A Breach in the Way we Think About Reality
The question of post-truth goes beyond the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.” The so-called “objective facts” imply the possibility of being recorded and quantified. Today we see that the possibility of quantifying in real time the truth as to whether or not a large number of people approving of a statement or fact can, in fact, transform that “quantified emotion” into something “real” in terms of “public image” and “votes” for or against what is approved or disapproved.
In the same way, the speed with which Covid-19 has spread makes measuring its “objective” data – how many people are reported infected, how many are likely to be infected according to various projective models and so on – a very complex matter. Yet the real threat of the virus has restored, over that of “opinions,” the value of scientific data, however complex and hypothetical it may be.
This is what we are experiencing. While the virulence of fake news over the past few years has made us feel that “reality is crumbling,” the deadly virulence of Covid-19 has made us realize that “post-truth is also crumbling.” If previously so-called “objective” reality gave way under the impact of false news, now everything yields: the reality of life because of illness and death; “scientific” news because we cannot measure and objectify it; false news because its effect lasts briefly, until we find a way to neutralize the virus.
The social distancing that has been imposed on us seems destined to last. It is not just a crack that opens up by physically distancing ourselves from others, but a rift that stands in the way of everything. It makes us take a step back and critically rethink everything we have created, what we do and say.
Reality has given way
The Death of Truth is the title of a book by New York Times journalist Michiko Kakutani. Two years ago, quoting Jorge Luis Borges, she provided an aesthetic key to her merciless analysis of the manipulation of information as an instrument of power in the Trump era. To argue her thesis, she cited a story by Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.
“Almost immediately reality gave ground on more than one point,” Borges wrote. “The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate people. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet?”
In Borges’ story, a secret society composed of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, moralists, painters and surveyors, invents a planet called Tlön. Together, its members elaborate its geography, architecture, systems of thought, etc., in such a fascinating way that Tlön gradually becomes more real than reality. The narratives about life in Tlön, contained in a mysterious encyclopedia, satisfy because of their internal coherence, people’s need to give the world a better sense than the abused “desert of the real,” as Jean Baudrillard called it. And little by little Tlön’s “order” supplants the real world and takes over people’s lives.
That is not where people are
The image of a reality that gradually recedes, to the point of being supplanted by Tlön, is disturbing.
We focus, first of all, on the limitations of “objective” reality with respect to people’s emotions and personal beliefs. We can find a good example of this in a statement by the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, when he was an advisor to President Trump. At the Republican National Convention of 2016, CNN anchorwoman Alisyn Camerota asked Newt Gingrich a question about Trump’s dark, nativist law and order speech, which inaccurately depicted America as a country beset by violence and crime. She was reprimanded by the former Speaker of the House. “I see your point,” Gingrich said. “The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are. People are scared. People are under the impression that the government has abandoned them.” Camerota noted that the crime statistics were not liberal numbers: they came from the FBI. Gingrich replied: “No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.”
The point is whether opening the way to this kind of mentality involves a huge confusion about the truth or whether it is something else. It is legitimate to ask ourselves: what are the so-called “populists” doing when they consider people’s impressions to be more true than FBI data? Let us leave aside the fact that to all of us who are used to seeing films about the FBI, the appeal to its “reliable” statistics can seem somewhat naive. Let us focus instead on what the journalist Camerota wants to say, namely, that we must agree on “facts” and not “impressions.” This is the point: the contrast between facts and impressions has been called into question. The adherence of the will, for example, since it turns into something statistically measurable in real time, is a concrete fact, as real and concrete as physical objects. Public opinion as an object of measurement – because it can not only be measured in real time, but also predicted with a high degree of reliability (until not long ago it could only be measured massively in general elections) – has become a political focus used by those who exercise or wish to obtain power.
We will not dwell on this phenomenon. It will suffice to point out that today it is no longer sufficient to set “facts” against “impressions” or “feelings.” To the statistics that quantify crimes, immigrants and GDP growth are added data on people who will surely vote for a certain politician, transforming all the previous data into “a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right,” as Gingrich said, boasting that he did not give them any weight, because “it’s not where human beings are.”
