I’ve often had occasion to reflect on Neil Postman’s trenchant comparison of the dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley, as represented in their respective books 1984 and Brave New World. In 1985, the year after Orwell’s prophecies failed to materialize, Postman suggested that perhaps we should think twice before congratulating ourselves.
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
Since Postman wrote those words, Orwell’s warnings have continued to capture the public mind while Huxley’s warnings have been comparatively neglected. During the ten years I spent working for a Christian lobby group, we were on constant alert to Orwell’s dark vision, which seemed imminent during Obama’s Presidency. In those days, things were clear to us; Obama could never have been mistaken as an angel of light as he aggressively pursued policies that eroded the freedom of Christians and–to the more conspiratorial minded among us–inched us closer to the Orwellian apocalypse.
Now I find myself almost looking upon the last administration as the good old days. It isn’t that President Trump has out-performed Obama in his anti-Christian policies. On the contrary, Trump has championed–or at least given lip service to–some of the causes I used to agitate about during my 10 years as a conservative Christian lobbyist. But precisely because of that, it has been hard for Christians on the political right to recognize that a far more subtle and sinister agenda has been at work during the Trump era – one which goes deeper than specific policies. In short, Trump has been altering how we actually view the world in general and truth in particular.
To understand how this is happening, we need to return to the dystopian vision of Huxley. In the world that Huxley feared, there doesn’t need to be such a thing as “thought crimes” because people will cease to care about truth.
Enter Trump, who has been redefining our concept of truth, normalizing relativism and challenging the very idea of objective truth. More worryingly – and this is the part that gets closest to Huxley – Trump and his supporters often seem simply not to care about truth anymore.
Before substantiating these concerns with specific examples, I need to make a few parenthetical comments about how normalization occurs.
In 2013 in an article I wrote for Christian Voice on the psychology behind culture-wide shifts in normalcy fields. I suggested that “Changes that would at one time have seemed novel become widely accepted only in so far as they become incorporated into the larger conceptual metaphors, categories and paradigms embedded in familiar group experiences.” Put more simply, our normalcy-fields shift over to new ideas, not when those ideas are presented to us as detached propositions, but when those ideas are embodied in familiar experiences. (For more information on culture-wide changes to normalcy fields, see my earlier articles ‘Normalcy Fields ‘ and ‘The Neuro Transformers: Culture & the Malleability of the Human Brain.’)
And that brings us to Trump’s relativism. Trump does not stand up and explicitly dispute the objectivity of truth; what he does is far more sinister and effective. He familiarizes us with a set of experiences which simply assumes an implicit relativism – a relativism that is becoming so normal that we cease even to recognize it for what it is.
Consider that when Trump promotes conspiracy theories on Twitter, attacks journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news”, or is asked to explain the objective basis behind a string of doubtful assertions, instead of appealing to objective facts that can be debated and investigated, he habitually appeals to purely relative criteria. This relative criteria often includes appeals to raw power (“I’m president and you’re not”), popular opinion (“Many people have come out and said I’m right”), and implicit denials of the role that facts are supposed to have on an argument. What emerges is a startling reconfiguration of the very role and relevance of objective truth.
In an article published with Time, Bret Stephens showed just how systemic this functional relativism is to Trump’s worldview. Stephen’s entire article is worth reading in full, as it is the best conservative critique of Trump’s worldview yet to be written. I’ll limit myself to quoting a notable passage in which Stephen shows that our President is creating new mental pathways that redefine how we think of truth itself.
“Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute propaganda for news, boosterism for information.
His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.
But again, that’s not all the president is doing.
Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly.
“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that.”
To which the president replies:
“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”
Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.
We are not a nation of logicians.
I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.
He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.
If some of you in this room are students of political philosophy, you know where this argument originates. This is a version of Thrasymachus’s argument in Plato’s Republic that justice is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice “if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.”
Substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “justice” and “injustice,” and there you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.”
