Thursday 21 July 2016

Trump's 'facts and lies'

As the Republican Convention in Cleveland is getting under way, there is a lot of soul searching in the US. Some of the big beasts in the Republican Party have decided to stay away, and even some of those who attend the Convention have decided to give only half hearted support to the man who got more votes in the primaries than any candidate in the history of the Republican Party.

America and the Republican Party appear to be deeply divided about the virtue and credentials of the man who calls others 'liars', 'rapists' and 'criminals'. On one side, there are those who think Trump speaks truth to power (or 'the establishment') whilst on the other side, there are those who believe that he has irreparably damaged American democracy. So who is right? What's the problem if Trump uses harsh language, or is a loudmouth? Isn't that just part and parcel of the rough and tumble of free speech? Here is why I believe that Trump is bad for democracy.

The public debate in the US has always been throughout history a fairly robust affair. One reason is the first amendment which guarantees free speech. The right to say what you think has often been understood as a justification to say anything you want. So why should politicians not exploit the space free speech provides to the fullest extent?

There are two ways to say that you disagree with somebody. You can either say that you believe that the other person got their facts wrong, and thus appeal to an independent measure of truth, objectively (or more correctly: inter-subjectively) established. Or you can say that you think that the other person is lying. The latter is not a statement about the truth or falsehood of what somebody says. It is a statement about the motivation that person allegedly has when they say what they say. Motivations are however not subject to independent verification. Statements about what motivated somebody to say something can not be validated by an appeal to some objective (or inter-subjective) measure.

Donald Trump - in conversational mood.

That makes statements about other people's motives statements of belief, rather than statements of facts. And questioning the moral commitment of your opponent strikes at the heart of their legitimacy to contribute to the public debate. Suspecting somebody to be morally corrupt disputes their right to be heard. It resembles the claim that somebody is 'un-American' which tore apart the democratic fabric of the US in the 1950s. And remember, questioning the motivation of somebody is not something that can be verified or refuted by a fact. It pits one statement of belief against another.

Thus, saying that somebody is lying, i.e. willingly, out of moral degeneracy, puts the debate beyond public verification and therefore beyond forms of public reason. No fact checking will ever formally establish whether Hilary Clinton is a wicked person or not. Nor can any fact checking ever establish whether or not she was animated by evil motives when she was not as forthcoming about her use of the private email server as she should be. Contrast this with the argument that Clinton may or may not have known that the use of her private email server was improper. That is something that an investigation may establish as a fact, if evidence exists.

The difference between the two types of arguments above is that the latter is one that can be decided within the realm of facts, and is therefore located within politics, whereas the former is firmly anchored in questions about morality, something that is impervious to political argument.

Trump has made it clear that he wants to engage in shadow boxing in the realm of moral rectitude, clearly in the knowledge that questions about politicians' motives cannot be decided either way. He hopes that if he only repeats claims about the alleged lack of moral rectitude of his opponents often enough, something will stick. His strategy is to drag political debate where it cannot be fact checked. But a democracy that leaves behind its measures of what constitutes truth and reality is lost at the sea of moral claims. It's is where meaningful debate ceases and public reason as an arbiter in political discussion dies.

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