Monday, August 22, 2011

The Persecution of Subjectivity

Sarah Palin uses the term "lamestream media".  Climate change skeptics routinely refer to "climategate", the theory that global warming is nothing but a conspiracy invented by climate scientists in order to obtain more research funding.  The media in general is repeatedly accused of merely being a mouthpiece of liberal bias.

What’s weird about this dynamic, is that it sets up a terribly circular kind of cognition. What gets published is assumed to be wrong, and thus exists as a sort of evidence of the truth of one’s own position. In fact, the more reporting the media does, the more research, evidence, etc. it presents, the more evidence of its own falsity.

This is a classic hallmark of denialism. One or more established channels of authority are denied legitimacy, paving the way for essentially any suitably convenient counter-narrative. Another troublesome area of authority increasingly distrusted by conservatives is academia. And with academia and journalism largely slain, or at least hobbled to the point where their legitimacy is deemed unreliable enough to dismiss at whim, reality itself becomes enormously subjective.

Interestingly, this bears striking resemblance to moral relativism, a traditional critique of the left by the right. Yet where moral relativism is about denying all external moral authority, here we have a denial of external factual authority. Truth and fact is merely what one witnesses with one’s own eyes.

There is one other difference, however. While moral relativism tends to eschew all external moral authority, this kind of factual relativism, rooted in individual factual authority, is amenable to specific, non-traditional, non-establishment figureheads of factual authority. These would be the strong leader types who through a reinforcement of individual factual understanding, are able to exact an obedience to their own factual authority. The right has an especial fondness for leaders who are able to command their own individual fact universes. Yet their authority does not come from expertise or as representatives of any body of scientific or journalistic research. It largely draws its strength from the degree to which it mirrors the follower’s own preconceptions.

One of the classic techniques of public speaking and persuasion is to make the audience feel like you “are one of them”. Audiences are routinely praised, never insulted, and information is presented in a non-threatening manner. Yet a special feature of this kind of conservative leadership has to do with individual authority. The common feature among these leaders is that their position demands absolute righteousness and inerrancy. After all, as their authority is almost entirely rooted in their own cognition, in their limitless conviction and assumption of total knowledge, they cannot appear to be susceptible to error or lack of prior knowledge. This would call into question their very authority itself, and – having no outside authority upon which to rely – all authority would be lost.

So, you can see how the circular trap has been set: external factual authority dismissed, individual factual authority remains. Yet rudderless on its own – and no doubt prey to feelings of self-doubt and, likely, alienation, it finds comfort in leadership. But that leadership must also dismiss external authority, and so becomes a sort of super-individual factual authority.

In many ways, what we are talking about here is populism, defined by the emphasis on the individual, en masse, and away from established authority. A mass of individuals rootless in a sea of distrust naturally seeks coherence and support. To the extent that liberalism embraces traditional factual authority (journalism, academia), it will have nothing to offer an individual intent on limiting his factual authority to his own personal experience. To the extent that conservatism dismisses traditional factual authority, it will find great success in offering leaders who remain fact-independent, tethered to the realities as experienced by the anecdotal experiences of individuals, their factual authority based in what their audiences already believe.

People often claim to love Sarah Palin because her opponents hate her so. What they are really saying is that in her opponents hatred of her, they see a hatred of themselves. She is merely a projection of themselves after all. She is a political figure, concerned with political ideas, but at the same time a representation, an embodiment of her followers’ own factual authority. So while her opponents may attack her ideas, and even her claim of factual authority itself, her followers feel as though they are being attacked, as well as their claim to factual authority.

This sense of persecution has been long felt by the right. Never more so it would seem than today, when distrust of the media and academia seems to have reached an all-time high, reinforced no doubt by the rise of FOX news as a network devoted to presenting the individual-as-factual-authority, as well as an increasingly fragmented internet media that takes factual relativism to new extremes. Yet journalism and academia are nothing without factual authority. Their mere existence actually presents a sustained threat the the notion of individual factual authority. In some sense, they do represent a kind of persecution, in the sense that their authority represents the persecution of ignorance and individual bias and anecdote, the persecution of subjectivity.

No comments:

Post a Comment