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Does Truth Matter?

3:AM’s David Thompson interviews Ophelia Benson co-author of Why Truth Matters and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense.

3:AM: I suppose we should start with your latest book with Jeremy Stangroom, Why Truth Matters, and some of the reactions to it. 3:AM regulars will, I think, be familiar with WTM, but for those that aren’t, I’d describe it as a pointed and witty debunking of postmodern politics, cultural equivalence and anti-rational bunkum in general. In Prospect magazine, the estimable Oliver Kamm described WTM as “heroic” and listed it as one of the most underrated books of the year. This favourable attention seems to have upset quite a few people, and I think that’s worth looking at.

For instance, I mentioned Why Truth Matters in a piece I wrote for Eye magazine and, sure enough, in came half a dozen peevish emails, all from people on the left. The resentful tone of the messages was clear enough, but the nature of these objections was oddly undefined. It wasn’t clear why a book that essentially defends rationality and evidence-based argument should have ruffled feathers in this way, and among one part of the political spectrum in particular. Why do you think those most upset by the book are, apparently, on the left?

OB: Maybe it’s because William Skidelsky in Prospect called the book an “anti-postmodernism polemic” which “struck a chord with liberal neocons such as Johann Hari and Oliver Kamm.” A liberal neocon is a somewhat amusing idea, but leaving that aside — if that (or something like it) is the reason, I think it’s part of the whole labelling, pigeonholing, categorizing, identifying endeavour that we all go in for. ‘This is part of that school of thought, tendency, agenda, so now I know how to think about it.’ That arguably has its uses, even in its crudest form – although I’m very wary and suspicious of it. (But then that’s the difficulty, isn’t it: we get suspicion within suspicion, retreating reflections in the glass, infinite reflexivity drive until our brains fry.) It is at least potentially useful for purposes of agenda-awareness — ‘X is criticizing postmodernism or Freud but that criticism is really only in the service of a broader attack on leftist thought of all kinds.’ Sometimes that may be true, and it may be worth knowing – real hidden agendas are worth knowing.

But the problem of course is that it’s not always true — criticism of X is not always concealing a project to criticise or attack Y — and if you assume it is true, you simply ignore (or, worse, criticize or attack sight unseen) all disagreement with and critical analysis of postmodernism or Freud or whatever it is. I don’t know what your emails said, but if the writers think Why Truth Matters is an anti-left or conservative book, they can’t have read it. So — sometimes these shibboleths and markers can be useful pointers to veiled attitudes or agendas, but investigation is always needed to confirm that; it’s the opposite of useful simply to assume it. There are core ideas and allegiances that do place people firmly and openly on the right or the left, but a sceptical view of postmodernism is not one of them. (In fact the book isn’t even about postmodernism, as my co-author regularly protests. It’s about epistemic relativism in various forms; postmodernism is only one of the forms. It’s also sometimes shorthand or a sort of nickname for epistemic relativism, but we don’t use it that way much – we wanted to be more precise than that.)

Be that as it may, postmodernism feels to many people like one of those loyalty-treachery markers, one of those with us or against us things. It feels like something ‘we’ are supposed to defend and ‘they’ are supposed to attack. That’s bizarre, for a lot of reasons, one of which is that there really is nothing inherently ‘left’ about postmodernism, and it’s a rather dangerous mistake to think it is, which is part of our point. Postmodernism serves a reactionary agenda at least as well as it serves a lefty one, as Meera Nanda, among other people, has pointed out. But such things are bizarre, and that’s how it is: to many people pomo simply is that kind of shibboleth and therefore Why Truth Matters must be a neocon rant. The words ‘critique of postmodernism’ trigger in susceptible people a kind of bristly, wounded loyalty, and that’s that.

To be a bit brutal for a moment, I have to say that people who think that really haven’t been paying attention. The left is teeming with people who are fiercely opposed to epistemic relativism and fluffy ‘all knowledges are equally valid’-ism — people who are well aware that that kind of thing is just as useful to religious bigots and warmongers as it is to leftists. It was a member of the Bush admin who referred pityingly to critics as the reality-based community, after all.

