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The Attack on Objective Truth

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. ...
These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. ...
Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.
The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon. ...
For Trump, facts are fragile, and truth is flexible.
- Casey Williams, Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?, NYT, APRIL 17, 2017



William Grimes, describing the philosophy of U.C. Berkeley's Hubert Dreyfus:

There was no objective set of facts outside the human mind, he insisted.
- WILLIAM GRIMES, Hubert L. Dreyfus, Philosopher of the Limits of Computers, Dies at 87, NYT, MAY 2, 2017



Notes on the Nature of Truth:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence....
– John Adams, Summation of John Adams in Rex v Wemms, Dec. 4, 1770


One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. . . . So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.
- Philip K. Dick, How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, 1978


This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence...
In the summer of 2002... I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He... said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
– Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, NYT, Oct. 17, 2014. [The quote about creating reality has been attributed to Karl Rove.]


Trump has attacked every traditional institution in this country, from the judiciary to the press. But possibly the most dangerous and destructive has been his assault on the truth itself.
- Charles M. Blow, Scions and Scoundrels, NYT, JULY 13, 2017 [Mary Gaut, Baltimore MD, commented (7/13): "There are two more dynamics at play that every citizen should be aware of and work diligently to overcome. The first is the increasing inability to discern truth from falsehood."]


It’s possible that Trump’s fans will never blame him, because of one of his most self-serving and corrosive feats: the stirring of partisanship and distrust of institutions into the conviction that there’s no such thing as objective truth. There are only rival claims. There are always “alternative facts.”
- Frank Bruni, Six Long Months of President Trump, NYT, JULY 15, 2017


Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.
- Daniel Dennet, DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC, Edge, Sept. 10, 2013



Disdain for objective truth at a liberal arts college:

As some faculty members moved to take their places at a panel discussion, three demonstrators emerged from the wings of the auditorium. “We’re protesting Hum 110 because it’s Eurocentric,” one began. “I’m sorry, this is a classroom space and this is not appropriate,” Ms Drumm said, immediately cancelling the lecture. Thus began another academic year at Reed College, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. ...
Last academic year, a dozen or so students continuously occupied the three-day-a-week lecture series by sitting in front of the auditorium with cardboard signs.... ... But this year, the college’s president sent out an e-mail outlining the school’s dissent policy 16 minutes before the lecture began, warning that the administration would act against potential violations. ...
[Reed College] Assistant professor Lucia Martinez Valdivia, who describes herself as mixed-race and queer, asked protesters not to demonstrate during her lecture on Sappho last November. ...
Demonstrators said Ms Valdivia was guilty of a variety of offences: she was a “race traitor” who upheld white supremacist principles by failing to oppose the Humanities syllabus. She was “anti-black” because she appropriated black slang by wearing a T-shirt that said, “Poetry is Lit”. She was an “ableist” because she believes trigger warnings sometimes diminish sexual trauma. She was also called a “gaslighter” for making disadvantaged students doubt their own feelings of oppression. “I am intimidated by these students,” she later wrote in a blog post. “I am scared to teach courses on race, gender or sexuality or even texts that bring these issues up in any way…I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in historicity or objective facts (they denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy).”
- Economist, Arguments over free speech on campus are not left v right, Sep 7th 2017


Sadly, the accuracy of the Economist cannot be taken for granted. The Economist's presentation of Valdivia's blog post differed slightly from the actual post, which was as follows:

Thank you so much for this. I teach at Reed. I am intimidated by these students. I am scared to teach courses on race, gender, or sexuality, or even texts that bring these issues up in any way–and I am a gay mixed-race woman. There is a serious problem here and at other SLACs, and I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in either historicity or objective facts. (They denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy.)


Shifting Valdivia's parenthetical final sentence into the prior one may be a peccadillo, but far worse, the article appears to contain a factual error:

Mandy Heaton All, I work in [Reed College] public affairs. We believe that it should be disclosed that the author is a Reed alumnus. Also, we have communicated to the editors the following two points that we hope will be corrected.

1. Dissent email timing and authorship - Kroger did not send an email with our dissent policy 16 minutes before the lecture. The dissent policy was communicated by Mike Brody, Mary James, Nigel Nicolson, and Bruce Smith on Friday before classes started. [Classes began on the following Monday.]
2. The dramatization of the lecture being immediately canceled - What is not disclosed is the conversations that Professor Drumm had the day before with the protesters (she did not give them permission to introduce themselves).
- Posting by Mandy Heaton on Reed (unofficial) Facebook group, Sept. 7, 2017


Finally we have the unsolved mystery as to who, if anyone, in this great land actually receives accurate and unbiased information about outside world. In atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy which pervades this Government, possibilities for distorting or poisoning sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth — indeed, their disbelief in its existence — leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. There is good reason to suspect that this Government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy; and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of outside world.
- George Kennan's Long "Telegram", 1946


Most worrisome, many Americans are questioning not only whether they are obtaining objective facts... but also whether objective facts exist at all.
- SAMANTHA POWER, Samantha Power: Why Foreign Propaganda Is More Dangerous Now, NYT, SEPT. 19, 2017 ["Samantha Power was the United States permanent representative to the United Nations from 2013 to January 2017."]


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