How Postmodernity Regressed into the Post-Truth Era
Injustice via the Internet: Myths, Facts, & Smear Campaigns in the Marc Gafni Story — An Exposé by Kerstin Tuschik Part 1 of 4
This four-part essay is about truth & justice in our post-truth internet era. It uses the Marc Gafni Story as a case study to engage the larger issues at play. At the same time, it sets the records straight regarding some of the gross distortions about Marc Gafni that have been repeated time and again over the past years. This first part of the essay sets the frame for the rest of the story that could not have happened without these overarching issues at play.
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The evolution of culture and consciousness is mirrored directly in the evolution of justice. We might say that there have been three great periods of history in the development of our idea of justice. Roughly, these three periods are referred to as the pre-modern, modern and postmodern periods. Each approaches justice in a fundamentally different way. How we carry out justice tells us who we are as a society more than any other measure.
In the pre-modern period, justice was mostly dispensed via the authority of the religion, which demanded obedience from its adherents. Alternatively, it was dispensed by the King. Although there were formal rules of justice in virtually all societies, the rules were both made by the church or king and could be overridden at any time by the whim of the monarch or the edict of the church.
Justice evolved dramatically in the move from pre-modernity to modernity. In modernity, the scientific method supplanted dogma as formal checking of evidence through a careful and objective process of gathering information became the cornerstone of the new vision of justice.
It was the English jurist Blackstone who said, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Thomas Jefferson amended that idea and changed the number ten to a hundred. This new idea of justice is the bedrock of the democratic way of life.
How we gather information in order to render judgment tells us what kind of society we live in. This was the great gift of modernity to the evolution of justice. Fair process, genuine fact checking, researching evidence and motivation, as well as reporting information accurately, have since become the cornerstones of a good and just society. It is for these great principles of integrity that so many human beings have fought and died.
Then along came postmodernity. In postmodernity, we realized that there is not one objective reality. We came to understand that context and perspective matter and facts are always interpreted through our prism of consciousness. This could have given rise to a genuine evolution of consciousness, society and justice. Instead, it gave rise to a society in which facts stopped mattering. Everything was now considered to be a matter of perspective and context. The idea of one truth being higher than another truth was rejected by the leading edge of the western academy. Narrative replaced information gathering and justice did not evolve but regressed.
Justice does not merely refer to formal proceedings that take place in courthouses. Justice is about the judgments we form that directly impact people’s lives. Just like a court procedure must be guided by principles of justice, so too the way we talk about a person, especially in the public space must be guided by similar principles. In that sense, engaging in character assassination or smear campaigns on the Internet based on false or distorted claims, in a way that intends to destroy the life of a competitor or colleague or former spouse or partner, would obviously be a gross violation of justice.
The key issue in justice is how we gather information, whether it be for trial, or an Internet post.
In a democratic society, our trust in how information is gathered and presented is the core building block of both our personal safety and our public culture. Specifically, we need to be able to trust our news media to gather information with an intent to seek the truth following the trail of evidence and facts. When facts stop mattering, which unfortunately has become the norm in our so-called post-truth and post-fact culture, the core structure of society breaks down.
Indeed, post-truth is the Oxford dictionary word of the year for 2016. The essential structure of the internet supports the post-truth world. There is no mechanism for fact checking. Many news sites are revenue driven. Revenue is driven by what has come to be called clickbait, sensational titles about scandal and sex that draw clicks which then drive up advertising rates. There is no recrimination for lying.
Google searches create a reality in which the most extreme and provocative views that are more prone to be clicked come up first in the click engines. Moreover, through more and more personalized searches the internet has become, according to all the experts, an echo chamber in which one’s own views are reinforced by like-minded people. Assertions are therefore rarely challenged[i].
Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has recently written at length on the nature of a post-truth world and how facts have become devalued in our postmodern context.
