Since, as Andrew Sullivan aptly puts it, we all live on campus now, many Americans–who have not experienced or learned about critical theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, intersectionality, etc.–are hard-pressed to learn about how academic scholarship has become activism and how truth has been eviscerated. In this new era, we need to learn how to distinguish truth (not the word, “truth,” which has been repeated over and over in association with this or that thing or identity) from falsehood.
To do that, we not only need to learn more about how things have changed over the last few decades vis-à-vis the shift from teaching in academia to activism and the shift that has occurred in the meaning of language and its relationship to truth. But we also need to know how Theory (with a capital T, since it is, as John McWhorter says, a religion of sorts) displaced the textual openness and play introduced into academia by deconstruction. Through an authoritarian policing of language and identity on social media, academia, and the traditional media, the focus on language has shifted from one of openness to one that is very narrow and essentialist. Today, just because words like “Critical Race Theory,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” and so on are repeated over and over doesn’t mean that they are true or speak a truth. Repetition of words creates merely the illusion of truth.
Truth has fallen to the wayside, and the only truth that we see or hear about is associated with whatever words this or that affinity group of activists in the traditional media, academia, politics, and social media deem important. These terms are loaded with false alternatives and other fallacies, and we need to unpack them and learn how to, once again, make the knowledge of truth and the deciphering of truth our main priority if truth is to matter in the public sphere.
To do that, we need to understand what is at stake.
In our age of post-truth, millions of Americans are realizing that they are being lied to on a regular basis. Fake news has been normalized. And instead of thinking for oneself or even knowing how to think, most of us turn to this or that opinion (doxa in Greek) for truth. But, more often than not, this or that opinion falls apart and we are left wanting to know what is true. As a result, we become cynical and lose trust in political institutions, the media, academia, etc.
Who doesn’t want to know the truth?
Whether that truth is personal or philosophical, the desire for the knowledge of truth is essential to becoming human. Aristotle called it our greatest desire and argued that it was built into human nature.
When we know something is true, we experience a sense of pleasure, meaning, and purpose. According to Aristotle, the Greek dramatists called it anagnorisis. Aristotle defined anagnorisis as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune” (1452a, Poetics). Plato called it anamnesis (memory), since you learn what you have always known about the ideas (eidos), but unconsciously.
The process of coming to that knowledge–whether personal (anagnorisis) or philosophical (anamnesis)–is the stuff of the greatest stories, novels, movies, and philosophical allegories.
It all starts here, with me and you. I’d like to give a brief accounting (logos = account in Greek) of my own search for truth to illustrate and then turn back to the general search for truth.
My Personal Search for Truth and Yours
Through my own personal experience of growing up in America, I always believed that American dreams are dreams of transformation. My family came to America from Europe and transformed their lives. Their truth was the life they made for themselves. What was my truth? Could I find it in America in the 1980s and ‘90s?
When I left high school in my small Adirondack town (which was named after the main profession—making gloves, Gloversville), I traveled across America in search of my truth and for the knowledge of truth reading books, dancing, writing, playing music, tenting out, and making friends. I wanted to have a uniquely American epiphany, an experience of truth that would alter my world, and this was my journey to find that truth.
During this time, I went off to university, to the Berkeley of the East Coast: SUNY (State University of New York) at Binghamton. I became a philosophy major and took classes on Plato and Aristotle, Existentialism and Literature, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and more. I wanted to know if truth existed and if there was a way of life that one could live that would be guided by knowledge of the truth.
My passion for literature and philosophy was fostered by a professor who became my mentor. As an undergrad, I took graduate seminars in Heidegger, art, and language. I went on to pursue my PhD in Comparative Literature and Philosophy in the lauded PLC (Philosophy, Literature and Theory of Criticism) Program at SUNY Binghamton. What really touched me most in my doctoral work was the bread and butter of our program: a close reading of language. Language was the key to deeper meaning, to truth. Literature and philosophy share the same mission: anagnorisis.
Language, as Heidegger said, is the “house of being.” All meaning, all truth, is in language.
Nuanced readings of text sought to bring one into a state associated with what Roland Barthes called “the neutral,” a state of bliss. The opposite to this state of reading bliss was ossified language or what Barthes called “mythology.” Mythology is linguistic essentialism, sheer propaganda, and what Jean Franciois Lyotard called metaphysics (for him the use of language for power).
