This morning I got a link to an article claiming that Nigel Farage (of all people) had applied for German citizenship following this summers Brexit vote. That he would do such a thing sounds somewhat absurd, seeing he has been fighting for Brexit for more than 20 years, and it has since been denied. But, my first reaction was not to think of it as absurd, it was “Is that news or satire?”. I genuinely could not tell, even after reading the article. This is happening to me more and more often lately, something utterly strange turns out to be true.Political developments have become unpredictable and I would not dream of saying something is impossible just because it sounds unbelievable, stupid or outright mad anymore. Brexit and the Columbians vote on their peace treaty are really just prominent examples. I have taken to watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, because somehow he manages to still clarify fact from fiction…. Seriously, watching satire to get the news?
Something called “fact-free politics” or “post-truth politics” has achieved a notoriety that has earned it its very own wikipedia article. Essentially the phenomenon means a kind of politics that appeals first and foremost to the emotions of people. Post-truth politics is said to be derived from communication habits developed through social media interaction and features prominently in the US Presidential Campaign. The trouble, of course, is, that just because it is factually wrong, it does not mean a political statement won’t be taken serious, I always have to consider every statement as true until…. Well, until when?
Discourse theory has taught us, that it matters what is said. And that things can become true by being said. Not because they are facts but because if everyone acts like they were true, the world will be like they were true. Discourse theory, however, never sufficiently explored how and why statements that are wrong in that they do not follow discursive rules (like appealing to certain speaker positions or relating to established discursive patterns) can gain traction. They shouldn’t be believed so easily.
I fear there is some deeper development at play here. The dawn of modernity came, when people realized that the world was not as is but made through the actions of people. It began with a select few but this sense has since extended to everyone, culminating in the belief, that everybody is the maker of their own fortune and one’s achievements are purely the result of effort and ability. Through these efforts we have created a world full of stuff that people just thirty years ago might have considered pure magic. My kids don’t flinch at the sight of a 3D-printer, they just shrug. Anything is possible. In a world, created through our own words and actions, down to its material substance, in which ever new developments make impossible things possible, how is one to distinguish the plausible from the implausible? Anything could be true. If we make it so.
That, however, is not the solution to the aforementioned morning problem, but the beginning. The trouble lies in the “If we make it so.” We used to be constrained by lack of technology, communication, knowledge. Like small children who simply lack the skills to light a candle or reach the knifes. They can do little permanent harm. It is when we learn to do more that we must learn to decide, what to do and when to do it. It seems to me, that the world has arrived at the stage, where we must learn to transition from trying everything and be amazed at our ability to just do it to deciding what it is we want to do. And this may even be less about reasserting ethics. I think about it like coming of age: the purpose of the teenage years is not (just) to learn to do the right thing, but to learn to decide who you want to be. Like teenagers we drift, we don’t want to be tied down by choices. That is why we keep believing anything is possible and avoid the tough questions. fact free politics suggests to us that there is no limits, not even facts. We want it to be so, it is so.
We have the means to make a world to our liking. We have the means to destroy it. The whole spectrum of opportunity is infront of us. But not forever. It seems like we can ignore the facts of climate change, world poverty, war, technological change and no consequence results. Sometimes the facts come back to haunt us, sometimes they don’t. There is one fact, however, that we all must learn personally at some point and that the world will feel, too: Not making a choice does not leave all options open. It just makes the fading of opportunities follow a path you have not chosen. Of course, we could keep drifting and just see where it takes us. But I had much rather, we make decisions. We ask ourselves, who we want to be and then try to be that. Sure, we can fail. But it beats the feeling of realizing that we could have a built a great world but somehow missed the opportunity….And let’s be honest - in an age of fact-free, why not dream?