The sentence is revealing. The existential place “where human beings are” is at stake. That is therefore the place where one must go to meet them. It is a complex place, where individuals are placed to “decide” freely which path they will follow, which policies they will support and whom they will choose to represent them.
The use of the concept “human beings” is important. In fact, one point on which reality has “given way” is the reliability of anonymous data as a place to stop and position oneself. By taking into account hopes and fears, i.e. the locality in which the person is placed when it comes to choosing, means the person feels appreciated and not required to look at numbers. The anonymous power of abstract data is contrasted with the feelings of real human beings. This gives each person an absolute value, that of being able to challenge any statistic with the concreteness and freedom of his or her vote.
There are those who continue to keep the issue of “populism” quiet. They say contemptuously that it is not true that populists “believe in people,” but rather manipulate them. However, perhaps it is not appropriate to oversimplify, because it can also be assumed that the so-called “populists” have somehow touched deep-seated feelings in people. They have discovered or are able to make many people see and feel that “everyone manipulates.” And they have chosen to dialogue directly with what people feel, perceive and judge with common sense, and to stop considering them as an ignorant mass that does not understand numbers and concepts. What they say to people is, “Sir/ Madam, I try to interpret what you feel and I respect what you choose.” They do not say, “Look at the numbers I’m showing you, and you’ll have to agree with me.”
Post-truth is surpassed
Let us reflect for a moment on what has happened with the coronavirus pandemic. Post-truth has now also given way. Just as in the Borgesian tale Tlön’s imaginary objects “appeared” in the real world, we see that now “real objects” – mainly the numbers of dead caused by Covid-19 – appear “numerically” in the midst of the post-truth narratives. We see that those who had dominant narratives were forced several times to change them rapidly, in the face of the relentless advance of contagion.
An interesting example to observe is how the speeches of President Donald Trump have changed, a phenomenon that has gradually been noted by some US media. The president’s words sounded in the ears of his listeners as their eyes caught the news ticker with data from the pandemic moving across the bottom of the television screen. So we find that when he referred to the first person who tested positive for Covid-19, Trump said, “This is someone from China… It is under control. Everything’s gonna be okay.” It was January 22nd, and the ticker read, “1 case, 0 dead.” When the president said, “I don’t take any responsibility,” because the information he had received was “from another time” and what was happening was completely new, it was March 13, and the news ticker read,“2,200 cases; 49 dead.” And when Trump said, “I knew all along. That’s very true. It’s a pandemic. I always felt it was a very serious matter,” it was March 17, and the ticker read, “6,135 cases, 111 dead.
It was then that, answering a question from a CNN journalist about the change in his speeches, Trump said that those who had analyzed his speeches one by one would understand that his had always been marked by “a tone aimed at giving peace of mind to the country.” And he told the journalist that it was CNN that was upsetting people and that if he wanted to do so, he could have upset them much more. This exchange took place on March 30, and the ticker reported: “160,008 infected; 2,984 dead.” Six days later, the number of infected rose to 312,481 and the dead to 9,132. However, when the infected exceeded 600,000 and the death toll rose to 26,000, the president returned to the attack and announced that he would cut funding to the WHO, which he said was guilty of delay in raising the pandemic alert. As we write, in the USA there are more than 2.6 million infections and the dead exceed 127,000. (At the beginning of his pandemic commentary, the president said that 100,000 would be “a good number”).
The data will continue to change, as will the narrative, but one can see the dynamics. It moves between two poles and follows a pattern of “tone,” as Trump calls it. His speeches move between the pole of a tone aimed at “calming people” and that of a tone that tries to “focus anger on an enemy.” They are two things that have always been typical of a post-truth discourse, which shows how it continually regains its strength and remains in place.
