Can we make Truth great again?

Apr 21, 2019 by

Humanities scholars long sneered at the notion of objective truth. In this post-truth age, that may be changing

by Eduard Saakashvili

Several months into President Donald Trump’s tenure, Union College Professor Robert Samet assigned students a routine book for his Media Anthropology class: War Stories, a seminal study of how American reporters misrepresented El Salvador’s civil war.

His 22 students sat in rows discussing the text. Then, a male, conservative-leaning student began to speak.

“I don’t trust the media,” Samet remembers him saying. “You’ve shown me, right here in this text, how it is that facts get manipulated. I don’t believe now what I’m seeing in the New York Times.”

Another student, a progressive, agreed.

Samet was floored. “What the heck just happened?” he thought. He was trying to help students understand how journalists deliver facts and present reality. Now his teaching methods have revealed that students consider mainstream outlets like the Times as propaganda.

“That’s not the response I was expecting,” Samet said. Then he added: “But it makes perfect sense.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of humanities and social science scholarship punctured the idea of objective truth. Scholars like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway traced the ways that the truth wasn’t “out there,” but manufactured by researchers, academics, and journalists. The idea was known as “social constructivism,” or simply postmodernism. It took humanities disciplines like literature, anthropology and some social sciences by storm.

But in the past decade, and more notably since 2016, American political conservatives have unsheathed a bastardized form of social constructivism. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway defended “alternative facts,” while his lawyer Rudy Giuliani has claimed that “truth isn’t truth.” Outraged commentators say we now live in a “post-truth” age, and some have found a culprit for the upheaval: academics. Two recent books, Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth and Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth both blame “post-modern” academics for helping erode the idea of shared reality. Kakutani writes that the constructivists “paved the way for today’s anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers.” Meanwhile, in The New Yorker alt-right troll Mike Cernovich cited postmodernist theory to defend his online misinformation campaigns.

Academics in the humanities dismiss the idea that they somehow caused global post-truth disruptions. Yet a growing number of them worry about how to teach constructivism in an era where “alternative facts” have become partisan talking points and disbelief in data about climate change and public health is hastening global catastrophe.

Continue: Can we make Truth great again? – Coda Story

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