The Tyranny Of Truth Vs. Crowd sourcing The Truth:
An Ancient Battle In A New Form
Part 1: The Tyranny Of Truth In Its Ancient & Modern Forms
The ‘tyranny of truth’ is how Hannah Arendt characterizes Plato’s ideal state in the published version of a lecture she gave at Notre Dame in 1954. Though Plato lived nearly 2500 years ago, given the nature and extent of his influence to attack him as Arendt does is to attack various systems of thought and the organizations based upon them. One such organization could be understood to be the Catholic Church. Given where Arendt gave the lecture it is understandable that her language leaves the specific implications of her attack on Plato open ended.
Arendt expresses herself in a deliberately vague way, that is, by innuendo, with one or more layers of ‘hidden’ meaning (one translation of an ancient Greek alternative term for allegory (ὑπόνοια)). Arendt’s Plato could thus well be interpreted as representing any number of people, but given what is now known of her personal life, there should be no doubt that more than anyone else ‘he’ is Martin Heidegger. While Arendt had publicly supported his return to lecturing and writing after WW II, it is notable that this was well after Heidegger too had begun to criticize Plato and his influence on Western culture. Before that, Heidegger had invoked the authority of Plato in support of Hitler’s Nazism, apparently fantasizing about becoming the philosophical leader of ‘the’ leader of Germany.
Given when Arendt lived and the fact that she was a woman (and quite apart from her Jewish ancestry), she could hardly have been expected to risk providing even the basis for guessing that the relationship she had as a student of Heidegger in the 1920s was sexual. Had that been widely known during her lifetime she would likely never have been allowed to travel to Israel, much less report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Though innuendo at the time she gave her lecture helped Arendt keep the bitterness of her attack on Plato from betraying bitterness over her relationship with Heidegger, it also serves to keep that lecture surprisingly relevant now — over sixty years after she first gave it.
That is because one of the many advantages of innuendo as a strategy for someone to use in talking or writing about a topic that might expose them to criticism or condemnation is that no one layer of meaning can necessarily be taken to be definitive. One meaning may be applicable at one time with respect to one person or group of people, but another meaning may be applicable at another time with respect to another person or group of people. It is thus ultimately futile to fact check innuendo, for even if one ‘layer’ of its meaning corresponds (or not) to a particular ‘truth,’ there are any number of other truths that can legitimately be identified as lurking beneath its surface.
Arendt is typically thought of as a political theorist. Yet, her attack on Plato’s tyranny of truth is applicable to tyrants of truth of a sort she and her audience could only barely have imagined in 1954 even if they had already read Orwell’s 1984, which had been published only a few years earlier: the corporate titans of modern technology. Their attempt to ‘appoint’ themselves to police the flow of information such that what they deem to be fake, dangerous or simply hurtful information is entirely blocked or algorithmically suppressed is already actualizing a tyranny of truth on a scale that is arguably unprecedented in human history. As frightening as that is, there is reason to be optimistically amused by it, for it betrays an almost infantile naivete about how language works, particularly the sort of innuendo Arendt uses.
To be sure, by itself innuendo is powerless actually to cause anything to happen. But the long history of its use as a weapon to attack or defend against the threatened or actual violence Arendt associates with the tyranny of truth justifies believing it ultimately will be empowered by and to the extent it reaches an audience. To put this in modern terms: innuendo relies upon crowdsourcing the truth. Because ‘crowdsourcing’ is a term that derives from the computer jargon ‘open source’ it may initially seem absurdly anachronistic to use it in this way, but that is an artifact of how disconnected we have become from the history to which the tyranny of truth relates. In contrast to the type of tyranny of truth the titans of technology seem to believe they can impose, crowdsourcing the truth has far deeper and more robust roots in human history and a proven record of survival. Its re-emergence today is proof of that.