The breach and the struggle to take possession of the narrative
Post-truth discourses appeal to a fundamental desire, that of staying calm; and one calming mechanism is the search for scapegoats. However, as the pandemic grows, speeches of this kind are no longer enough; on the contrary, they cause discouragement and, in many people, outrage. Until a vaccine or a cure is found, no one can remain calm. Scapegoats are of little use; the virus is an enemy that makes us its allies without our knowledge. Covid-19 has opened a breach in our immune system, and this does not allow any speech to be definitive. In fact, as soon as we glimpse the possibility not so much of curing the pandemic as of living with it, questions about data management and quarantine begin to emerge, and what Argentinean anthropologist Rita Segato calls “the struggle to appropriate the narrative about the coronavirus” is exacerbated. Many speeches have been made to try to conquer what Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called the “Permission to Narrate.” The struggle is about who will have the right to frame the final – or dominant – narrative of what happened.
Segato reports some conflicting narratives. For some, what has happened will mean checkmate to capitalism and selfishness. Others say that the disease will be used for the genocide of the discarded. There are those who suspect that it is an experiment in authoritarian control over citizens, which started in China. Others speak of a fascist pedagogy that teaches us to be wary of the enemy (the infected). Alongside extreme opinions like these, there are other more interesting ones. We observe that the belief inhuman supremacy on Earth has entered into crisis and what many “small cultures” have always claimed has emerged: that the Earth possesses us, and it is not we who possess the Earth. Segato highlights the political emergence of a “maternal state” in many countries, a state that not only manages, but is capable of caring, maternally, especially for the most vulnerable. In this sense, the pandemic assigns a leading role to the female component in the world, to what is unique to women: to be maternal, to take care of others, to nurture, house and family.
The interesting thing is that a breach has opened in all the narratives (one can see in real time their struggle to “rearm themselves”), and in this breach, in this unoccupied territory, there is free space to think.
Authors like Pawe? Zerka stress the open character of the problem: “But the final chapter of this saga has not yet been written. In a crisis with very tangible effects in the short term it will largely depend on which leader will achieve good results against the virus. No one knows to date whether Poland, France or other countries will be able to overcome the disease or whether the EU will be able to demonstrate its usefulness or indispensability. No one knows which point of view of which government will win.” “In a few months people will know whether Europe has done very little or very much for them. Maybe they will ask more for Europe to protect them from future pandemics or maybe they will reject it. It is disturbing, but it seems that all directions are possible.”
The breach will remain open – albeit with its ups and downs – as long as the virus is out of control, until there is a vaccine and a cure. It is a breach that has opened both in the truth that is based on scientific data and in the truth based on people’s perceptions. It is felt in every family, as well as in political institutions and markets. Politicians are aware that they have to decide with not only their own particular interests in mind, but the common good. And it is attentive to both scientific data and the general mood of the population. The most intelligent politicians are those who have demonstrated the ability to recognize their mistakes or partial visions, and to change them as soon as possible. It can be seen that purely ideological conceptions, even if they multiply and change, are not compatible.
People sense all these things. That is what is happening with coronavirus statistics: you pay attention to numbers, you know that interpreting them is a complex operation and you do not consider them as absolute. Instead, by relativizing them, attention is focused on the real problem: the increase in contagions, not knowing for sure whether the cured are also immune and not contagious, and above all, mortality. Although the numbers of the dead also undergo statistical manipulation, they constitute an objective fact. At least on one point, “non-manipulable” reality has taken over.
Thinking and the breach
All the narratives arrive at their question mark and are forced to keep an open mind before the pertinacious “resistance” that the reality of the virus brings. Openness, then, is the most proper dimension of what we call “thinking.” Thinking is not only grasping reality and reasoning about what it is and how it works. What makes these operations of our intelligence possible is an opening that we call “spiritual,” because it is self-conscious and addressed to the whole reality. This mystery in which we live immersed without making it the object, explicitly, of our attention is in tension between two poles: our personal point of view, self-aware and responsible for our own openness, and that of all other people, equally self-aware and responsible, therefore endowed with perspectives and decisions toward which we must be respectful and in dialogue. In the midst of this tension there arises and develops, for us too, what we call “reality.”
