A Revolt Against DeferencePosted: April 10, 2017 | |
People aren’t rejecting truth – they’re rejecting the values of the elites.
Frank Furedi writes: When political commentators talk of the emergence of a post-truth world, they are really lamenting the end of an era when the truths promoted by the institutions of the state and media were rarely challenged. It’s a lament that’s been coming for a few years now. Each revolt of sections of the public against the values of the elites has been met with the riposte that people are no longer interested in the truth. What the elites really mean is that people don’t care about their version of the truth. So when the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy asserted that people have ‘lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth’, he was venting his frustration at an electorate that no longer shares his values.
Today’s elite angst about so-called post-fact or post-truth public discourse is but the latest version of an historical struggle – a struggle over the question of who possesses moral and intellectual authority. Indeed, the rejection of the values and outlook of the holders of cultural power in many Western societies has long been portrayed as a rejection of truth itself. The reason elite values have been enshrined as ‘the truth’, right from the Ancient Greeks onwards, is because the rulers of society need to secure the deference of the masses. The masses are being encouraged to defer not to the power of the elites, but to the truth of elite values.
That this is not widely understood is due to contemporary society’s reluctance to acknowledge that cultural and political life still relies on the deference of the public – passive or active – to the values and moral authority of the elites. The term ‘deference’ – ‘submission to the acknowledged superior claims, skill, judgement or other qualities of another’, as the OED defines it – suggests a non-coercive act of obedience to authority. Hence it was frequently coupled with terms such as instinct, custom and habit (1). In the 19th century, it was frequently used to imply people’s willingness to accept and bow down before the elites on the basis of their superior wisdom. Deference presumed the intellectual and moral hegemony of the educated middle class, or cultural elite, over the wider public.
In recent decades it has been suggested that the era of deference is over. We are told that people are far too critical to defer to the superior wisdom of others. In this context, the idea of deference has acquired negative connotations, and is often identified with uncritical thinking. However, in practice, deference is still demanded by elites. But it is demanded in the form of calls to respect the authority of the expert, because he speaks the truth. So, in almost every domain of human experience, the expert is presented as the producer not just of facts, but also of the truth. Those who fail to defer to experts risk being denounced as irrational, superstitious or just plain stupid. Hence, in 2001, the consummate cynic, Michael Moore, could ask his educated American readers: ‘Do you feel like you live in a nation of idiots?’ Moore knew that his readers would share his contempt for their moral inferiors (2). Today, many sections of the commentariat share Moore’s disdain, and portray people’s rejection of their values, and with it their cultural authority, as something other than it is – that is, as a rejection of facts and truth.
Socrates’ critique of the capacity of the people to distinguish between truth and falsehood led him to invest his faith in the authority of the experts of the day … (read more)