It might be tempting to suppose that Stephens is over-analyzing Trump’s statements in a way that doesn’t do justice to the polemical and off-handed nature of those comments. After all, Trump is an anti-intellectual who does not even bother to dabble in ideas. But when we pan out to see the big picture of what has been happening in the Republican Party since Trump took the reigns (which, by the way, is a departure from true conservatism), we see a troubling trend towards epistemological relativism. As Paul Waldman observed in his Washington Post article ‘Republicans are trying to destroy the very idea of neutral judgment‘, GOP lawmakers have been acting as if “there’s no such thing as a neutral authority on anything.” We see this even on a popular level with Trump’s supporters, in which the new modus operandi is to delegitimize critique, not through appeals to objective truth, but through creating suspicion that we are even able to appeal to an objective rational order. On this way of thinking, we all have our own personal truth, the only difference is that some of us are winners and some of us are losers.
When this relativistic modus operandi trickles down to the larger populace, we see it beginning to influence the character of political discussion on the street. In an article I wrote last October about how to discuss politics without alienating your friends, I pointed out that a conclusion is only as good as the premises leading up to that conclusion. Consequently, the way to dispute someone’s conclusion is either to show that it doesn’t follow logically from the preceding premises or to show that the premises from which the conclusion follows are actually false. Not so in the world of Trump. For the votaries of the President, the come-back is no longer, “That’s false – prove it!”, or even “I disagree, and here’s why”, but “What newspaper did you read that in?” The narrative is: everyone has their spin, their biases, so what is more important than what someone says is where that person is coming from. “Did you hear that on CNN or Fox?”
Trapped in our own subjective tribes and ideological micro-cultures, the possibility of objective analysis of facts becomes impossible (according to this narrative). In practice this means that unless you are a Trump supporter, anything you or your newspaper might say is discredited a priori, without actually requiring proper analytical engagement. “Of course they would say that because that paper is liberal.” It’s the standard ad hominem combined with the genetic fallacy, with a twist of postmodern cynicism thrown in the mix. Since all of us are trapped in our language games, biases, and ideologies, there is no objective point of reference where we can meet to have a meaningful conversation, or so this narrative would have us believe.
This retreat to bias (i.e., the refusal to engage an argument on its own terms independent of the ideological orientation of the speaker) gets to the heart of how Trump is changing the brains of his supporters through normalization. In this reality-TV show that has turned into a Huxleyian nightmare, Trump’s supporters are literally being entertained into epistemological passivity. The really worrying thing is that this is occurring at the highest levels of our government. Indeed, by colluding with this subjectivist epistemology, Republicans are casting doubt on the normal operations of the mind. They do not intend to do that because they are not philosophers, but this subjectivist epistemology is still finding incarnation in the mode of discourse adopted by Trump and his supporters. What is at stake is the very idea of truth, the very idea that there can be an objective rational order to which we can make appeals and which remains independent of the speaker, independent of bias, and independent of who happens to hold the reigns of power.
In Thrasymachus’s world of “might makes right”, raw power replaces truth with the consequence that the value of speech-acts comes to be measured only by their potential to advance one’s agenda. As a case in point, let’s take Trump’s recent response to his wiretap claims being discredited. In a world regulated by truth, Trump has two choices: either he can admit that what he said was a false, or he can continue defending it as true. But Trump is above the binary. When talking to reporters from Time about his wiretapping claims, Trump characteristically shifted the conversation away from questions of truth to purely relative criteria such as how his brain works (“I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right”) or his personal credentials (“I’m President and you’re not”). The problem with these types of answers is not that they are a simple dodge, of the type we have come to expect from politicians. The real problem, which Lawrence Douglas put his finger on in a Guardian article, is that Trump’s pattern of talking “places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable; if it does not, it is worthless. Valuable statements, then, are true by virtue of the fact that they advance my interests. Statements that fail to do so are worthless and thus false.”
Stripped of its grounding in an independent objective order, truth becomes deconstructed. Truth is what you can get away with.