Personal and prospective opening
The tension between personal openness and prospective vision is a phenomenon that occurs in the life of each person and of each country and historical era at a different pace and to different degrees. The new phenomenon we are witnessing today consists in the fact that openness and prospective vision tend to occur in a similar way throughout the world: the number of people killed who have died and the number infected by Covid-19, for example, is the first data reported by all the media. While at other times there is news that some people want to hear and others do not, today we all want to hear those ideas that can best help us deal with the pandemic, whoever they come from, and we are not content with anything that is not really effective and that does not work towards pulling us out of the social, health, labor, economic, political, cultural and religious crisis in which we are immersed. It is surprising that there is an immediate tendency to “close this breach” as soon as there are signs that the pandemic is ending, that the virus is losing intensity. Therefore, we must take advantage of the breach to taste the air of the complexity of the truth and to definitively recognize the corrupt smell of false news. We can do so by summoning many thinkers to reason together, looking for the shared truth from every different and particular perspective.
A shared experience that turns us into interlocutors
In general, instability and uncertainty are states of mind that are extolled by some as indisputable knowledge. The experience we have of the pandemic is significant, for example. It is an experience that is shared and can be shared in a very real way, as perhaps never before by so many people. We are sharing it at different times and to different degrees, but it imposes itself inexorably. Other experiences that spread “globally” immediately become particular; they assume the characteristics of each culture, region, age and social condition. With the pandemic, however, the opposite happens: it is the pandemic that gives a unique, common stamp to everything.
A sign that this is a shared experience is that it transforms us all – whatever persons we meet – into “interlocutors”: we talk about this, and each one does so with the authority of his or her own experience and with respect and interest for the other’s experience. But there is much more in common than the specific topics of conversation. There is the experience that, whatever we say, do or think, we are forced to maintain a certain social distance, which is not only physical. On the one hand, we distance ourselves; we can make a deal or insult each other, but we cannot shake hands to seal the deal or punch each other (or insult each other as before, provocatively approaching in a threatening manner). On the other hand, we approach each other as equal partners in the face of a problem that involves us all. For this reason, in the midst of all the rifts that divide humanity, this breach that has opened in the mental bubble in which we tend to take refuge and defend ourselves is something that must be maintained at all costs, because it is a breach that unites us, an opening to something shared that transcends us and therefore unites us.
Change in the perception of the main ‘enemy’
The fact that we are all “valid interlocutors” is also manifested in another phenomenon: our perception of the enemy has changed. There is something that is being affirmed and that can be formulated as follows: “I can be infected. If it happens, I will almost certainly infect someone close to me.” This certainty has changed the perception of the “enemy” as something “external” that I can eliminate, exorcise and condemn. The nature of the virus is that it latches on to healthy cells, which then reproduce the virus to the detriment of the carrier, and therefore makes each of us “allies” of the virus in spreading the disease. It damages me, and I must prevent it from using me to damage others.
This truth that most grasp – and those who do not grasp it tend to suffer social punishment – translates into a new phenomenon that has touched every sphere of our life and that manifests itself in the change of social distance. The mere fact of defining the distance from which a cough can transmit the virus has changed the configuration of public space as a whole: transport, public spaces, mass events (from concerts to Masses or pilgrimages to places of worship). The cities, the buildings, the transport systems we created have brought us closer and closer, but, at this moment, the need to distance ourselves more than a meter has paralyzed the world. Almost everything becomes inhospitable, because almost nothing is made to withstand such distances. Only something like a contagious virus could change on its own this world we have built. And it has.
The breach opens us to the essence of thinking as service
Another new dynamic occurs with our relationship to nature, because we have come across the impossibility of “dominating” the virus through knowledge, while it spreads and produces death on a large scale. We had become accustomed to considering nature relatively submissive to our desires; we somehow managed to foresee its resistance and manipulate it, at least where it suited our interests. The “non-domination” of a natural reality that undermines us worldwide definitely shifts our thinking from the focus of our own interests to that of “putting ourselves at the service” of reality. Many countries are attempting to develop a vaccine; all try to find the best practices to treat the same problem. This aspect of thinking that puts itself at the service of others is usually hidden when the needs of life are all met and when nature allows us to explore it and submit it to experiments without opposing insuperable limits, when it does not act aggressively and lethally, as the virus does.
