Truth and the Facebookians6 February 2023
Imagine a community—call them the “Facebookians”—whose politics is deeply polarized. Their political discourse reflects this divisiveness, but to a very unusual extent. For in making political claims, Facebookians are guided by just one rule: only say (or post) what is liked by your friends and which you are willing defend against your enemies. Thus, for the Facebookians, political claims are correct, in the only sense they are responsive to and motivated by, when they meet those conditions—when they conform to the commitments of their political “side”.
Now suppose most Facebookians are unaware of their own norms. Like us, they call people who defend their views “sincere,” describe their own political judgments as “true” and insist they’re concerned with “evidence” and “facts” — even though they aren’t ever motivated by, or responsive to, actual evidence and facts. They are guided only by what their “side” likes and what it doesn’t, although they are mostly unaware of that fact. They are, as it were, blind to the norms that really move them, chasing shadows on digital walls.
You would be right to wonder how much our own political discourse resembles the Facebookians’. We too have passionate but polarized political commitments; and like them, conformity often plays a role in what we choose to endorse and what we don’t. But you might think our imaginary Facebookians (unlike us) are deceiving themselves; we (unlike them, you might think) actually have a value they only think they have. Whatever they may say, the Facebookians aren’t motivated or responsive to the idea that political claims are sometimes wrong because they are false. Sure, the Facebookians can use the words “true” and “false”—indeed, as Huw Price (1998) pointed out with regard to a somewhat similar thought experiment twenty-five years ago, we can grant that they use the truth predicate in a formally similar way to us—as a device for generalization and disquotation. But for them, claims only go wrong when they fail to conform to what their community “likes”. In short, truth, as we understand it, isn’t a value in their political discourse in the sense that they are neither responsive to, or motivated by whether their claims are true or false.
Without pre-judging the uncomfortable question of whether we are right to think we are different from the Facebookians in this way, lacking truth as a political value has rather alarming consequences for them.
For starters, we should be suspicious about whether Facebookian political claims ever really amount to what philosophers call assertions—as opposed to acts of encouragement or discouragement. After all, a “like” on a social media platform isn’t anything more than (often literally) a thumbs-up sign; it isn’t, strictly speaking, something that can even be true or false; Assertions, in contrast, can be; and they are taken to be incorrect when they are false. But that’s not a norm that Facebookians are responsive to, whatever they might say, and for an obvious reason: they don’t hold their political claims as answerable to some external standard other than their communal preferences and their sincerity of commitment.
For the same reason, Facebookian “disagreements” are shallow. With regard to any commitment P that some Facebookian has, another can commit to not-P, and relative to the norms they are actually responsive to, both can be correct. Neither goes wrong just so long as they each garner enough support in their respective political communities. So just as it is unclear whether Facebookians ever really assert anything, it is equally unclear whether they really ever disagree, as opposed to just bleating at each other across political divides.
One might also wonder whether Facebookians even have stable political beliefs—at least if we think beliefs should be responsive to the evidence. For Facebookians’ commitments, by stipulation, are not responsive to evidence. In asking political questions, they don’t want the answers. They aren’t figuring out what to believe (in our sense). They are figuring out what commitments best conform to the preferences of their political community. Put differently, belief for Facebookians can be nothing more than commitment, and knowledge is nothing more than commitments their peers applaud.
So Facebookian political discourse is made out of very crooked timber indeed. It isn’t used to assert anything, or to communicate beliefs as opposed to simple preferences and commitments; it ignores truth and evidence. As a result, it is hard to see the Facebookians as participants in the game of giving and asking for epistemic reasons, as opposed to a game of giving and asking for likes. As such, Facebookians fail to exercise their epistemic agency in political life; for exercising that agency consists precisely in exchanging and responding to, reasons to believe.
