By Alexander Görlach
This year Mr. Trump and Mr. Farage challenged the Western narrative on what is seen as a fact. Time to teach them a lesson.
Celebrating the holidays, Christmas or Hanukkah, one may realize it is a great moment of the year to talk about facts: what are facts? What do facts mean and how do facts convert into relevance for policymaking and our daily life? The biblical tidings are rather wondrous: oil that would only supply the Tempel’s Menorah for one day lasted for eight days. Angels herald the birth of a child out of a virgin’s womb. Clearly the texts of the holy scriptures to our modern ear and mind do not reflect facts in the way we understand them today.
The storytelling of the antiquities works differently: their narratives are of mythological quality. However, they shaped the life of so many throughout the ages, and to this very day, there are millions of people who take these words as literally true gospel. How staunched you may be in your faith, at least in the Western world you get challenged by other narratives. Until very recently it was clear what a fact is, due to its modern narrative that has prevailed for four centuries now.
Isaac Newton and his contemporaries set a new, mechanistic measure for facts, implying that repeatable experimentation reveals the natural law that governs the world we live in. Planet earth is not run by mystical powers and divine forces, but by mechanic principles. Hence, the modern narrative was born: a fact is a thing conceivable by everybody who applies the same measures to a certain question. The narratives of the antiquities relied on the exceptionality of an event: because something just happened once, it is true. Jesus walking on water is a perfect example of this rule. So did the miracle in the Temple encourage the chosen people of the First Testament to stay put and faithful to what they conceived as the faith. The “miracles,” singular events that have no precedent nor repetition, were worthy to believe in. On the contrary, something that happens again and again was of much less significance.
In the antiquities, a single-event evoked a fact; in modernity, a series of the same event does. This modern narrative of truthfulness and factuality through repetition is today under threat, not by religious claims but by feelings. Some claim we would be living in a post-factual world. What would the narrative of this be?
As we have seen so far, after the Brexit referendum or the Trump election: sentiments become the base of argument. It lays the foundation for what becomes group identity in society — a group of people perceives certain things they live through, experience, or endure as reality. Sentiments rooted in instincts are the base line rather than facts based on try and error. In the post-factural camp Instincts and the reflexes deriving from feelings weigh heavier than a well pondered argument.
The Greeks, however, would have despised this approach to reality. Doxa, plain opinion based on sentiment, was not revered highly. Its counterpart was episteme, knowledge. This is not to be confused with the idea of modern science, yet what they have in common is the urge for abstraction from the idea that one single event may foster. This is why the general is higher revered than the particular.
How do we make this distinction fruitful in a time where buffoons like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage exploit the fear of people, claiming doxa to be the new episteme by simply stating that people are fed up with facts?
Stanford Professor James Fishkin works on new models for democracy that he calls deliberative democracy: all groups of society learn about the needs of the others and base their political decision-making on an informed compromise. This deliberative approach acknowledges the perception of reality of each group as their respective legitimate social reality. Without sought and found informed compromise, no liberal order can prevail. It may be that in the antiquities, one single event could turn the tables (which we will never know as we cannot understand the tidings of this past through our lenses). However, in our era, the claim to let sentiment prevail without doubt leads to chaos and violence. Proof of this is the rise in hate crimes committed in the name of Trump and Brexit.
Picture by Rafael: The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila, 1514. Mythological narration at the dawn of modernity