A reflection by Nicole des Bouvrie.
Philosophers deal with words, often in etymological sense, in that they try to understand the meaning of a concept by looking at the history of a word, how it was used, what roots it has. But there is another way in which words are interesting, also for a philosopher: quantitatively.
In this age of big data, some of google’s side projects are true gems. Everyone might be familiar with Google Books, where many copies of books have been scanned and made available to readers worldwide. But we cannot only read those books, we can also look at each book as a set of words, as data. That is what the Ngram does: books.google.com/ngrams Enter any word, and it will show you how often that word is used in any year (in percentages, so relative to all the books added to Google Books – I know, it is not perfect, and not ‘scientific’ as there might be a bias as to which books are made available, but it’s a very nice tool to play with nonetheless).
When we enter the word ‘fact’, we can see something interesting. A rise in the use of the word starting around 1822, which would be an interesting analysis in itself. But we can also see a significant (not claiming statistical significance!) decrease after 1965. Why is that?
Interpreting words like this is dangerous, as we have no context at all. The words ‘independence’ and ‘relative’ can mean many things and be used in different ways, that although I would like to see their correlation to the decrease in ‘fact’, this is simply not possible with this kind of data.
But what happened that after 1965 the word ‘fact’ was not as popular anymore? The Vietnam war, Martin Luther King’s marches, Mary Poppins wins many Oscars, the first images of Mars are collected. The 1970s in general see the rise of a different kind of thinking, in France culminating or exemplified in the May 1968 Student protests. Perhaps a social revolution took place, or a political one, but at the very least a philosophical one.
What was started long before, propagated through the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, took on a new shape of existentialism and deconstruction. Both try to deal with a reality in which the structures of truth [see the graph and the decreasing use of ‘truth’] become unstable. Before, the world was stable and everyone knew his or her place. It is not simply coincidence that the notion of freedom in connection with everyone’s place in the world and the understanding of the self had become more and more important. And when the structures of truth crumbled, instead a notion of relativism spread its wings.
Relativism is the idea that there is not a strictly objective understanding of reality that exists, but that everyone has a subjective view of it, and that these views are often colored by culture, previous experience, and education. This is not in itself a problem, as it gives people a way to understand why things are different and gives a way for people with different opinions to live together in a seeming harmony.
But relativism has another effect. Namely on the idea of what constitutes a fact. When our understanding of reality is colored, when there is always a specific ‘world’ that someone exists in, then this can be used and manipulated by others. Education and media can be used as propaganda, as the experience with Nazi Germany had shown the world. But a certain naivete made people not look further – as everyone is involved in influencing their reality, and due to relativism, we can no longer clearly see what is done for the good and what is done with evil intentions. As the golden standard that was long found in religion was carefully left behind, people could no longer take up any rule that was exempt from scrutiny.
The post-truth of freedom
Which is good, everything should be questioned if so desired. But it also poses a problem, as people become more susceptible to opinions and emotional arguments. And facts become less important. This is nothing new, but recently people have seemed to think this is something new, and something to which only a specific group of people fall prey alone. The claim of post-truth politics is an example of this. ‘Post-truth’ was named word of this year that ends tomorrow. But although the word is new, the sentiment behind it has been left to grow for a while. Even the data of Google Ngram shows this. As well as the philosophical tendencies. And the reason for this? Our dependency on the concept of ‘freedom’ beyond anything we ever meant to signify with it.
Although I do not disagree with the importance of freedom to make up one’s own mind, and the importance of listening to minorities and to have a political system to make sure that these freedoms are guaranteed, I do not agree with the way in which we try to fight for these things. By making ‘freedom’ the essence of what it means to be human, we forget that what humans long for is a feeling of belonging, a connection to something of value. Freedom is no such value, it is in itself empty of value – neither negative or positive, as its impact depends on what it is used for.
Freedom lead ultimately to the disregard of moral decency. It slips into a freedom to hate, a freedom to disregard facts, a freedom to shut your eyes to injustice. It leads to a ‘Party for Freedom’ in the Netherlands whose primary aim is to purge the country of people with Islamic beliefs.
We have a choice
Which is why liberalism has been doomed since it has put ‘freedom’ as its most important value. To quote once again [and see previous post as well], “If your prime objective is not to cause offence, don’t bother.” If freedom is your goal, then relativism leads to lawlessness. Let freedom be our means to establish justice, but not our measurement of it.