After I received my PhD and taught for 13 years in University, I learned, from within the academy, about the major turn to post-Marxist language by critical theory. The move to politicizing language and creating new words for political purposes, turning scholarship into activism, destroyed all the lessons from Derrida, deMan, Bloom, and the deconstructionist crowd and gave Marx the lead in formulating post-Colonialist discourse (vis-à-vis Edward Said), Queer Studies, etc., which used a similar framework to Marxism but with different terms (oppressor/oppressed, colonizer/colonized).
Deconstructionism is considered to be at the origins of post-modernist theory. Derrida, for instance, wrote specters of Marx well into his work on Deconstruction. Marcuse and the Frankfurt School were key to Critical Theory which was on a different trajectory.
Power and language going hand in hand are the core of what was to be deconstructed. This move had more to do with Michel Foucault’s interest in power, and to a major extent, his work on power relations and discourse displaced Derrida and the Yale schools’ interest in language and deconstruction. The mission of the deconstructionist was to deconstruct essentialism and participate in the proliferation of meaning and language. One celebrated the opaque and what George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot called powerlessness. That started to change with Foucault and Said; today, the tables have totally turned.
Language has been turned into a tool for the acquisition and distribution of power.
Heidegger’s whole critique of the work centered on moving away from seeing language as a tool. To see language as language was the ultimate challenge to power and metaphysics.
Rhetoric, the Sophists, and Us
Rhetoric is the key to politics. It creates a mythology based on language games.
As Socrates once pointed out, sophists love to play word games and act as if they know things when it isn’t knowledge or wisdom that they have. It’s fake news. It’s an illusion.
The sophists were not a school (they didn’t have one, like Plato and Aristotle). They were a group of wandering thinkers (sophos means “wise” or “skilled”) from around 400-300 BCE who would travel from city to city to teach people public speaking and rhetoric for a fee. Their main claim was that they could teach arete (virtue) to anyone. This consisted of a set of competencies in speech that would enable people to be successful speakers and powerful people (good oration was valued by the Greeks). These competencies were informed by a knowledge of general culture and public ways of speaking, and, most importantly, a passion for debate.
As Plato points out in many dialogues, sophists were more interested in winning arguments than in finding the truth. This contrasted with Socrates who was in search of truth and knowledge as opposed to making a weak argument into a seemingly strong one.
Socrates believed the sophists were misleading people, and in many dialogues Plato depicts Socrates as winning this or that sophist over to philosophy. He helps them to come to the realization (anagoresis) that the sophists had duped them into thinking that they were not only knowledgeable but also virtuous. The good (virtuous) life, for Socrates, was lived in the light of truth and dialogue (in logos), not in the life of words espoused by the Sophists.
In the post-truth world we live in, the sophists rule. As they love to demonstrate, some words, if repeated enough by an elite group of experts, magically become truths. Today the authority of these words is based not simply on what is being said but on who is saying it.
Aristotle’s rules of logic were part of a major effort, which started with Plato, to challenge the sophists and their fallacious way of reasoning. Sophists believed, as Protagoras once stated, that “man is the measure of all things,” that there is no objective measure. The measure (truth) is relative to what will appeal to different audiences, it is what I say it is or it is what the person who wins the admiration of his or her listeners says it is.
When there is no objectivity or objective truth, the Will to Power, as Nietzsche would say, determines what things mean or “are.” Data and statistics, well-reasoned arguments, are judged not on the basis of whether one has a strong or reasonable argument; they are determined by those who are most popular—the influencers, as it were, have the last word on truth.
The false sophia (wisdom) of the sophist has to do with making rhetorical flourishes into truth by way of gaining consensus that this or that term is the “measure of all things.” Truth, according to the sophists, is something that can be revised. It is, as Harold Bloom would say, the subject of revisionism and power, which overthrows what came before. There is an element of time and temporality since what is true “now”—in the moment of this articulation—is better than what was. It has more power.
Jean Francois Lyotard, who went a long way to discuss the meaning of postmodernism, notes in his book, The Inhuman, that the new metaphysics will be based on the creation of new words, what he calls “third terms.” These words and their meanings control what we can say, what we can mean, and who we are. Our words and our very selves have meaning or no meaning whatsoever based on these terms.
