Post-colonial truth is empirical, not personal or tribal
The guidelines of the Constitution of Knowledge
Since the 1955 conference in Bandung, the peoples and movements of the Third World have been seeking to emancipate themselves from colonial domination, a formidable and ongoing task, given the capacity of the global powers to invent neocolonial structures of domination in the context of formal recognition of the political independence of nations. We live today in a world in which the United States and the European ex-colonial powers pursue imperialist policies, seeking to preserve their economic and political advantages in a neocolonial world-system. But the Third World has persisted in its alternative vision. Initially during its classic period of 1955 to 1983, followed by a period of renewal from 1994 to the present, the Third World movement of national and social liberation has formulated the principles that must guide a new international economic order and an alternative more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
In its alternative formulation of the principles that ought to guide humanity, the Third World rejects the cynicism that grounds Western imperialism; it maintains that all nations must comply with universal moral principles. Moreover, it affirms the importance of modern science, but it seeks to connect the development of science to the production of human necessities, freeing it from the pursuit of profit.
The Third World, therefore, rejects post-modern tendencies. It declares that a global situation of children without schools, medical attention, shelter, or adequate nutrition is wrong; and everybody knows it is wrong. And everybody knows that tolerance of the current global situation by privileged persons and institutions is wrong. For the Third World, there is no moral ambiguity concerning the duty of humanity in today’s world. All nations and peoples must work together, putting aside particular interests and differences, in the development of empirically-based knowledge, tied to the addressing of common human problems.
The Third World worldview holds certain assumptions in common with radical and progressive ideological tendencies in the societies of the North, with respect to the role of the states in directing the economic development of the nations and protecting the social and economic rights of the people. But with respect to epistemological issues (as well as certain cultural issues), the Third World movement is more consistent with conservative ideological tendencies.
Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, maintains that the United States historically has developed in practice a series of rules and regulations that guide the search for truth. Making an analogy with the U.S. Constitution, which provides the foundation for laws that control political behavior, he refers to the values and norms that guide the quest for truth as “the Constitution of Knowledge.” These values include a commitment to truthfulness, based on a “shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge.” These norms and values, he maintains, have historically been enforced by institutions like newspapers and academic journals.
Rauch maintains that today the rule of the Constitution of Knowledge has been weakened. Scholars implore a general tendency toward believing that truth cannot be discerned, so that questions of truth are resolved by power. We live in a post-truth world.
We are thus in the midst of an epistemological crisis. Disinformation is disseminated on an unprecedented scale. Trump was an important contributor, normalizing lying and obliterating the distinction between truth and untruth. But the attack on the Constitution of Knowledge pre-dated Trump and comes not only from the right, but also from the left in the form of cancel culture aggressiveness, which attacks epistemological liberalism and freedom of speech in academia. Indeed, Rauch maintains that the suppression of free speech by a superficial radical left promoted resentment and backlash, giving rise to the Trump phenomenon. The Constitution of Knowledge is disdained by both right-wing populism and left-wing moral elitism.
In Rauch’s view, the traditional champions of the Constitution of Knowledge must step forward and defend the operating system of liberal epistemology, which defines science (in the broadest sense) as reality-based. We must return to rational persuasion in the pursuit of truthful formulations about empirical reality. The Constitution of Knowledge provides the foundation for reality-based institutions that analyze claims of truth on the basis of empirical evidence, and not on the basis of personal feelings or particular political/economic interests.
Rauch maintains that all truth claims must be “validated in some way.” He writes that “anyone can believe anything, but liberal science—open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network—is the only legitimate validator of knowledge.” Accordingly, if you believe in something, the appropriate way to get your proposition accepted by others is to submit it to a reality-based social institution, such as publishers, newspapers, or academic journals, which have processes for analyzing its validity. But if you have disdain for reality-based social institutions, there are other ways that you could proceed in order to attain wide acceptance for your proposition.
You could win dominance for your proposition by, say, brute force, threatening and jailing and torturing and killing those who see things differently—a standard method down through history. Or you and your like-minded friends could go off and talk only to each other, in which case you would have founded a cult—which is lawful but socially divisive and epistemically worthless. Or you could engage in a social-media campaign to shame and intimidate those who disagree with you—a very common method these days, but one that stifles debate and throttles knowledge (and harms a lot of people).
