The truth alone will not set you free

Reality Bites:

Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture

Like many, I spent the opening months of the Trump administration anticipating that, any day now, his next outrageous tweet or a new revelation of his criminal misconduct would bring down this toxic presidency. And like many, I have been dismayed that, far from being stopped or even slowed, Trump has proceeded virtually unchecked in shredding environmental and civil rights protections, stacking the Supreme Court, and greenlighting murderous rampages against immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, and other communities. Dumping Trump—and the multi-decade immiserating, scapegoating economic agenda that has spawned the global far right—requires more than cataloging every lie and misdeed, more than spending “countless hours opening up the little windows of this advent calendar of mendacity.”

That’s the opening argument of Dana Cloud’s Reality Bites, a book that seems written for the Trump era but which, Cloud notes in her introduction, was largely complete before the November 2016 election. In Reality Bites, Cloud places our current “post-truth” moment and resulting “moral panic” over fake news and social media echo chambers in the longer history

of debased truth-telling in US political culture. That longer history includes the manufactured “weapons of mass destruction” claim that justified invading Iraq; climate change-denying pseudoscience accelerating environmental destruction; assertions of fetal personhood rolling back reproductive rights; “death-panel” hysteria to derail government-sponsored health care; and a great deal more.

In response to the right wing’s denial of any standard for truth, progressive journalists, critical academics, and many left intellectuals have engaged in a fact-finding frenzy. “The Left, armed with science, history, and buckets full of facts,” Cloud writes, “attempts to ‘speak truth to power’” with the belief that “‘the person who has the truth on their side will eventually win the day.’” Reality Bites is a must-read book for our present moment because rather than add to liberal laments about the dearth of civility and evidence-based reasoning in contemporary political discourse, Cloud calls into question the fact finders’ own articles of faith: that the US population is chained by ignorance and needs only truth to set it free. “Here’s the uncomfortable part,” she writes. “This assumption is just not true. The truth does not necessarily set us free; indeed, the powerful often control the circulation and authority of what counts as truth.”

The problem with obsessive fact-finding, Cloud suggests, is not only that it underestimates the means and authority of those in power to circulate their truths. It also reduces the myriad crises we face to a problem of information or of stubbornly misinformed audiences. For instance, left commentator Chris Hedges urges “critical literacy” as the cure for the “triumph of spectacle”—as if social justice can be delivered by a few enlightened educators. Such a remedy doesn’t inspire audiences to join in combatting the problems of social injustice. Instead, it pits members of what Cloud dubs the “reality-based community” against mass audiences, ready to do combat with their presumed ignorance or “false consciousness.”

And far from raising consciousness about the systems producing inequality, oppression, and planetary degradation, the reality-based community “wield[s] facts like a hammer,” writes Cloud, leaving audiences overwhelmed, confused, or simply bored. Case in point is the documentary An Inconvenient Truth whose truth telling about urgent climate change, Cloud observes, was “not just inconvenient” but “unintelligible and uninteresting.” For all who are awakening to the realization that fact-checking and fact-based argument alone can’t serve as “democratizing practice,” Reality Bites offers an important reorientation.

“We are not facing a crisis of facts,” Cloud points out. “We are facing the fact of a crisis. Throwing facts at the crisis will not prevent Trump from enacting his racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic agenda” (emphasis added). Reality Bites does more, however, than expose the dead end of any fact-finding path to social justice. This refreshingly approachable academic book also lays out the alternative in what Cloud terms “rhetorical realism.” A rhetorical realism recognizes that facts never speak for themselves but come to us through frames of mediation—interpreted and packaged in speeches, slogans, headlines, social media memes, and the like.

Given that, as Marx held, the dominant ideas of any era are those of the ruling class, it is unsurprising that dominating political discourse are those meaning frames that serve ruling interests. Hence the rhetorical framing—even, Cloud notes, in sympathetic reportage—of whistleblower Chelsea Manning as a victim of her own transgender identity, neutralizing the blow she sought to deliver to US imperialism, and hence the assault on abortion rights through casting providers as “profiteers” and “monsters” from whom the fetus as “child” must be protected.