These epistemological consequences arguably drag in their wake political consequences. An influential conception of democratic politics—shared, for example, by Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, Jurgen Habermas and Selya Benhabib—understands such politics as involving collective, inclusive, and respectful deliberation about common problems. This is the idea that democracies are, or should be, spaces of reasons, as aspiring to support a kind of public sphere—a space where disagreements can be navigated without fear of violence or oppression. This is why Dewey famously took scientific and creative education—education in epistemic rationality, as a central goal of any democracy; it could produce citizens capable of engaging in the space of reasons. As he put it in his famous reply to Walter Lippman, “the essential need, in other words, is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion,” Dewey noted. “That is the problem of the public.” (Dewey 1927/1954, 204).
So for someone like Dewey, Facebookians not only fall short epistemically, they fall short politically; their politics isn’t very democratic. By not valuing truth, they are unable to realize other values essential to democratic politics.
One of the simplest of these values is the idea of political progress itself. Democratic politics as I’ve defined it—as politics that favors inclusive, egalitarian deliberation about common problems—arguably presupposes that there can be such progress. For it presupposes that collective deliberation can help us do better than we have done before, to arrive at more correct, and more just solutions to the problems of society. In hoping for progress, we hope our political commitments arc in that direction. Yet the idea of progress is empty without a standard by which to measure it, and the Facebookians are numb to any standard but what their community likes and what it does not.
For similar reasons, the Facebookians lack the critical democratic value of speaking to power. To be willing to speak truth to power is to be willing to say that what those in power claim is true is actually false. It is to point out that the majority, or the party, or the state can be, and often is, wrong. The Facebookians may say those words, but they are not moved to voice their discontent because they see that the world is not as those in power say it is. They are moved by, and responsive to, whatever conforms with the commitments of the community. Thus, wherever a community’s commitments depend on the whims of the powerful, then the commitments of those in power are by definition correct. You can’t speak truth to power if the power speaks truth by definition.
Yet the poverty of Facebookian political life goes deeper still. Consider the democratic value of respect. A presupposition of democratic politics is recognizing that other persons are all owed a certain basic respect just because they are persons. When we think of basic respect for persons, we are typically thinking of moral respect—that is, respect for someone as a potential moral agent. To give a fellow citizen basic epistemic respect, on the other hand, is to treat them as having epistemic agency, as someone who is a potential participant in the game of giving and asking for (epistemic) reasons. It is to treat them as someone who at least has the potential to make up their own minds, to determine not only what they are going to commit to, but what they are going to believe.
As we’ve already seen, however, Facebookians don’t exercise their epistemic agency, they don’t exchange epistemic reasons; they exchange “likes”. They may not even have stable political beliefs. For all their passionate commitments, they fail to live up to a presupposition of democratic politics because they fail to show any basic epistemic respect to each other. How can they? Facebookians don’t even have basic epistemic respect for themselves.
So Facebookian society is deeply undemocratic in that it fails to live up to some of the most basic democratic values. To be sure, there is nothing to prevent the Facebookians from having a democracy in the formal sense—that is, by having a system of government where certain decisions are decided by vote. We can imagine they have a representative democracy similar to our own. But it is difficult to see how their society, even if it is democratic in the formal sense, could practice democratic politics in the sense of the term I’ve been employing here.
As I noted at the outset, how similar we are to the Facebookians is an open question— but a real one, connected to the value of truth in democratic politics. The fear that we are Facebookians is the fear that truth really has no role, not only in democratic politics, but in politics generally. It is the fear that talk about values like “truth” we are simply kidding ourselves.
For some steely-eyed souls, this will be the correct conclusion to draw. We should wake up and recognize that conformity and commitment is all there is. But while I agree that we should admit that in many ways, if not all, we are like the Facebookians, I continue to hope that we are not irredeemably so. That is, I don’t think our tendency to disvalue truth in politics is an a priori fact, the inevitable outcome of facts about human nature, or human society, or the nature of political language. I think it is a contingent fact impacted by historical conditions of ideology and communicative technology. Put bluntly, I hope that we may be Facebookian, but we need not be. In any event, our reflections suggest we better not be, if we want to practice actual democratic politics.
Dewey, John. 1927/1954. The Public and Its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.
Price, Huw. 1998. “Three Norms of Assertibility or How the MOA Became Extinct.” Philosophical Perspectives 12: 241-254.