“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” writes Jean-Paul Sartre in “Anti-Semite and Jew.” “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.”
There are many lessons to learn from Sartre’s argument, but in the context of the modern political scene and the media coverage which emanates in and around it, the norms and rules that people follow are crucial to understand. For instance, what I understand as “truth” is very distinct from how other people understand the nature of truth.
More and more frequently, I find the notion of a “post-truth” era bandied about, as if prior to the election of Donald Trump, we lived in a paradise of veracity and credibility. Even before Trump’s election, the New York Times had published an opinion proclaiming our sad new reality. And then they published one several days before the election. “Post-truth” even became Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year. Even noted literary critic Michiko Kakutani’s latest book is “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.”
So it’s clear that members of the corporate media believe that we live in an era that has transcended or overtaken our standard notions of truth. But Donald Trump hardly is the first politician, or even the first American president, to lie to his constituents. There are countless examples of deception and deceit—one of the most notable recent examples would be the Bush Administration’s verifiably false claim regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The obvious question is, if American presidents have always lied to the public, why do members of the corporate media describe Trump as uniquely more untruthful than the rest?
“Whereas once sitting presidents received outsized praise from the media,” writes Nathan Witkin ’20 in a prior opinion for The Argus, “now one is openly delegitimized, but only in the service of re-legitimizing the presidential office and its norms.”
The American political machine, of which the corporate media plays a crucial role, was disrupted by the election of Trump, who prided himself on being an anti-establishment candidate. Regardless of whether or not he is a break from America’s political institutions, Trump’s explicitly bigoted rhetoric does not fit the standard appearance of the American president. But there are better things to do than lose our minds every time a person in power makes a dubious statement.
Sartre’s examination of Anti-Semites is really important here. Instead of assuming that everyone acts on the same stage, he identifies that Anti-Semites don’t care about our standard notions of respect or logic (or as Sartre puts it, “words”). Their goal is to gain, coerce, and convince (in a word, gain power), and they can do so relatively easily because they don’t follow the same norms as the rest of the population.
In his defense of Roscius of America, Marcus Cicero demanded, “Cui bono?” or in English, “to whom is it a benefit?”
This genre of analysis is to disregard the actual veracity of a claim and to instead look at who benefits from certain claims being true. Now, if we are said to live in an era beyond our standard idea of truth, then the beneficiaries of that claim being true are those who seek to restore their own credibility. Yes, they claim, we live in a “post-truth” era, but if you listen to us, you can find a calm amidst the storm.
Why does the corporate media do this? The simple response is that sensationalism, in this context attacking a president, is what generates the most amount of profit. The dissemination of truth, for these organizations, is secondary.
But the journalists at these organizations surely feel like they are contributing in some way to the common interest—after all, they are calling out obvious falsehoods in the name of what they believe is the truth.
This begs the obvious question—what is “truth?” This is a perennial question of philosophy and is not easily answerable, but there is way (among many) of tackling the issue.
Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in his “Philosophical Investigations,” “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Although Wittgenstein’s argument is nuanced and complex, meanings (or significations) in language are based on usage. For example, the queen derives power from her use as the most versatile piece on the chess board when we collectively agree to the rules of chess. Meaning is merely based on how we agree a word can be used.
Truth, consequently, does not refer to some absolute notion that magically accesses objective reality (Do we really live in an objective reality?). Instead, what our definition of truth results from is what we agree to be true, inter-subjectively.
In that sense, the truth of the New York Times is a truth around appearance and norms, not a truth that points to the root causes of pain and suffering in our current society. What are most crucial to understand, above all, are the fundamental incentives that motivate behavior, from Trump to the corporate media. Neglecting to do so plays into the hands of the institutions that run contemporary society, removing the possibility of the radical change that we dearly need.
Cormac Chester is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.