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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Post Truthiness

Not just a breakfast cereal any more, it's a real thing, I swear

F or reasons unknown to science, the garbage avalanche we call culture likes to make up silly new words like adulting, woke, truthiness, and post-truth. Increasingly it's how people define themselves as an ingroup: by the time the geezers at the New York Times figure out what it means, it's useful only as an anti-shibboleth.

Computer geeks also do it. They take ordinary words and pronounce them in a new, ungrammatical way, so those unfamiliar with the new pronunciation are marked as outsiders. It's an obvious parallel to how the ancient Gileadites would recognize members of their own tribe by how they pronounced a certain word.

Words like post-truth differ from Geekish in that they are dog whistles, signaling instructions from the collective to their comrades in the field. Unfortunately, most libertarians and conservatives were once liberals too, so we can hear the dog whistles, but they can't hear ours; the only thing they can hear is racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia, which is why the term “fake news” blew up in their faces.

Those ‘phobia‘ words are soothing in their predictability, so they appeal to a craving for ingroup acceptance and assumptions of, and aspirations for, a universally shared point of view. They also have undeniable appeal to young people, for whom group acceptance is key to finding a desirable mate and a tolerable (let's not engage in any posty-truthification here by calling it “satisfying”) career. A lib named Andrew Calcutt has bit onto the idea here:

“Post-truth” is the latest step in a logic long established in the history of ideas, and previously expressed in the cultural turn led by middle-class professionals. Instead of blaming populism for enacting what we set in motion, it would be better to acknowledge our own shameful part in it.

Claire Fox at the Spectator writes:

Caricaturing one's opponents as having succumbed to their own feelings neatly avoids having to explain what it is they feel so strongly about. . . . While outright lies appear to be what the truth brigade attacks, scratch the surface and their real beef seems to be that others hold opinions they don't agree with.

In population genetics we talk about inbreeding, where homozygosity allows harmful traits to rise to the surface instead of being bred out of the population. It leads to weakness in the gene pool and eventual extinction. That is also the disadvantage of collectivism. Whether in the Holy Roman Empire or today's media world, wherever those in charge define the one true worldview, harmful ideas don't get weeded out.

The concept of post-truth is also self-falsifying. The self-proclaimed fact-checkers base truth on their personal politics, so post-truth becomes the signature of our current medium-is-the-message world. Posty-truthiness is the politicization of truth and a symptom of intellectual inbreeding.

Today we would say, following Hume, that truth and value are orthogonal, which means they are independent of each other. When you try to mix them, as when climatologists dabble in value-based fields like environmental advocacy and allow activists to misrepresent their findings, the experts turn into advocates themselves and lose their hold on the truth.

Intellectual inbreeding changes the dynamic of a society. I've always said we should strive to make our net worth exactly zero when we die so the bastards don't get their paws on it. The same could be said about good and bad deeds. If nobody can tell the difference, you might as well leave behind equal numbers of friends and enemies, and true statements and lies.

The legacy of a posty-truthiness generation, where truth is politicized, would be this: if there can be no sense of true and false there can be no knowledge of right and wrong. It's not a return to Eden, but to a scorched earth.

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