From Judith Butler to Ibram X. Kendi
Judith Butler, who is considered a major voice for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) and the Palestinians, was hired by Berkeley to teach rhetoric—not philosophy and not gender studies. But she has invented terms that have, as Nietzsche would say, inverted hierarchies. Heteronormativity, one of many terms she has coined, makes heterosexuality into a dominant discourse that marginalizes homosexuality. The same goes for “gender ambiguity” and “gender performativity.” With these third terms, all people who think their gender is either male or female, in accord with their biological sex, are oppressing those who change their sex or perform or identify as non-binary, etc. The trick is to create a new term that forces people to pick sides. The binaries are built into this new essentialism.
Either you are heteronormative and oppressive, or you are against heteronormativity. Either you affirm gender ambiguity, or you deny it and are a gender fascist.
This is a taste of the metaphysics at work in academia, which gets translated into activism on social media and on the streets. Its main goal, in the spirit of post-Marxism, is to divide and conquer. Power accrues through the use of language. Man is the measure of all things translates into the third term is the measure of all things. Rhetoric backed by power and the veneer of wisdom is the new measure, the new metaphysics. All arguments are won rhetorically, not through data, facts, or truth. Truth is relative to what I say it is. And what I say it is, is something you either are or are not. It is about whether you conform to my definition of what is or is not.
We see it at work in the work of Ibrim X. Kendi and those who support him. In a recent article addressing his critics, he did away with their criticisms in one fell swoop. Instead of addressing any of their claims, he argued that they didn’t understand him and are really talking to their own image of him. While it is abundantly clear to anyone who is logical that Kendi–with his word, anti-racism–divides the world into racists and anti-racists, creating, in effect, a “false dichotomy,” he is using a gnostic kind of Manichean rhetorical scheme. He says it in his book and on camera, endlessly. The denial of racism makes you a racist and admitting to it makes you a racist (unless you are a Person of Color). Who you are by virtue of the color of your skin defines you within a system over which you have no control. You were born into it. One can only choose to accept it or reject it by being an “ally” and fighting to create policy that is anti-racist so that all institutions can be regulated and transformed. The current system must be destroyed.
If you disagree with that position, you must be talking to yourself and your racism and not Kendi.
The sophistry here is clear. If you do not believe that power defines what is true and instead believe that all men are created equal and that not everyone is racist in America, you are on the wrong side of history. Truth, we hear, is a Eurocentric notion. Power is more universal, in a post-Marxist sense. Kendi is clear about this. He wants power redistributed. To do that, he must silence all his critics and claim that all who argue against him must be racist.
But that’s not logical. It’s rhetorical. The counter-enlightenment argument that progress doesn’t exist when, in fact, it is measurable and documented with ample data, demonstrates what we are up against. Kendi denies reality and argues that this progress doesn’t exist just like he argues that his critics don’t have any real arguments or that Critical Race Theory isn’t understood by anybody who criticizes it. It has to do with changing inequities in the legal system and has nothing to do with a movement to divide America into racists, anti-racists, and allies. But we know better. The sophists use words to create realities. It isn’t about sharing wisdom. It’s about dividing and conquering through third terms.
Not all things American are racist or anti-racist. America is much more complex than this sophistic formula purports. We need to learn how to think again and take up Socrates’ challenge to the sophists. There is truth. It does exist, but it is not about who has power. It’s not about who you are or what you are, it’s about what you think.
Don’t let the sophists tell you otherwise. You’re not talking to yourself when you criticize Kendi. You are speaking truth to power. Truth is the measure of all things, not man, not “anti-racism,” and not the people who are aligned with that term.
When once trusted institutions—from academia to the media and our own government—dwell in lies and sophistry, where do we turn? Like Socrates (a white man who is Eurocentric and not worth listening to according to the woke), we must wake up and realize that our anagnorisis must come from ourselves and through a language that is open rather than a language that is policed by ideologues and demagogues in academia and the media. We aren’t discovering a word within ourselves called racism, we are discovering a truth that transcends “anti-racism.”
And… who doesn’t want to know the truth?
Dr. Menachem Feuer is a member of the Jewish Studies Faculty at the University of Waterloo. He was previously a member of the Center for Jewish Studies at York University. Feuer has written numerous articles, essays, and book reviews on philosophy, postmodern literature, and post-Holocaust philosophy and literature. He has published in Shofar, Modern Fiction Studies, MELUS, International Studies in Philosophy and the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, and in numerous book collections. He was a Senior Editor at the popular literature, art, and culture website Berfrois (https://www.berfrois.com/tag/menachem-feuer/). He is the author of the highly acclaimed blog, Schlemiel Theory (www.schlemielintheory.com).