3:AM: You say that there’s nothing inherently left about epistemic relativism, and that’s true; a blunting of critical judgment can obviously serve a range of political interests and I’ve heard Creationists use the same rhetorical techniques, albeit superficially and cynically. But this form of analytical blunting is most often applied by figures on the left to advance some dubious notion of ‘fairness’, and as an intellectual and political movement pomo’s key contemporary figures –- its architects and advocates — are almost all leftwing and often pointedly so. I’m guessing this isn’t just a coincidence…

For those that embrace it and attach political meaning to it, epistemic relativism is very much a loyalty-treachery marker. I remember seeing your Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense on Amazon and a peevish little comment had been posted underneath, attacking you and Jeremy for defending something called the “Western hegemonic discourse.” What amused me was that the person who wrote this was happy to insist, quite emphatically, that you hadn’t understood the “complex and careful thinking” of your targets, but this person didn’t bother to explain how so in any particular instance. Which, given the format of your book, was rather odd. Now this type of response happens quite a lot and I think it’s worth commenting on.

In my experience, if one challenges the assertions of postmodern relativism and points to a specific error, or suggests that these ideas are themselves hegemonic in large parts of the culture and academia in particular, then strange things are likely to happen. Firstly, people who espouse these ideas can get very upset and can often be quite personal in their responses. The odds are good that you’ll be called “ignorant” or “unsophisticated” or something suitably vague and condescending. And the general tone of the reaction will imply some terrible social gaffe has taken place. But those getting upset will be very unlikely to offer a clear refutation involving specifics. What you’ll probably get instead is an appeal to authority, an indignant sneer or a suggestion of impropriety. Again, the reaction often suggests some personal affront, as if you’ve questioned not only that person’s intelligence, but also their honesty and political virtue. Has this been your experience?

OB: Why, yes — have you been following me? But seriously, yes, and I suppose that kind of thing is a major reason I’m so interested in the whole broad subject of academic trendiness. Postmodern relativism is primarily an academic phenomenon, and there is something very peculiar (and hence very interesting) about academics giving a set of ideas that kind of deferential loyalty. Your ‘suggestion of impropriety’ is exactly right; that is the attitude, and it is indeed an attitude, and a starting point, rather than anything that has to be argued. It’s peculiar, and interesting, but also profoundly irritating, because so obviously not rational and not conducive to free inquiry.

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One reviewer (or maybe it was more than one, I don’t remember) said we criticized Derrida in Why Truth Matters without giving much sign that we’d read him. What was interesting about that was that actually we didn’t criticize Derrida; what we did was criticize an argument (or non-argument) Judith Butler made in criticizing the New York Times for publishing a less than reverential obituary of Derrida.

Our criticism of Butler was quite independent of the merits or lack thereof of Derrida — but perhaps a criticism of his defender amounts to a criticism of him and is therefore not allowed. At any rate, Butler’s open letter to the Times is a classic example of precisely this evasive non-substantive suggestion of impropriety that you mention. It’s basically an argument from celebrity. ‘How dare you publish such a snide obituary, Derrida was hugely influential, he was celebrated, he was a big deal.’ Well — an impartial observer might think, reading her letter, that if she is an example of his influence, it wasn’t much to boast about. It’s a shocking thing to read, in a way — the combination of evasiveness, empty rhetoric, in-groupy outrage, and gormless awe at fame is not what one wants to read in someone who is routinely described as ‘an academic star’ (and to her shame she doesn’t repudiate the description).

This perhaps seems like a side path, but I think it isn’t. I think the whole subject is mixed up with celebrity-worship, fandom, star-hugging, fashion, trendiness, attention-seeking, in a truly depressing and distasteful (albeit morbidly fascinating) way. I think there wouldn’t be those bizarre reactions of affront and indignation otherwise.

But what on earth is ‘left’ about that? Nothing, I would say. The only connection I’ve been able to come up with is that the left is generally a fan of reform and change and improvement and therefore drawn to the new, the best latest thing, thus susceptible to being over impressed by the trendy. But that doesn’t really satisfy — it’s not as respectable as that. It seems more like just plain childish fandom and star-worship. I have no idea what is ‘left’ about that.