Because of its relevance, I will cite him extensively here:
“In terms of searching, in a sea of aperspectival madness, not for truth or goodness or beauty — and especially for bypassing “truth” entirely and looking just for narcissistic popularity — Google has recently been slammed with exactly that charge — and those screaming “J’accuse!” are rightly and massively alarmed.
Carole Cadwalladr, in a recent Guardian article, pointed out that Google’s search algorithms reflect virtually nothing but the popularity of the most-responded to sites for the search enquiry.*** There is nothing that checks whether any of the recommendations are actually true (or good or beautiful or unifying or integrating or any other value, and express only the aperspectival madness of “no truth to be favored”). Cadwalladr was particularly alarmed when she typed in “Are Jews…” and before she could finish, Google’s search engines had provided the most likely responses, one of which was “Are Jews evil?” Curious, she hit that entry, and was taken to the authoritative Google page of the 10 most common and popular answers, 9 of 10 of which said, in effect, “Yes, definitely, Jews are evil.”
Genuinely surprised — and alarmed — she states,
“Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out. And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women. This is what I type: ‘a-r-e w-o-m-e-’. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is ‘Are women evil?’ I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results ‘confirms’ that they are, including the top one, from a site which is boxed out and highlighted: ‘Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her…. Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them.’”
With her disbelief — and alarm — growing, she continues,
“Next I type: ‘a-r-e m-u-s-l-i-m-s’. And Google suggests I should ask: ‘Are Muslims bad?’ And here’s what I find out: yes, they are. That’s what the top result says and six of the others. Google offers me two new searches and I go for the first, ‘Islam is bad for society.’ In the next list of suggestions, I’m offered: ‘Islam must be destroyed.’”
Here’s her response:
“Google is search. It’s the verb, to Google. It’s what we all do, all the time, whenever we want to know anything. We Google it. The site handles at least 63,000 searches a second, 5.5 billion a day. Its mission as a company, the one-line overview that has informed the company since its foundation and is still the banner headline on its corporate website today, is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. It strives to give you the best, most relevant results.
Jews are evil. [Women are evil.] Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Do you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. ‘Was Hitler bad?’ I type. And here’s Google’s top result: ’10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One of the Good Guys’. I click on the link: ‘He never wanted to kill any Jews’; ‘he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps’…. Eight out of the other 10 search results agree.
Google is most definitely not “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.” It is disorganizing the world’s information in an atmosphere of aperspectival madness, taking “diversity” to such an extreme that all views have an egalitarian and perfectly equal claim to validity. It is a leading-edge that is deeply discombobulated.”
Genuinely concerned, Cadwalladr contacts Danny Sullivan, founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com.
“He [Sullivan] has been recommended to me by several academics as one of the most knowledgeable experts on search. Am I just being naïve, I ask him? Should I have known this was out there? ‘No, you’re not being naïve,’ he says. ‘This is awful. Google is doing a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here.’ He’s surprised, too. He types ‘are women’ into his own computer. ‘Good lord! That answer at the top. It’s a featured result. It’s called a ‘direct answer.’ This is supposed to be indisputable. It’s Google’s highest endorsement.’ That ‘every women has some degree of prostitute in her?’ ‘Yes. This is Google’s algorithm going terribly wrong.’”
And it’s going “terribly wrong” because today’s leading-edge has virtually no idea of what “genuinely right” could possibly mean. The Guardian highlights the overall piece by pointing out that it doesn’t just demonstrate this with Google, but also Facebook and, indeed, the general Internet culture itself:
“The Internet echo chamber satiates our appetite for pleasant lies and reassuring falsehoods and has become the defining challenge of the 21st century.”
