by Benjamin Studebaker
Perhaps you remember last year when American football player Manti Te’o was catfished. An acquaintance of Te’o pretended to be a girl named Lennay Kekua, and Te’o became convinced that he was in an online long-distance relationship with this individual. When Kekua “died of cancer”, Te’o was devastated, and his devastation grew larger still when he discovered that the entire relationship was a lie, that Kekua was not a real person at all. Catfishing happens when the perpetrator manipulates over the course of an extended period of time a victim’s sense of reality to make the victim believe he is in a relationship with a non-existent person. It is a form of gaslighting, a devious strategy by which perpetrators systematically undermine victims’ notions of reality by systematically manipulating them into mistrusting their own senses and experience. My claim today is that there are philosophers who are engaged in gaslighting on a grand scale–those who believe that truth is a social construct.
Firstly, what do I mean when I refer to the claim that “truth is a social construct”? The theorists (and some lay people) who hold this view believe that there are no independent or objective reasons for believing truth claims about the world. Instead, these theorists propose that we socially construct truth–what we call “truth” is for them the general consensus of people participating in the conversation. Social consensus yields “truth”, but it is not not truth in the sense we usually speak of it, because it is not outside of us and does not independently compel or move the participants toward any particular belief or set of beliefs. Rather what we have is, as Foucault puts it, a “regime of truth” that brackets our thinking and prevents us from conceiving of all of the possible things we might otherwise come to believe.
Views of this kind are held by many different thinkers and go by many names–subjectivism, constructivism, post-structuralism, the list goes on. The problem with this is that by denying that there is a world independent of the people who live in it, against which our beliefs are inevitably put to the test, these theories take something very important away from us–our ability to feel justified when engaging in extremely radical dissent.
Consider for instance the case of Galileo, or someone like him. Galileo held what was at the time quite a minority view–that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around. Galileo persisted in affirming this view despite being consistently told by others that he was wrong and subjected to imprisonment by the church for being “vehemently suspect of heresy”. If Galileo had been a post-structuralist, if he had conceptualized truth as a social construct grounded exclusively in the consensus of the age, he could not have been nearly so forthright. The mere fact that his view was almost universally rejected by those living in his society would have counted in practice as evidence against his view, because it violated the social consensus, the only basis for delineating between reasonable and unreasonable views.
Instead, because Galileo affirmed that there was an independent world about which we can make true or false statements, he was made more determined to challenge the consensus rather than less. The fact that there was a consensus in favor of something Galileo not merely disagreed with, but believed to be objectively false made Galileo even more determined to challenge that consensus. It made the question of the earth and sun a matter of importance to him, not a mere matter of taste or convention. Galileo would surely not have gone to so much trouble to advance his favorite color, or to convince people that some painting was the most beautiful, because Galileo was not nearly so convinced in those cases that he had a view that was true and that the contrary view was false.
Moral questions are even more insidious–if we believe a view is not only true but makes the world a better place, we have serious motivation to advance that view. If we believe that our views can’t truly be true, that “better” in the moral sense is no different from “better” in an aesthetic sense, that the question of “does this cause suffering?” is no different from “which movie do you think is the best?”, our motivation will necessarily be weaker. We’re more likely to let the consensus dominate than challenge it in ways that might get us into trouble or thrown into prison.
Perversely, this argument against constructed truth is often the same argument those in the opposition make against objective truth, that it limits choice in our beliefs and restricts our thought. They argue that by getting rid of objective truth we are able to affirm a multiplicity of truths that the present truth excludes. However, this makes two presumptions:
- The social consensus affirms not merely that there is no objective truth, but that we ought to permit a multiplicity of beliefs, and it will always affirm this even though this has no objective basis.
- Without objective truth, it is still rational to disagree with the consensus no matter what it is.
Both of these presumptions strike me as false.
The free speech and free expression we enjoy in many western countries is taken for granted by truth constructivists. They do not adequately recognize the extent to which that social structure rests on the genuine belief of most of the population that it is objectively better to live in such a society than in other kinds of societies. That belief has been nurtured over the centuries and is often held dogmatically and unthinkingly now, but historically it has often had to be defended against fascism, communism, monarchism, and various other tyrannies. When the fascist comes to us with his claim that this discourse is unpleasant and obnoxious, what do we say to him? If we cannot affirm the old arguments made by Locke, Kant, Mill, and others on the grounds that our society is not in any real objective sense “better” than the fascist society, it is merely a matter of numbers and voter preferences. Why not get bored with our current social order, as Heidegger did, and adopt another if it does not truly make a difference?
Once we find ourselves in such a dystopia, why bother fighting it? If I do not genuinely believe that the alternative vision I have is truly better, why should I stick my neck out for what is essentially no different from my belief that the color red is the best color? The rational output is a narrow egoism, it is the protection of my own interest in staying alive and enjoying the highest living standards I can in whatever society I find myself. That means learning to play the system rather than trying to change it, it means joining the Nazi Party rather than joining the resistance. I’m not about to get myself killed over a movie, so why get myself killed over a moral if my basis for believing both is equally weak and contingent? If dissent carries any costs at all, it is not rational to dissent when truth and goodness carry no real meaning beyond whatever the consensus happens to be.
Once we universalize that logic, we quickly find ourselves in a 1984 scenario in which the entire population is gaslighting itself, in which we are all engaged in persuading one another that our perception of reality is limited and fallacious, that the closest thing we have to truth is the consensus, the party line, and that the consequences for failing to affirm that consensus make dissent pointless. Instead of expanding the possibilities of what we might affirm, constructivism contracts them by making those additional possibilities intellectual curiosities rather than serious claims about what we should believe and how we should act.
This is not to say that there are no “regimes of truth”, no dominant ways of thinking about things that are misleading and indicative of groupthink. But the only way we can challenge those regimes is to compare them against something that we believe reveals different, better conceptualizations of truth, some objective reality. We need a reason for not going along with the gaslighting, for seriously fighting back against it even in the face of severe social obstacles and even violent opposition and suppression. Only belief in truth, in the possibility of truly better and worse conditions of some kind, can adequately provide that basis. That reason alone provides sufficient warrant for belief in objective truth and sufficient reason for rejecting the arguments of those wishing to enlist us in our own gaslighting.