Truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it. Michel Foucault
What the quote is suggesting is that truth is manufactured by systems of power meaning political systems, educational institutions, Corporations which makes it very difficult to untangle the truth of things. Truth is embedded in a complex landscape of information and misinformation that our often confused and overwhelmed brains barely can fathom. Also untangling the truth is challenging leaves little time for connecting with our spiritual and knowing selves, family and friends let alone others who are quite different from ourselves. When we stay in our respective “bubble”, Xenophobia, racism and a rigid adherence to ideology all situate in the realm of right and wrong. In order to protect our civil rights and very survival needs we need to be judicious in our approach to analyzing information.
We have ample examples of misinformation, political spin, subterfuge and downright lies in mainstream and alternative media. Chris Hedges in his book “Empire of Illusion” suggests that people are living in Illusionary world where facts and reality have disappeared. The current state of polarization in politics and the lies of a stolen election in the US are a prime example of this. Facts and civility have taken a back seat to spectacle and deceptive rhetoric. We are in an age of anything goes media. Our previous Conservative government was big on ideology and short on facts and evidence-based actions. It muzzled scientists and tightly controlled information to the public. That said we were not living in a fascist society as some people would suggest but there are signs of the erosion of democracy and the rule of law when people denigrate the free media and call them the enemy of the state as the former US president did and the fining those that challenge the Government’s version of things as in Russia today..
The Brexit debacle is another example of a breakdown of civility and faulty thinking. I listened to John Oliver, a comedian and political critic known for his strong social commentaries laying out the case for and against exiting the EU. Whether we agree or not, it was concerning when the case for staying appeared so reasoned and the campaign against appeared skewed and deceptive appealing to emotion and nationalism. The result to leave is devastating to many who believe in the EU, developing alliances and the idea of collaborating with others for mutual benefit. Do not get me wrong there are issues that need reform in the EU but I am discussing the campaigns presented in the public sphere. I do not know what the “truth” is because issues are rarely black and white. Unfortunately the referendum and corresponding discourse rendered everything in highly convoluted terms. Now we see the result that indicates reasoned and critical thinking likely stayed on the back burner during the divorce. It certainly reinforces for a lot of people that we cannot sit back and trust that others will make the right decisions for us. I think some people in the UK now realize it was a colossal mistake. People were hoodwinked!
This brings me to another point; how people form opinions and make decisions. Some of the questions that I think are crucial for critical thinking: What sources are the authors using for evidence and in whose interest are these claims made? Are these “experts” credible? Do they really serve the truth of the situation or are they puppets of another kind? The truth is embedded in the rhetoric and systems of power. It is not like the New York Times or CNN or even CBC have the entire truth of a situation. Our BC news people tend to use the Fraser Institute often as a news source and yet they are heavily right wing with biased corporate-backed research. At one time they were the only source quoted but now for balance the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) a more left leaning group is often quoted as an another source. We need balance in reporting and yet that is the very component that is missing in mainstream, alternative media and even citizen journalism.
Rhetoric from John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, or Bill Maher in the late night comedy scene seems closer to the truth than some of the right leaning media outlets like FOX news but still they are only partly right. Knowing how to conduct a thorough analysis and, knowing what questions to ask are important. Especially now when media is concentrated in fewer hands and investigative reporters and researchers are a dying breed. Newsrooms are culled and spectacle and entertainment are an excuse for real news. Internet news sources abound but are they accurate and credible? Serious fact-checked news is in short supply. Although the former president’s deriding of mainstream media made them step up and become better at their jobs. Outlets like CNN, the Washington Post and New York Times have added investigative journalists since the US had a president that perpetuated over 4000 lies when he left office.
Throughout history we have seen demagogues and dictators control information shared with the masses to keep them afraid and ignorant of what is really going on. I am afraid that we have more and more of this and, in addition, all of our communications are monitored by security agencies. We are so bombarded with information that it is difficult to know what the truth is. Many of us have good critical thinking skills but with so much information and so little time to sift out the garbage from the truth, we cannot do what we should be doing without a lot of work. In addition, the psychology of forming opinions suggests we are often overtaken by “confirmation bias” where we tend to privilege information that confirms our world-view. Social Media dominates and somehow because it is there we take it a face value rather than sift through it with a discerning mind. Determining the truth is harder than ever.
My generation was not raised with the Internet and 24- hour news cycles and we are very sceptical of authority. I am not so sure that GEN Z or Millennials, in particular, are as sceptical of the Internet but many of them do think our institutions and authority figures are inept and not serving their interests. They do not listen or watch the traditional media sources but alternate media and some even like the “Alex Jones” types and other conspiracy purveyors. From accounts on social media there are many people who seem to believe counter opinions and conspiracy claims on the Internet without actually using good analytical skills or knowing the history around the issue to discern whether the claims are credible. When people are taught fear based narratives they gravitate in times of crisis to conspiracy. QANON and such are pushing in to the mainstream with electing Congressional representatives who perpetuate lies. Fear is a huge motivator for liars and con artists and opportunist politicians.
When the ex-president of the United States gets his information from the Internet, Fox News, and Alex Jones, and quotes the National Enquirer and states that mainstream media is the enemy of the state and bans the Washington Post he is short on substance and long on vitriol, appealing to fear and uncertainty, I think the world is in big trouble. His followers believe what he says despite very little of any evidence for it. The basic mistrust of government and institutions has led many followers to take the bait; hook, line and sinker. They reject the establishment as corrupt and not serving their interest and yet are being led by con artists whose self interest dominates. It seems to be a “scorched earth” stance then what??
The Arab Spring tore down existing structures and the result is religious extremism, despotic rule, and a loss of civil rights. The rise of ISIS, ISIL or Daesh is attributed to the chaos of the uprising and interference of Western powers or some say “unintended consequences.” How much are these situations fuelled by people who use the current state of ignorance or apathy to further their nefarious causes? Anne Applebaum in her book Twilight of Democracy and her recent essay in the Atlantic, makes a case for the lack of critical thinking, the decline of Journalism and the rise of autocracy. She situates the autocratic states have arrangements and deals with each other and have formed alliances in what she calls Autocracy Inc.
I think we need to take the time and get much better at discerning the truth, and as Michel Foucault suggests, untangle it from the structures of power. The question of who benefits from misinformation, confusion and chaos, unfortunately it is those people who could care less about democracy, those people who use these “techniques of power” to gain power and influence and divert the wealth of nations for their own interests. While we are sleeping there are people who have nefarious motives that I think we need to challenge and root out.
As the quote states “knowledge is power” and I think we need to actively wrestle the truth from the misinformation and lies, speak up about it and take our lives back from those people and institutions that seek to control us for their own interest, and not consider the best interests and welfare of others.