Instead of responding to such frame-ups with microscopic fact-checking, Cloud recommends and details critical practices of “frame-checking” to uncover how our understanding is mediated and in service to whom. And rather than advocating abstention from participation in “mere” rhetoric ourselves, Cloud acquaints readers with a specifically Marxist understanding of mediation and its potential for revolutionary change. For Marx, there is “no single ahistorical truth,” Cloud writes, but instead “dialectically evolving systems of ideas and regimes of knowledge that correspond to the imperatives of particular historical moments.”

Historical moments and knowledge regimes are always fraught with contradiction: that “massive layer of working class and poor Americans,” as Cloud writes, “whose experience contradicts the orthodoxy rationalizing austerity, war, and environmental catastrophe.” Rhetorical realism, by joining historical, scientific, and other knowledges with the lived experiences and knowledges of exploited and oppressed groups, asks change-seeking journalists, educators, and activists to consider, “What sort of mediation is required to throw the epistemic knowledge of ordinary people over the transom of power and mass consciousness?” What persuasive arts make it possible to transform “the experience of sweatshop workers” into a “collective counter-knowledge to corporate propaganda”?

Here Cloud urges the broad left to “put some power behind our truths” through the “big five” rhetorical strategies of emotion, embodiment, narrative, myth, and spectacle. Such are the strategies that have been embraced by the right to reinforce exploitation and oppression but have been all but shunned by those on the fact-checking left. “[T]he Right knows that in a debate between statistics and the story of a crime victim,” Cloud writes, “the story will win.”

Needed is storytelling for our side that organizes the “experiential knowledge of ordinary people” in service to “critique and social transformation.” What Cloud calls for here isn’t dispensing with being “reality-based.” Rather, recognizing that we live in a class-divided society of contending truths and starkly contrasting realities, rhetorical realism aims for an “oppositional ‘reality-based’ community that can ‘bite back.’”

In making the case for the “big five,” Cloud navigates the ethical concern that emotional appeals are inherently manipulative—the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the spectacle of Trump’s rallies unleashing frightening forces of hate. Here she reminds us that “poster art in the revolutionary movements of 1960s France” and “anthems and hymns in the civil rights movement” also unleashed mighty forces—that is, for liberation. At issue aren’t the strategies themselves, Cloud stresses, but “whose agenda they are serving.”

She also navigates the pitfalls of academic postmodernism that would deny any foundation for advancing a claim about a truth or injustice. She does so by drawing on and developing her earlier scholarship with Kathleen Feyh on standpoint fidelity. When communicators assess public discourse from the standpoint of exploited and oppressed groups, that standpoint provides a needed reality anchor so that social justice actors can assess the “fidelity, or faithfulness” of a claim to the interests, needs, and aspirations of a subordinated people and of a movement for liberatory change.

Between the poles of uncritical faith in or absolute denial of an objective, fact-based reality, Cloud thus charts what she calls rhetorical realism’s “middle way.” We can press for accountability in political discourse and justice in everyday life by understanding that “there is a reality” (emphasis added) but a reality we can only know through interpretive frames. This understanding tasks activists, critical educators, and left intellectuals with tapping into the interpretive frames and standpoints of the exploited and oppressed and “mobiliz[ing] their knowledge” through storied, embodied, and—yes—spectacular means.

Cloud offers, near the end of Reality Bites, two rich examples of such mobilizations with the power to contest reigning reality and bring an alternative world into view: Thomas Paine’s popularly circulated pamphlet Common Sense which communicated revolutionary ideas through “meeting citizens in their own language without disdain for the common” and, nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that, when combined with “Hands Up—Don’t Shoot” protests and highway blockades, made the realities of racism and the potential to dismantle it “visible and intelligible.”

Cloud’s arguments are also amply illustrated by movements that have stirred since Reality Bites went to press. In West Virginia, for example, teachers gained much more through a mass, rowdy, and inspiring nine-day strike, proclaiming “We are worthy,” than they did through decades of legislative testimony. I suspect, too, that a not insignificant portion of that fact-finding reality-based community is already undergoing a needed conversion.

As the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh made frighteningly clear, those in power have no interest in seeking, and remedying, the truth about how white male elites are groomed to rule, including by preying upon and ruling over women’s bodies. For everyone who recognizes that we need more than facts for the crises at hand and—especially in light of the United Nations Climate Change Committee’s doomsday report—the system-changing battles ahead, Reality Bites offers an indispensable guide.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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