Taking the Tightrope: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern

Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash

‘The true way leads along a tightrope, which is not stretched aloft but just above the ground. It seems designed more to trip one than to be walked along.’ – Franz Kafka

The BBC have a specialist disinformation reporter. A specialist disinformation reporter. I have to repeat it a few times to really wrap my head around it. Conspiracy has become mainstream to the point that it warrants an expert, someone who really knows the real from the fiction. Apparently the news itself is not enough of an antidote to the virus of ‘alternative facts’. Apparently the viewer needs to be reminded that 5G does not cause the coronavirus, that vaccines aren’t designed to track your every move and that the guy who keeps on emailing you won’t be sending a small fortune into your bank account. “Take that tinfoil hat off your head!” 

Something doesn’t seem quite right. Disinformation is certainly an issue. It is of crucial importance that we all begin to find our feet on the tightrope and stop stumbling over the tripwire of fake news. Ironically it has got to the point where only a conspiracy theorist could deny the prevalence and problem of conspiracy. No, this cause of angst is down to the fact that we keep on swinging the sword of fact again and again at those who have the shield of the post-modern, the post-truth school of thought. Their defences are made of the same material as our weapons, ‘it is easy to recognise, still burnt into the steel, our trademark: Made in CriticalLand’, acknowledges Bruno Latour. What is it they say about fighting fire with fire?

I anticipate a few questions being raised at my connecting of conspiracy to contemporary French philosophy so allow me, or in fact Latour, to connect the dots. ‘What’s the real difference,’ he asks, ‘between conspiracists and a popularised, that is teachable version of social critique?’ Social critiques that sprung from the rise of theory in the 60s and have foundations in the philosophies of Descartes and Kant. ‘I think therefore I am right’ doesn’t quite work as well as the original does it? Indeed, the philosopher’s own work on the construction of facts is part of this thinking that has become malformed through misuse. Latour, of course, answers his own question: ‘In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say… I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in first the movement of disbelief and, then, the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.’ He goes on, ‘What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique?’ What if. Latour’s rhetorical question asked in 2004 has here, in 2021, found confirmation.

So when Eamonn Holmes, to bring us sharply back down to earth, stands on the side of the 5G conspiracy on daytime television – ’what I don’t accept is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true’ – is he practicing keen critical insight? Is he the custodian of the truth, a defender of the facts? No. But is he off his rocker, a crazy conspiracist? No. It is just that he is making a tripwire out of a tightrope. He, like so many, is approaching the problem at a right angle, head fixed straight ahead in search of ‘the truth’ and failing to see the real direction, the aim, of the empiricism and skepticism that led him there. What he needs, what we need, is to move away from ‘matters of fact’ and consider instead ‘matters of concern’. 

‘Reality is not defined by matters of fact,’ says Latour, ‘matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern.’ Today, the word ‘fact’ has become such a loaded term that it has been entirely dislocated from it’s home in empirical, objective truth. As Latour points out, the fact has now become a political tool, malleable in the hands of of ideological pursuit. Strangely, we are now at a point where to concentrate on what is real we must turn away from the direct fact, not ask ourselves what is the deconstructed truth but instead what is the constructive end-point. To ask instead where to turn in order to concentrate on matters of concern and not get bogged down in the detached matters of fact. The tightrope is not stretched aloft. 

Hopefully we can now see why the role of the specialist disinformation reporter is so flawed, so peculiar. We have seen from the Trump presidency alone that fake news pays no attention to the stats; a lie is now an alternative fact. Calling it something different will do nothing to dissuade those who see the established truth as merely a part of the controlling narrative, as a tool used by the powerful and mysterious underworld of global politics. If you are misled by your skepticism to reach the conclusion that everything is not what it seems then you will pay no attention to the person claiming to be a specialist in disinformation. If the premise of your position is that the facts aren’t factual (however misconstrued that may be), being faced with those facts will do nothing to change your mind. We, as a society, will keep walking into that tripwire over and over again because we can’t reorientate ourselves to see it from another angle. 

Tightrope walking isn’t easy. I imagine there’s a lot of falling off involved. But if we fall off we will find ourselves where we are now. It’s just this way, putting one shaky foot in front of the other, we can start to move forward, instead of falling again and again on to the sword of fact. 

Written by Alasdair Bell

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