How could an item become the “defining issue” of our century without virtually every university in the world spewing out postmodern poststructuralist nostrums centering on the idea that “truth” itself is the single greatest oppressive force in the history of humankind? (Seriously.) Originated by the green leading-edge in academia, this aperspectival madness of “no truth” leapt out of the universities, and morphed into an enormous variety of different forms — from direct “no-truth” claims, to rabid egalitarianism, to excessive censoring of free speech and unhampered knowledge acquisition, to extreme political correctness (that forced the best comedians to refuse to perform at colleges any more, since the audiences “lacked all sense of humor”: you’re allowed to laugh at nothing in a “no value is better” world — even though that value itself is held to be better), to far-left political agendas that in effect “equalized poverty,” to egalitarian “no judgment” attitudes that refused to see any “higher” or “better” views at all (even though its own view was judged “higher” and “better” than any other), to modes of entertainment that everywhere eulogized egalitarian flatland, to a denial of all growth hierarchies by confusing them with dominator hierarchies (which effectively crushed all routes to actual growth in any systems anywhere), to the media’s sense of egalitarian “fairness” that ended up trying to give equal time to every possible, no matter how factually idiotic, alternative viewpoint (such as Holocaust deniers), to echo chambered social media where “pleasant lies” and “reassuring falsehoods” were the standard currency. It saturated the leading-edge of evolution itself, throwing it into a performative contradiction and a widespread, explicit or implicit, aperspectival madness which was soon driven by nihilism and narcissism and a whole post-truth culture, which even invaded the Internet and bent it profoundly, and that brokenness perfused the entire information grid of the overall culture itself — exactly the type of profound and extensive impact you expect a leading-edge (healthy or unhealthy) to have. It has indeed become the defining issue of our century, because not a single other issue can be directly and effectively addressed if there is no compass point of accessible truth to guide action in the first place.”
***In discussing this with my colleague, Lisa Engles, she points out that what Wilber didn’t address in his article is the deeply personalized nature of Google searches. When a person performs a search on Google, what comes up are the results that it thinks they want, based on their previous searches and clicks.
For example, she said, “when I type ‘are women…’ or ‘are Jews…’ into Google search, it gives me precisely … nothing.”
I tried it myself as well. When I type in the same search terms (in German), I also get nothing for “are Jews” and for “are women”, I get “Are women faithful? emancipated? still attractive at 45?”.
I suggest that you try it yourself as well. Open a tab in Google and type in “are women”… and note the result that Google gives you. They are likely to be different from mine, or anyone else’s. Because the algorithm is programmed to give me the search results that it thinks I want, my own views are constantly reinforced by search results as well as like-minded people — especially on social media — hence echo chambers.
It is important to remember that the algorithms are not human.
Engles elaborates on this:
“Algorithms are still very flawed, and we have not found a way, as of yet, to make algorithms “understand” what [Integral Theory calls] the interiors of people or — said more simply — to truly “think” like humans. The result is that the algorithms give you what they think you want, and … especially if you are like most people who do not know this, you might just accept the search results as truth without any discernment. The devastating result is that falsehoods and negative memes are easily spread, and are in a sense, infectious — especially given that we tend to operate in echo chambers.
It requires a certain level of sophistication, which the vast majority of people simply do not have [yet], to navigate the truth on the internet. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is that there are things you CAN do to find more balanced information on the Internet:
1. Understand how the algorithms work and be more discerning of search results, ( i.e. don’t believe everything you see)
2. Use the ‘incognito’ window in chrome, it will not take into account your previous search history, and therefore the algorithms won’t be influenced as much.
3. Understand the four litmus tests [that Part Two of this article will elaborate on] and apply them everywhere you can when seeking information about people, companies, social initiatives, etc.”
In the next part of this article, I will move from general observations to specifics. I am offering the Marc Gafni Story as a case study on how this post-truth and post-fact culture plays out in our news media as well as the internet. Moving back from the specifics to more general distinctions, you will learn about the four litmus tests to know the truth.
[i] The basic points made from the beginning of the article until this point were initially drafted by Marc Gafni in an internal symposium at the Center for Integral Wisdom Think Tank where I am the co-executive director.