Thus, the Constitution of Knowledge requires that all truth claims must be subjected to checking, to a process of validation, through which persons from various social positions and various perspectives affirm its truth. No one is exempt from this empirical rule, not the elite and the powerful, nor the members of an oppressed or historically oppressed group. No authority or group, privileged or oppressed, can dictate the truth. “The empirical rule is a social principle that forces us into the same conversation—a requirement that all of us, however different our viewpoints, agree to discuss what is in principle only one reality.” Therefore, “if I claim that my class or race or historically dominant status or historically oppressed status allows me to know and say things that others cannot, then I am breaking the empirical rule by exempting my views from contestability by others.”
Rauch does not like claims that begin “as a Jew,” “as a queer,” or “as a woman of color.” It is not that he is against trying to understand where people are coming from. He notes that
if we are debating same-sex marriage, I may mention my experience as a gay person, and my experience may (I hope) be relevant. In fact, good scientific practice requires researchers to disclose their personal equities so as to surface conflicts of interest. But statements about personal standing and interest inform the conversation; they do not control it, dominate it, or end it. The rule acknowledges, and to an extent accepts, that people’s social positions and histories matter; but it asks its adherents not to burrow into their social identities, and not to play them as rhetorical trump cards, but to bring them to the larger project of knowledge-building and thereby transcend them.
Rauch makes very important observations concerning the rules that ought to govern the quest for understanding. However, in my view, he does not fully appreciate the extent to which the checking process among professional scholars and mainstream journalists historically possessed a subtle bias against propositions emerging from historically oppressed groups, because their experiences as members of an oppressed group stimulated the formulation of alternative reality-based perspectives, the validity of which could not be seen from the horizon of the social world of mainstream scholars and journalists. But Rauch is right; the solution to this problem cannot be the abolition of rules and institutions for validating truth claims.
I became aware of the powerful influence of social position and group membership on understanding when I encountered black nationalist thought in Chicago in the period 1970 to 1972. I was able to see that black scholars held to assumptions and formulated analyses that were fundamentally different from and opposed to those of white social scientists. I asked myself, what are the implications of this fundamental difference? Is there any basis for objective truth, more or less consistent with reality? Or is truth relative to social position and group membership?
I believed that if there were no basis for discerning some form of objective truth, then every individual has his or her own truth; and at the level of society, truth becomes what those in power say it is. I considered this resolution of the question to be totally unacceptable, reasonably and morally.
As I discuss in my April 6, 2021 intellectual autobiography that serves as a Preface to this column, following my personal encounter with black nationalist scholars, I undertook a study of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan, seeking to understand the problem of objectivity. This study led me to the conviction that socially-based differences in understanding can be overcome through cross-horizon encounter. It is a question of listening to persons of different horizons, taking seriously their insights, and criticizing their defects in the context of a sustained process of listening. And of course, persons who seek to understand must place the desire to know above other desires, such as protecting the interests of their social groups. I have been guided by this epistemological method in my subsequent experiences in Latin America and Cuba.
It seems to me that academics and activists in the United States have taken a different route. They have accepted the unattainability of objective knowledge. And they have thought and acted accordingly, taking one of three paths. (1) They have rested securely with their own truth, not subjecting their views to the challenge of dialogue with others in pursuit of a consensual understanding. They believe that “you have your beliefs, and I have mind.” (2) They talk to “like-minded friends,” as Rauch expressed it. They sign up for newspapers, magazines, and online outlets with which they share views. They dismiss as idiots those who do not share their views. The join Facebook groups and select to follow Twitter accounts whose views are similar to their own. They do not necessarily join a real cult; but they have a cult-like experience in the virtual world of the Internet. (3) They accept the conclusion that truth is what those in power say it is, and they therefore try to wield power in order to disseminate their truth. For the corporate elite, it is a matter of using their funding of think tanks and their ownership of the major media of communication to disseminate their perspectives and truth claims about the world, sometimes with stunning disregard for empirical reality. The upper-middle and middle classes exercise power differently, using virtue-signaling, online bullying, cancelling, and other unreasonable tactics to impose their point of view.