When reality does not overflow or does so in a more or less circumscribed way in a certain place, as happened in Chernobyl, then the main object of knowledge is not “the other as other,” but the other according to my desire, project and convenience. But when a deadly threat such as that of the virus arises, from which we cannot defend ourselves, the desire to know the other as such is stimulated, to know what it is and how it works, in order to be able to defend ourselves. And this in such a way that the “other” conditions everything: the money that will have to be invested, the time it will take and the sacrifices it will impose. We cannot place “our” conditions on this quest. And the result is not designed so that only a few can benefit from it, since the health of one is linked to that of all.
This thinking that puts us at the service of the other is something that occurs naturally in the spiritual knowledge of a loved one, but it does not usually apply easily to the economic and social field, where, as we have seen, the desire to “take over the narrative” prevails. For example, parents are interested in knowing their children for what they are, how they are, what makes them happy. They do not wish to impose conditions on them that respond to their own desires, but rather to inculcate their values with love so that the children can choose for themselves. Of course there is always a conflict of desires in this area of the relationship between parents and children. It is in the field of friendship that one can clearly see this characteristic of thinking that puts itself at the service of the other.
Love is the measure of truth, and it tolerates no other measure than love itself. It sometimes demands that a truth, though painful, be totally revealed. At other times, on the contrary, it requires that something remain hidden until God reveals it. In the interpersonal sphere, this is clear. In our relationship with nature, as we mentioned earlier, it is not always so. It is we humans who decide when to totally reveal an aspect of nature and when to hide it, according to our convenience in the moment. It does not work like that with the virus: it is in the danger it poses that commands us and makes us commit all our knowledge and power to discover how to interact with it to stop it making us sick or killing us. Respect for these “laws of nature,” which we do not observe in other areas, is here imposed as a matter of life or death.
“Service” means that our attitude in general is one of availability: the subject makes his or her spiritual sphere available to objects so that they can be revealed more fully in him or her. The phenomenological work is the active service of the subject through which the person allows entities to be seen as they are. It is an integral work, which seeks the logos of phenomena, not to dominate them, imposing our own narratives on them, but to interact with them, respecting each of them as precious in itself, in the totality of creation.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 08 art. 5, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0820.5
. See F. Occhetta, “Time of post-truth or post-consciousness?”, in Civ. Catt. En., July, 2017 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/a-time-of-post-truth-or-post-conscience
. See M. Kakutani, The Death of Truth. Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, New York, Tim Duggan Books, 2018. Michiko Kakutani, an American journalist with a Japanese father, was the literary critic for the New York Times from 1983 to 2017. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, she is famous for her writings on contemporary literature. In The Death of Truth, her first book, she focused on the kind of mentality that has been imposing itself in the United States (and in most parts of the world) in recent decades, the kind that in politics has made it possible to bring to power characters capable of gathering more and more followers by transcending the limits of “political correctness.”
. J. L. Borges, Tutte le opere, Milan, Mondadori, 1984, 640.
. See J. Baudrillard, Simulacra e impostura, Milan, Pgreco, 2008.
. Cfr T. O’Donnell, “Newt Gingrich raves that Trump is just like Theodore Roosevelt”, in The Week (theweek.com/speedreads/908467/newt-gingrich-raves-that-trump-just-like-theodore-roosevelt), April 13, 2020.
. M. Kakutani, The Death of Truth…, op. cit.
. CNN, “¿Cómo ha cambiado el discurso de Trump frente al coronavirus?” (cnnespanol.cnn.com/video/trump-coronavirus-pandemic-discurso-salud-eeuu-cnne-dusa-vo/), April 1, 2020.
. “Entrevista a la anthropóloga Rita Segato en ‘Brotes verdes’”
(www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5JjUAW82is&feature=youtu.be), March 31, 2020.
. E. Said, “Permission to Narrate”, in Journal of Palestine Studies 13 (1984/3) 27-48.
. P. Zerka, “La guerra por las narrativas que el Covid-19 ha desatado en el corazón de Europa”, in El Confidencial (www.elconfidencial.com/mundo/2020-03-23/coronavirus-narrativas-macron-covid-19-guerra_2510315/), March 23, 2020.