3:AM: Well, as to what’s ‘left’ about the worship of dubious figures, I’m inclined to cough and mutter “Marx”, “Castro”, “Chavez” and “Che Guevara T-shirts.” Communist societies are surprisingly big on idolatry, aren’t they? It seems to be a practical consequence of egalitarian philosophy applied in the real world. Keeping everyone equally miserable requires some kind of deity, usually one with a firm hand. How many times have we seen Mao depicted as a god, complete with radiation beaming from his head, like some Communist Godzilla? As a teenager I remember seeing CCCP badges and the people wearing them didn’t seem too concerned with the connotations of that project. Likewise, those on the left who seem smitten by Castro or Guevara don’t seem unduly bothered by the Cuban concentration camps for roqueros and other “bohemian elements.”

I suppose it’s not too much of a leap from identifying with Castro or Chavez because of their opposition to capitalism or American “hegemony” and identifying with the contortions of Derrida and Foucault for not dissimilar reasons. Both are postures of rebellion with no obvious moral foundation or practical usefulness. Ditto the white middle-class lefties who wave placards announcing “We are all Hizballah now”. I guess it’s something to do with “giving it to the man” or not liking one’s parents or something. It all seems a tad narcissistic to me, and just a little depraved.

OB: Hmm. Yes, but is the idolatry of known Communist societies a feature of their Communism or of something else? Or a combination of the two? It could be an artefact of, for instance, the low level of literacy in agricultural societies. I’m not sure there’s anything inherent in Communism as Communism that would cause Communist societies in general to go in for idolatry I’m also not sure there isn’t, though.

But I think the academic hero-worship is a different kind of thing. But what kind of thing; that is the question. And I don’t know. I think it’s partly (or maybe mostly) to do with not having much (if any) real research or inquiry to do. I think the celebrity worship is in inverse proportion to the substantive heft of the discipline. ‘Theory’ has to be bigged up precisely because there’s not much to it. But what I still have no idea about is what that has to do with the left, and I would still say pretty much nothing. In fact I would even say it’s a kind of anti-left, and then I would wonder why that doesn’t trouble putative leftists more than it does. Why doesn’t the stink of prestige and sycophancy and mutual adulation put them off their food? Why are they happy to cite each other in print with obligatory gold-star adjectives? The brilliant Butler, the powerful Bhabha, the epochal Spivak — why don’t they make themselves sick? It seems to me more than a little narcissistic and depraved, it seems stomach-turning — and it certainly drives a lot of people out of the field.

Maybe it’s just groupthink; maybe it’s that simple and that obvious and there’s nothing more profound to be said about it. They make an in-group; they’re happy there; they get to talk about it as revolutionary in some way; and critics are blasphemers.

3:AM: It seems to me that your idea of what a left ought to be is rather at odds with what much of the left, perhaps most of it, has become. I have to say I like your version better. I just don’t see much of it about. I’ve some sympathy with Stephen Hicks, whose Postmodernism Explained I read alongside Why Truth Matters. Crudely summarised, Hicks sees the rise of relativism, obscurantism and censoriousness on the left as marking a crisis of faith and a retreat from reality. As a practical blueprint, Socialism has been refuted. The question is what’s been left in the space it used to occupy, other than confusion, narcissism and a state of denial.

It strikes me as important to have some point of contrast to whatever the prevailing outlook is, but at the moment I’m pretty much repelled by the contrast that’s available, and I doubt I’m alone in this. I think we can safely dismiss the various tribes of the far left as a moral farce and practical irrelevance. So what we have, at least in the UK, is plenty of anti-US sentiment and oppositional posturing — what Nick Cohen called “the anti-imperialism of fools” — which leads to any number of absurd positions. Perhaps the most reprehensible of these were the protestations of “solidarity” with Hassan Nasrallah, despite his openly genocidal ambitions.

