View from
The Left

On Bias and Truth in the Public Sphere

“The unceasing accusations of bias are no longer used to promote dialogue and bridge interpretive frameworks. Instead, they are used to seal ourselves off inside bubbles that allow us to preserve the integrity of our world view, free from contamination by the views of others.”

One of the major trends in contemporary discourse about the public sphere surrounds issues of bias. The usual complaint goes something like this: individuals in the public sphere, particularly in the media, are so compromised by their own biases that their facts cannot be trusted.

In the contemporary era, this trend is widely regarded as originating on the left end of the political spectrum. Left-leaning activists, allegedly inspired by relativistic post-modern philosophies, accuse their opponents of any number of different biases in their reporting of “facts” and “truth.” These biases originate in their opponent’s desire to preserve discriminatory hierarchies that benefited them. Classical liberal and conservative pundits are disparaged for their alleged “white privilege,” “misogyny,” “homophobia,” and any number of different biases which led them to misrepresent or even ignore facts as experienced by any number of marginalized peoples. This is how The New York Times can accuse Jordan Peterson of misogyny for criticizing various feminist doctrines without substantially engaging with his ideas. Or how the implicit bias of men towards supporting “the patriarchy” is reason enough to hate the entire group and largely dismiss what they say. And so on.

Unfortunately, these tactics are no longer limited to the left. Commentators from the right have gleefully lifted the technique of accusing their opponents of bias to dismiss counter claims to the narratives of what I have elsewhere called post-modern conservatism. Dennis Prager accuses so-called left-wing media and universities of promulgating so much bias in their claims that it has propagated a crisis in American civil society. Canada’s Andrew Furey has ridiculed the left-leaning “establishment” for spreading misinformation and bias. And of course, the ultimate post-modern conservative, President Donald Trump, has famously castigated the media for its propagation of falsehoods and claimed it does not matter whether he tells the truth since “many people” felt the same way he did.

Oftentimes, these accusations of bias are made with little to substantiate them, though few are as brazen as President Trump in merely appealing to mass opinion to justify a widely accepted untruth. But that is not what I wish to discuss in this article. Instead I want us to examine the impact of this transition towards a public sphere characterized by dismissing opposing views as biased.

Facts and Truth

“Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then?
Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.”  John 18.

One of the reactions to the growing accusations of bias leveled against both sides of the political divide has been a call for the restoration of the Enlightenment emphasis on truth, reason, and scientific fact in the public sphere. Indeed, new magazines and outlets, from Quillette to this very publication, have emerged to fulfill this objective. I believe this to be a very admirable goal worth pursuing. But problems emerge when we try to unpack what a return to truths and fact would look like.

Two challenges stand out. The first one is that it is not clear, even when using the finest philosophical resources of the Enlightenment and modernity, what theory of truth, facticity, and values should win out. Second, there are deeper cultural and social reasons why the ideals of truth and facticity have perhaps lost some of the persuasive power they once had.

When it comes to examining the first challenge it might help to briefly examine some of the philosophical problems posed by Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. The essayist was born in Edinburgh in 1711 and became one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. Corresponding with the other great minds of the day, including fellow Scot Adam Smith and the Swiss Jean Jacques Rousseau, throughout his life Hume was a model of reasoned discourse and dialogue. However, he pointed to a several very substantial problems at the heart of reason; problems that still hang over us to this day.

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Hume observed that it can be very difficult to objectively ascertain what the facts of any given situation are. This is because our ascertainment of a given factual situation is dependent on our experiencing it as a collection of impressions at a given moment in time. Once we get a sense of these impressions and how they interact in the empirical world, we might be tempted to say that these impressions and the objects associated with them will always behave the same way they have before. But Hume observed that this belief was itself not based on experience, but rather on faith.

“Hume’s skeptical claims about the limits of empiricism were one of the first and most damaging barbs leveled against the omniscience of science.”

To give an example, during his time it was believed that the sun will always rise in the morning because it has always happened in the past. But that in itself cannot make us certain that it will do so permanently, since that belief is only based on how things have transpired before. This has since become known as the problem of induction: just because things have happened one way before does not mean we can be certain they will again. We can be relatively confident, but not certain.

Hume’s skeptical claims about the limits of empiricism were one of the first and most damaging barbs leveled against the omniscience of science. Since then, we have become increasingly aware that the way to determine empirical facts, and what those facts suggest, is a rather complicated process. This is especially true in politics, a realm of human beings who enjoy an immensely complicated cognitive system and engage with one another in a myriad of indeterminable ways.

Hume’s second observation poses an even greater challenge. Even if we could know what the facts of a given situation were for certain, this would not mean we would know how to use this information to decide what the right response would be. The facts about the world were one thing, but what the right (or wrong) thing to do was another. This is true even in the most radical of situations.

