To tell you the truth, we don’t know.
There is nothing more painful for an academic than acknowledging we don’t know something. If we are unable to explain a phenomenon the whole world is watching, the feeling is even worse.
So, how can I confess we humanists don’t know how to explain Donald J. Trump?
News and commentary don’t help. I have read all sorts: high- and low-brow, conservative and progressive, mainstream and fringe. Some applauded mid-America, some scolded it.
In most cases, many of these pieces adopt a single perspective that gives the exaggerated impression of illuminating the Trump phenomenon’s central issue – be it an abundance of misogyny, or neoliberalism, or the news media, or social networks, or the FBI, or the snowflake millenials. Take your pick.
In fact, these constitute a massive over-simplification.
Experts accused Trump and the Republicans of simplifying policy positions to deceive voters. They called for debates that address issues at length and in depth. Yet, by doing so, they are reducing reality to a single cause. Given the level of fragmentation and constant realignment of people, provoked by factors like media coverage and the multiplicity of our own identities and value systems, these calls are futile.
These comments are also symptoms of the very phenomenon they try to explain. They don’t provide a causal explanation of what is going on, but a list of different points of view, whose validity depends greatly on their appeal among a specific audience.
I don’t pretend to have a grasp of the entire issue. Instead, allow me to point out several clues that can orient our search for that elusive truth.
The first point of reference comes from cultural analytics – the understanding of human behaviors in relation to cultural objects (memes, books, posts, tweets, videos, music, gifs, etc.).
There have been just a few moments in history during which so many people have such a great capacity to change the environment we live in. Yet, after just a couple of decades, the digital revolution has sparked radical changes in human culture and the way we behave. It is likely we have reached a tipping point; this electoral cycle signals we are on the other side of the slope.
And we don’t have a map.
Digital marketing and social media have developed metrics to measure and monetize users’ online behaviours, like ‘engagement rate’ and ‘cost per engagement.’ Both are measurements of attention (likes, retweets, etc.) either per volume of people or in relation to funding/investment. These metrics can say a lot about our digital mindsets.
However, there are two unsolved issues.
Since different objects create different contexts of behaviour, what do we measure? Are a like in Facebook, retweets on Twitter, a comment on a site and posts on Instagram worth the same? How many of these (single or combined) are worth, say, a single vote in an election?
It is much easier to determine the value of a performance of Macbeth or Beethoven’s Fifth than it is for digital artifacts.
The second issue is the online-offline gap. Even if we solve the former issue, do we know if online actions extend offline and the other way around?
The second direction starts at the big data station, but we don’t know where it leads us. Big data has long promised to provide previously unseen aspects of human behaviour thanks to powerful algorithms of analysis and the power of statistics.
In some aspects, the data scientists have delivered valuable insight, particularly in online consuming, engine recommendations and the detection of some general patterns in society. The problem is, lots of data are needed to figure out these things and most of that data is proprietary – it belongs to Google, Amazon and Facebook. Moreover, human behavior constantly adds new levels of complexity to any data model because our actions affect the actions of others and trigger new behaviours in the social system.
It is a feedback loop problem.
Research has pointed to the benefits of this type of data for political operatives while also highlighting its many limitations on the ground. The data, it seems, will talk to anyone who wanted to listen. Yet we still have to ask the right questions in order to find some truth.
Explaining reality, not just predicting it, is as necessary as ever. Understanding the causes of our new behaviours is therefore urgent.
Let’s explore the similarly puzzling Brexit.
‘Post-truth’ refers to a social and political situation in which there is a widespread disregard for truth and facts. Since today we all have virtual microphones in the form of social media platforms, we too often mistake the act of speaking out with having a well-supported argument or message. The number of Facebook or Twitter followers is a measure volume, but not truth.
This confusion about truth somehow feels normal, likely because the confounding effects of digital technologies are not new. For very good social and political reasons, we have developed a climate in which any points of view are equally valid, because there is a human being behind it.
I don’t have any problems with this, though it appears this strategy has become a liability and backfired in the political processes of this year in the UK, Colombia, United States, and in the crisis of refugees in Germany.
All individuals and groups feel entitled to expose and exploit the differences between us—resulting in a multiplayer battle in which each person and group defines themselves by these differences. Social media serves as the speaker for all of them simultaneously, and eventually, a problem of truth becomes a problem of publicity. Who shouts louder? Who has more followers, or voters, in the right demographic?
Creating and taking advantage of such situations is applying skepticism to social and political debates. And it is nothing new.
Skepticism – a philosophical school from the late Hellenistic period, after the great Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were gone – involved questioning the established standard of truth by offering arguments not about the issue at stake, but about the standard that supports the ability to debate the issue.
For example, say you want to discuss if Ronaldo is a better soccer player than Messi, but your opponent manages to undercut your argument by suggesting one shouldn’t rely on what the television pundits are saying, and it should actually be a question left up to the teams’ fans. Then the discussion jumps from football to social media. As the conversation continues down this path, eventually, the only thing that can be said definitively is all points of view are valid.
The problem is not about the issue anymore, but about the validity of the evidence used to establish the truth about the issue. It becomes a question of rhetorical framing, as opposed to objective rationality or veracity.
The use of skeptical tools to win public debates was fruitful during the Renaissance in Europe, as religious groups came to question the authority of Rome by challenging its standard of truth: the Bible.
They suggested the interpretation of the biblical text should be personal and all interpretations are equally valid because they represent unique ways to personally connect with God. Moreover, they said, Rome is corrupt and they have bad philologers, who don’t interpret the text correctly using the original languages because they just use the Latin version.
Replace philologers with economists, media figures and establishment politicians – sound familiar?
The debates around skepticism made it clear the mind does not cope with long periods of uncertainty. We like stability. Besides, we need truth, even subjective truth, to act.
If we don’t know how to determine right or left, we cannot turn right or left.
The oldest criterion takes several forms in the post-truth age: nation, race, religion, land, strong leaders. A skeptical or ‘post-truth’ condition is unlikely to last for very long, because people and organizations need to act, and for that we need criteria. And, since many citizens still defer to tradition and strong authority on civic questions, it is unsurprising to see the results of the electoral processes around the world in 2016.
Do humanists have an answer to all this?
There is a silver lining in the giant question mark that is Donald Trump. For the first time in decades, my friends and colleagues on the other side of campus – the scientists, that is – don’t have the answer either. They are, however, probably grateful they do not have to search for it.
Modern Languages and Literatures professor Juan Luis Suárez is Director of The CulturePlex Lab.