These three tendencies in thought and action constitute personal and tribal approaches to knowledge, setting aside the modern Western liberal approach to knowledge, which embraces the free exchange of ideas in a quest for a truth that is based in empirical reality. There is a tendency among “persons of color” in the United States to advocate the personal and the tribal approaches as necessary for liberation from the colonialist patterns of thought and Western rules of knowledge. In taking this position, persons of color in the United States stand against the great majority of persons of color in the world, who have affirmed the importance of modern Western liberal science in the attainment of their definitive liberation from colonial domination. The reason for this difference is that persons of color in the USA are oriented primarily to protest, whereas the movements of the Third World have attained varying degrees of sovereignty and political power. The Third World movements in power have to attend to practical questions, such as how to feed and house the people; and they also need undeniable moral truths in defense of their right to full sovereignty and to development. They therefore, led by leaders with exceptional insight, arrived to appreciate the importance of modern Western science and Western liberal proclamations with respect to self-evident moral truths concerning equality, liberty, and justice for all. But they critically adapted Western knowledge and morality; they deepened and expanded the meaning of Western proclamations of the true and the right in accordance with their neocolonial situation.
The emergence of a new approach to public discussion in the USA, in which public debates become power games, may have first emerged in competitive college debating. Jay Caspian Kang, an Opinion Writer for The New York Times, reports on the innovations of Ede Warner, a professor of Pan-African Studies who was named coach of the debate team of the University of Louisville in 1993. Warner’s debaters used hip-hop and poetry in their speeches. They used “narratives,” personal stories about encountering discrimination. They refused to debate the formal topic, and they called upon the opposing team to debate an entirely different topic: should the federal government increase black participation in college debate organizations? In 2004, for example, in a debate on NATO, the Louisville team argued that the debate community was an oppressive community like NATO, and that they, as Black people in America, had experiences that the so-called experts on NATO did not.
Kang writes, “Warner’s great innovation was to shift the stakes of each round from the theoretical to the personal. His debaters argued that . . . by voting for Louisville, the judge could affirm the validity of Black students in debate and, by extension, create a more diverse, inclusive community. By voting against Louisville, he would be implicitly saying that everything was fine.”
Kang further writes, “Warner also told his debaters to use what he called ‘identity advantages,’ which he defined as the lived authority to speak on issues pertaining to oppression and racism. This forced their opponents to enter the debate at a deficit. If the other team refused to debate on those terms, or as in several instances, if they responded in ways that might have been deemed discriminatory, Louisville debaters would shut down the round and refuse to continue.”
Kang maintains that “by routing every debate topic, from NATO expansion to climate change, toward American racism, Warner created a literal hierarchy of who should be heard and what should be discussed.” But, Kang asks, should every issue be analyzed through the prism of racism? On the question of diversity representation of elite college debating, he notes that few of the winning teams have included women or poor people of any racial background.
Kang argues that Warner’s identity-first approach in public debating presaged the way that race and inequality are now discussed. One of the consequences of this is the phenomenon that he calls “binary consensus building,” where people become part of a false consensus by acquiescing to one of two positions that have gained traction, reducing the range of possible solutions to two, and forcing uncritical acceptance of one of them. For example, the issue in California of eliminating the use of the SAT and the ACT in college admissions “was cast in stark terms: If you want diversity, you must agree with eliminating the SAT and the ACT. If you criticize the decision, you must oppose diversity.”
In my view, formal competitive debates distort the reasoning process, and this was so even before college debating began to adopt gaming techniques, which apparently were first initiated with the use of speed debating by elite white teams. Formal competitive debates gave the impression, even back in the 1940s when college debating was still a persuasive exercise designed to produce orators, that public discussion is a competition, in which one person tries to demonstrate that he is more clever than the other.
But this is a false and misleading road. We arrive to understanding together, by listening to the other, taking seriously the insights of persons from other horizons, as we critically analyze their validity from the vantage point of our own horizon. It is a long and sustained process that consumes us for years.
In this process of seeking understanding, we have to not only encounter persons of different classes, social positions, and ideologies in our own society and culture. We have to encounter as well persons of other cultural horizons in the world. We have to listen to the voices of the leaders and intellectuals of the great majority of the peoples of the world, the neocolonized peoples.
The Third World movement for national and social liberation has proclaimed truths that are self-evident from the colonial situation: all nations have the right to real sovereignty; all persons have the right to nutrition, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work; and all peoples should cooperate with another in the search for the true and the right. Listening to that voice of the Third World could be the foundation for the way out of our epistemological crisis.
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Rauch, Jonathan. 2021. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.