Imagine that the election really had been stolen. Four-hour lines and broken voting machines in Black neighborhoods of Milwaukee and Atlanta. Thousands of absentee ballots thrown out for minor technical flaws in Michigan and Arizona. Massive postal delays leading to late delivery of mail-in ballots all around the country. Finally, by a 5-4 decision—with Amy Coney Barrett as the key vote—the Supreme Court rules that, under Pennsylvania law, ballots postmarked prior to election day but arriving after election day cannot be counted. This throws Pennsylvania, and the election, to Trump.
Now suppose that a small minority of activists—maybe Antifa—had decided to go farther and occupy the Supreme Court building or the Capitol, clashing with police. Wouldn’t many of us understand and sympathize with their actions, even if we didn’t fully approve?
See where he’s going? Some of you believe that the election was stolen, that the insurrection was a defense of democracy and, well, you’re on the side of truth and justice. Sokal’s point is that while there is no objective fact to support your belief, you believe it nonetheless, with all your heart. And if the tables were turned, so too would the perception of what happened and why. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
But just because Sokal (and I) say there are no objective facts to support your belief doesn’t make it so, you reply. And that’s what Sokal is really getting at here. At its most shallow level, people you trusted lied to you, manipulated some factual claims and twisted benign video into nefarious possibilities. I’m not saying this to persuade you otherwise; this is “your truth” and you’re sticking with it.
But perhaps the key problem lies even deeper: not just the breakdown of consensus on basic facts, but the breakdown of consensus on how to determine basic facts. Or maybe about whether there even is such a thing as objective fact, something beyond mere opinion.
Is there such a thing as objective fact? Try running through a brick wall at full speed and you’ll find out. Yet, elite academics of the sociological persuasion argue otherwise.
But, starting about 40 years ago, a small coterie of social-constructivist sociologists of science began to break this consensus, with radical claims
- The validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual evidence.
- The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge.
- For the relativist (such as ourselves) there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.
These ideas were in turn picked up by postmodernist scholars—mostly in departments of literature, it must be said, not philosophy—and from there percolated into the rest of society. There, they became part of the mother’s milk—the unexamined conventional wisdom—of some sectors of the “woke” left. “There is no objective, neutral reality,” writes Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility.
You know those people who believe in wacky and wild things, like the earth is flat or chemtrails or the moon landing was staged or justice? They have their arguments, their “truth,” their beliefs, and they’re just as sincere as you. Why are you right and they’re wrong?
When all is said and done, postmodernist academics and their activist followers are not to blame for any of the evils of today’s right wing. What postmodernist relativism has wrought is, rather, something more insidious: by devaluing the concept of objective truth, it has undermined our own ability to combat objective untruths—to develop herd immunity to a pandemic of viral disinformation, as one writer eloquently put it.
Each of us is responsible for the facts we choose to believe and what we do about them. But if there is no such thing as objective truth, then it’s going to be really hard on your head when you hit that brick wall.