side of the issue one is on. The question becomes politicized.

1. Tribalization of facts

Leaves distorted and made unrecognizable
Photo of tree leaves made unrecognizable by distortion

One way this happens is when the fact can be used to justify public policy. Someone identifies something that might be a problem. Others immediately pounce, for example accusing the speaker of being racist, sometimes using great ingenuity. And so the calm voices, originally the majority, drop out of the discussion.

Once it's politicized, the question can only be decided by force: whoever gains the most power forces everyone else to accept the facts that support the actions the winner wants to take. And so the true facts are never be found and the problem never gets solved.

Politics sucks people in because they see harmful narratives spreading, so they latch on to counter-narratives: quasi-truths, which are statements that may or may not be literally true and are meaningful only within the context of a particular ideology, and which do little to help us understand what's really happening.

2. Collective mob effing

A second way knowledge decreases is when facts get drowned in irrelevant discourse. It used to be said that large minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. The truth of this can be seen in social media. On Twitter, for example, ideas are nearly impossible to convey, and we're left with discussions about people: who said this and who did that.

This is a form of politicization. Like a lawn where crabgrass grows faster than regular grass, ultimately leaving nothing but weeds, social media gets taken over by people whose main contribution to the public dialogue is calling somebody else a “f***ing f***.”

The result is a disintegration of comity in the public sphere. In such a society, truth is determined by which tribe one belongs to.

Twitter is a distilled essence of mob effing: there's little mentation and few ideas there, only mindless emotion. Twitter shows how social organization, in this case through technology, can participate in the destruction of knowledge by drowning it in collective mob effing.

A foolish mind, as Emerson probably meant to say, is a consistency of little hobgoblins. He was undoubtedly thinking of Twitter.

3. Ideology

Perhaps the most effective way of destroying knowledge is through ideology. When people invent ideologies that claim that truth is a function of power, their goal is not to gain understanding, but to discredit everything their opponents say so they can win the argument when the facts are against them.

They might say, for instance, that whatever thinkers in the past tell us was motivated by class and status and therefore untrustworthy, so we can safely ignore what they said. To get people to accept this, the activists have to re-define terms like racism and sexism so as to prevent others from noticing that it is the activists who are actually guilty of it. So they create a new language in which ordinary words take on new, political meanings. The goal is to convince people that everything is opinion and truth is unknowable.

Politicization of history follows the same pattern, with the difference that fake historical facts are easier to invent. Creating myths is easy; proving them false is hard. Their purpose is not really to change what people believe, but to convince us that we can never know the true story. That means we can ignore the lessons of history, because we can't trust historians, and so the politicizers can invent whatever history they want. History becomes unknowable.

As the crabgrassification of politics takes over, all knowledge becomes suspect. When knowledge is destroyed, what's left? Mindless emotion. What comes after that would be obvious if only there were such a thing as history.

jul 04 2018, 4:55 am. edited jul 05 2018, 6:47 am

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