But I also think of the leftwing art critic, Julian Stallabrass, who wrote in the New Left Review about the spectacle of terrorism and seemed ever so slightly titillated by the “vanguard politics” of “Islamic revolutionaries” who “harden themselves against mundane sentiment.” And I think of the London Review of Books, which has published more than one strangely approving account of Hizballah’s “uncompromising” stance and use of suicide bombing.

I mention these things because they’re not just fringe curiosities – variations of these postures have come to define much of the mainstream left and can be found in the Guardian and Independent on a fairly regular basis. And it’s hard to miss mainstream commentators repeating the same relativistic denunciations of “Western ways of thinking” and the supposed “Eurocentric arrogance” of the Enlightenment. It’s easy to see what much of the left is against, if not the reasons why. It’s much harder to see what the left is for. I don’t see a coherent set of ideas. I see a patchwork of contradiction, often for its own sake, or the sake of appearance, or in some cases to enact some kind of personal psychodrama.

I remember Terry Eagleton’s description of jihadist suicide bombers — who murder and dismember people on a fairly arbitrary basis — as “tragic heroes” reacting to “injustice”, as if they had no agency of their own, and with the insinuation of some moral equivalence with their victims, including the people who leapt from the windows of a burning World Trade Centre. The fact that Islamist conceptions of “justice” and “oppression” are enormously loaded, unattainably so, and somewhat different from our own didn’t appear to be a detail worthy of comment. And if one suggests that it might be worth looking at Islamist theology, its lineage, and how it explicitly redefines these basic moral terms, one is very likely to be shouted down as an ‘Islamophobe’.

When I see attempts to ignore such details, or to stifle debate, or to control the terms of debate, or to shut down thought before it can happen, I most often find those attempts coming from the left. This wasn’t always the case, of course; but right now I don’t see too many leftists standing up for free speech and the testing of ideas. Those that do are, of course, assailed from the left. Instead I hear lots of talk about “sensitivity” and “respect for other cultures.” And if a person doesn’t want an open debate to take place and wants to define in advance what kind of language is permissible and which subjects are off-limits, that usually indicates the weakness of their position and, more to the point, an awareness of just how weak that position is. Which, I guess, brings us back to the issue of denial.

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OB: Yes, I remember that article of Terry Eagleton’s too; I wrote a furious comment on it at the time. It’s a repulsive, stomach-turning article — having just re-read it, I can say that it’s even worse than I remembered; it’s bottomlessly disgusting. He ends up babbling about Macbeth and Dadaism as if it were all some joke, or a seminar on Theory. But that’s not ‘the Left’ — what Terry Eagleton says in that foul, preening, self-regarding, infatuated article has nothing whatever to do with any Left worthy of the name. In fact it strikes me as literally, not figuratively or rhetorically, much more fascist than Left — it’s in love with violence, just for one thing.

But is Eagleton really the left? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s wandered off into some sort of half-religious, half-nihilist fog of his own, it seems to me. It’s a bizarre combination, I must say — drooling over suicide bombers one minute and upbraiding Richard Dawkins for being impertinently anti-theist another; but in neither case is there anything conspicuously left about his posturing.

But about those mainstream commentators with their denunciations of “Western ways of thinking” and the “Eurocentric arrogance” of the Enlightenment — what I notice is that they get a lot of grief for that kind of drivel. It’s not as popular as they seem to think. To repeat (tediously) what I said in my first answer, the left is teeming with people who are fiercely opposed to that kind of dreck. The reception and success of Butterflies and Wheels is one sign of that, I think. When we first set it up, in September 2002, we expected to get some rude opposition and perhaps not much else, but on the contrary — there were a lot of pro-Enlightenment leftists out there who welcomed B&W with shrieks of joy and relief. And there still are.

However, as you say, there are also a lot of people who think it’s far more important to be sensitive and respectful than it is to think clearly or tell the unfluffy truth. I don’t know what to do about them other than keep repeating, monotonously and without subtlety, that they are wrong and deluded and fatuous. It’s steady work, at least — unpaid, but steady.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 31st, 2007.