Take the example of a meteor plummeting to the earth that may extinguish all life. From a purely factual standpoint, this is just a natural phenomenon in the universe transforming biological matter from one state to another. From a moral standpoint, if we believe life has unique value, it would be a tremendous catastrophe. Hume believes that we should give the latter moral standpoint more weight in our lives. But this does not mean there is a bridge from the facts of the world to values which imply what we should make of our lives. It simply means that most of us cannot look at reality from a purely empirical—or “scientific”—standpoint, since by itself that cannot tell us anything about what we should do.

Eventually, Hume moved away from scientific and philosophical research to attempting to discover what brings about happiness for himself and others.

The Problem of Interpretation

I have posed two problems with getting rid of bias in the public sphere, posed by a great and scientifically minded philosopher. The first is that it is often unclear what the facts of a given situation are. Second, even if we have the truth on hand, it is not clear what moral lessons we should take from it.

This brings me to the greatest problem, one of interpretation. Interpretation is one of the ways human beings both try to ascertain what the facts of a given situation are, and how we bridge it with our value system. But where, then, do the interpretative frameworks we apply come from? The answer may tell us quite a bit about bias and truth in our contemporary political climate.

There are myriad of answers to where we get our interpretative frameworks, and how they will slant us politically. Part of it is likely psychological. There is growing scientific literature on the disposition of some individuals towards supporting more conservative or progressive conceptions of the world.

Generally, conservatives tend to have a psychological predisposition towards caution. Simply put, this means favoring the familiar and the recognizable over the untested. In turn, this disposition leads conservatives to being more supportive of hierarchy and the traditions affiliated with it, whether determined by wealth or status.

By contrast, progressives tend to be more optimistic about the world, and thus more inclined towards believing that change can resolve major problems in it. It is also likely that culture plays a prominent role, as convincingly argued by philosopher Alasdair Macintyre in his After Virtue. Individuals brought up in socio-cultural settings, take modern-day Saudi Arabia as an example, which promote adherence to tradition, group conformity, and stability, may well develop more conservative interpretive frameworks. Contrast that with societies such as early Republican France, which promoted upending the status quo, individuality, and revolutionary transformation.

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I am not here to argue whether psychology or socio-cultural frameworks, nature or nurture, is determinative. It is to demonstrate that these forces play a role in determining the interpretive framework we bring to both interpreting facts about the world and then linking them towards our values. Individuals with an inclination towards conservative viewpoints may tend to interpret the world and perceive facts about destabilization and transformation. This will incline them to link this view of the world to values emphasizing the need to uphold order and tradition against those who push for change. By contrast, progressives may perceive facts about unhappiness and an unequal social status. This will incline them to link this view of the world to values emphasizing the need for change in pursuit of greater fairness.

The Heart of the Problem

Conservatives and progressives often claim that their ideological opponents demonstrate “bias” against contrary world views. I think this emphasis on “bias” implies something deeper, especially since proponents rarely give specific examples of where and how their opponents are getting facts wrong. Accusations of bias are really claims that one’s ideological opponents are interpreting the world incorrectly. Invoking Hume, they are emphasizing the wrong facts, and linking them to the wrong values. This often leads to unbridgeable standoffs.

“The issue is not a lack of understanding how the things are, but rather, how they are interpreted.”

Conservatives accuse progressives of being naïve. Progressives accuse conservatives of being heartless. On both ends these accusations are chalked up to the other side simply not “understanding” the way the world really is. I find this a largely a misguided way of looking at things. Great minds have spent lifetimes trying to “understand” how the world really is, and the issue remains perplexing. It is unlikely that most political partisans have a much firmer grip on metaphysical issues than others. The issue is not a lack of understanding how the things are, but rather, how they are interpreted.

This is where cultural issues come in. We are increasingly inclined towards emphasizing subjectivity, and our subjective interpretation of the world as the locus for truth. This is conducive to the emergence of what I have elsewhere called “postmodern culture” brought about, in part, by economic and social forces. This, in turn, means that we see our subjective interpretation of the world as the correct one, and expect others to understand and appreciate it. To no one’s surprise, this is hardly ever the case.

The interpretive frameworks we bring to the world may well be exceptionally different. This will make it very challenging to bridge the gap between how I may see it, and how you may see it. Moreover, even if I were to use what the New Science called “acts of imagination” (fantasia) to situate myself in another’s interpretive framework, there is no guarantee that I would agree with it. To invoke Slavoj Zizek’s defense of intolerance, I might be able to situate myself in the interpretive framework of Adolph Hitler. This would not mean I would find it any less repellent.

Conclusion

My intention is not to endorse relativism of any sort. Indeed, I find the growing subjectivism of post-modern culture—particularly the rise of post-modern conservatism—to be deeply troubling. The continuous accusations of bias are no longer used to promote dialogue and bridge interpretive frameworks. Instead, they are used to seal ourselves off inside bubbles that allow us to preserve the integrity of world view, free from contamination by the views of others. This is a very worrying trend, and one that should be combated vigorously.

Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.