Post Post-Fact

The clear mission for those who teach debate in 2017 is to reveal to all concerned listeners and students of all kinds not to fret; for the post fact era has not just been born. As an avid "birther" of the post fact era, I demand a birth certificate! Even then I might not be totally convinced of the birth of this time. Living among us, alive and happy for centuries, the news of post-fact's recent birth have given it a lot of license as it occupies the very unhealthy and limited modes of speech the Good Liberals have adopted in the name of all left thinkers and intellectuals everywhere.

Post-fact is rhetoric's realm, which explains why people are so profoundly uncomfortable with the number of discourses claiming to be true (very different term mind you) proliferating where good solid fact (good liberal term: "news") should live. In fact, we are post-post-fact. We've been there and we are ready to talk about facts in a new way. From Zen Master Ming: "At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers." This is describing an epistemic shift. We're past it. Why are we rushing back to something we don't even trade in? We trade in how a fact is determined, not whether it is adhered to, whether it is right.  The metaphor that comes to mind is that of the cow-bird, a bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other songbirds, where the unaware mother feeds it, neglecting her own young. It's a brilliant reproduction strategy, and by metaphor, a super brilliant strategy to circulate and become believable (remember one of the oldest rhetorical devices in the world is also the most basic of pedagogies: repetitio.)  The fact that the cow bird is not a blue jay does not help the blue jay mother solve her mortal dilemma. In fact, from her point of view, there is no dilemma; she's being a good mom, whatever that means to a blue jay. Kenneth Burke: The birds never misinterpret the sign, they all fly away. Birds don't have our interpretive troubles, and it seems Good Liberals want to eradicate that from humans as well. The fantasy of a communication-free politics pops out of many blog posts and tweets. "If only people would look at the facts," says the person who teaches public speaking, un-ironically. It's super weird to me. 

Instead of doubling-down on facts and hand-wringing, Good Liberals should join those who are on the left, intellectually, socially or what have you and double down on the intellectual project of recovering alternative modes of discourse for politics. This is going to be hard to do. The very problem we need to solve (bifurcated speech options with only one good path among two) is undermined by all of the alternatives that Good Liberals have come up with. In a spirited effort of debunking they have replaced religion with science, putting all of their devotion and faith into scientific epistemologies which will hopefully collapse any space of negotiation between reality and how we talk about that reality. Compare that to Aristotle's idea that politics requires instruction in music, not the math of it but actual playing and singing and stuff like that (book 7 of the Politics) and you'll see how different we are from the first scientist in this regard. This uncomfortably puts me in the position of admiring the fascists who have a real love for creative rhetoric and rolling my eyes at the Good Liberal rhetoric professors who talk about leading the charge for the left by giving quizzes on fallacy detection.  Rhetoricians bizarrely think that we should be collapsing the space for negotiation, argument, debate, naming, constituting, or whatever you want to call it. Winning this political fight will take things that require space for negotiation such as timing, harmony, disharmony, rhythm, tempo - all things from music which only really adopts the discourse of being a serious science when you pressure that one guy at Guitar Center to account for why he's been working there for most of his life.

Ok so what do we do? What's the strategy? We have to cultivate long-fallow fields in our political imagination in order to get them ready for argument farming. Here are some suggestions.

Opinion - much maligned opinion needs a jump start as an appropriate and necessary discourse to counter fact and alternative fact because it allows in relief to the discourse that accounts for life experience, materiality and the intersection of that with policy and principle, and all sorts of individual narrative and other things that are not only good but essential to take into account if you are trying to govern a state. Opinion, taught to most children as what you rely on when you haven't been a good citizen and done your research (I think I might have described a lot of argumentation and public speaking classes here, but if the shoe fits. . .), is the largest missing element, it's like trying to run engines without oil. Teaching people how to frame opinion in a world with facts and research and experts is a big first step. The reports of my death are exaggerations! shouts Opinion, who is immediately asked for an MLA style bibliography by the public speaking teacher. Not productive, and definitely helpful for the fascists. There has to be a more robust way to develop all of these modes of communication at once and together, as they should be, or people get the idea that citations are only for school assignments, not for national elections. 

Right is not Correct - the right way to do something must have valence, there has to be a way to talk about a right policy with it not being correct, as in the correct way to do something regardless of who is around, nor can it be right in the terms of lowest undesirable consequences, nor can it just be right as in the terms of morality. The discourse of rightness has to be combined with a robust and open constant communication of justice and the just, and how societies, cultures, and communities talk about and experience the notion of justice.

A Fact is Just another Discourse - this is where rhetoric has really dropped the ball, our total acquiescence of facts to every other field in existence.  Our particular take on facts could be many things, but what it shouldn't be is deference to the facts determined by political science, sociology, the GAO, you name it - we need to account for the accounting, and let people know that locating a fact means a lot more than getting it from Google and citing it correctly (sounds like a course you know doesn't it?).  Locating a fact is simultaneously locating the machinery in motion to allow us to identify that information as such, and the hidden tools that allow society to manipulate that information as such. Put a handle on something, it's easy to carry - this is how facts work.  Facts also stop being facts at points where they cannot be recognized as such - so teaching people the craft of articulating recognition - much like a police sketch artist works - might be a valuable rhetorical art to develop. What this means is that from what you see, can you constitute a fact? Can we make that leap and treat it as such? Analogy: From what you saw, can we constitute a face? This might help us in locating the perp - I mean, the correct policy to endorse. Finally on this point, the idea that facts are conclusions is the most unhealthy thing we could teach people in how to talk to one another. Facts are starting places for discourse, they are not meant to end argument, but to continue argument. Facts should have gravitation to the point where they bend the discourse all around them. Not just tools to cut the mic wire or smash the TV - which is how a lot of debate, argument, and public speaking teachers instruct their students how to use them.  The selection of facts for a debate is a selection of epistemology. It's a selection of how we know, talk, and judge, and so that choice should start a lot of discourse, not end a conversation about what we are supposed to do.

So there are three ideas, more to come as I reflect more on this. In the age of the fascist, we need to create more space for maneuver in political rhetoric, more chances to play our instruments, not less. Reduction of the space for negotiated naming and meaning only hurts the left, under the guise of helping the Good Liberals do their part for their conception of science-based-fact. We need to embrace the right's introduction of the alternative fact, and say welcome to the party, I think we still have some beers left, we are so glad you came, let's dance.