Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the importance of the “power of the factual” for democratic societies. Published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on 5 November 2016.
“Is anyone still interested in the truth?” This was the headline used by a German newspaper above an article on the US presidential campaign, in which it diagnosed a “virus of the absurd”. One is indeed left almost speechless by the chutzpah and the perfidy with which, in the plain light of day, facts are twisted and disputed, expert knowledge discredited, and barefaced lies are told both in the West and the East, and even across the English Channel. Over here, too, an ever more aggressive disinclination to resort to facts can be observed. The truth is no longer merely being deliberately distorted. Far worse, it no longer seems to count for anything.
50 years have already passed since Hannah Arendt wrote about truth and lying in politics. So what is new? I can identify three major developments. Firstly, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of our interconnected world is taking hold. Secondly, there is the difficulty of communicating the connections and the give and take in this world, which is more integrated and seems even more contradictory as a result. And lastly, there is the dramatically changed way in which we acquire information and knowledge in our digitised world.
In the 25 years since German unification, Germany is not the only place that has integrated. There has also been a dramatic acceleration in how production and value-added chains are globally interconnected. This development has reached many countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The process of “creative destruction” associated with this has generated great wealth, but it has also produced dangerous bubbles, increased inequality, even within our societies, and made this state of affairs glaringly obvious.
The digital revolution, and the ensuing contraction of time and space, generates an unending torrent of information from this new, hard-to-decipher world. We are not prepared for this, neither intellectually nor culturally. Our ability to immerse ourselves in or empathise with other realities and perceptions is simply no longer keeping pace.
This objective state of being overwhelmed has an impact. It gives rise to fear of a loss of identity, a return to national, ethnic and religious mores, to notions that more readily give people a feeling of security and firm ground under their feet. Identity is an existential issue for people, and it is becoming ever more important with the erosion of borders in the globalised world. When identity goes hand in hand with isolation, exclusion and a rejection of others, and in particular when it is based on fear of the future and the notion of a supposedly glorious past, then this response becomes dangerous and loses sight of reality.
The fact that the environment we live in has become more complex also makes itself felt in foreign policy. Our ability to get to grips with this complexity and not only to react at the last minute, but rather to plan with foresight, is stretched to the limits.
We are finding it even more difficult to communicate this complexity to our societies. How am I supposed to compare the horrific images from the dreadful war in Syria every day with the substantial progress in education, health and poverty reduction in large parts of the world? How can I reconcile the different traditions, interests and perceptions prevalent elsewhere in the world with our standards and values, which we would like to see become a reality all over the world – and of course not just some day, but immediately?
If our aim is not merely to negotiate rational solutions, but also to be able to count on support for them in society, we must manage to communicate the give and take of diplomacy clearly and credibly.
The internet provides us with access to an unprecedented wealth of information from a vast range of sources. But we must not confuse this inundation of information with knowledge, and we must certainly not confuse it with wisdom. Knowledge requires verifiable facts and proven connections. Wisdom requires experience and the ability to make a judgement. But through the social media, the information machine of the internet provides the opposite every day. People in online communities reaffirm each other’s views and only absorb things they think they already know. “Subjective truths” take the place of verified facts.
The spite, hatred and harshness found in the social media have an impact on our society. People are putting their views increasingly categorically, dismissing doubt and once again believing that even the crudest of simplifications are true. On top of this, foreign internet trolls spread targeted misinformation, while automated Twitterbots are used to influence public opinion on a vast scale.
With all of these developments, it is getting more and more difficult to tell what is true and what is not. “Post‑factual” is not only a catchy name for the latest form the post‑modern world is taking. This post‑factual era entails a deadly threat to our body politic. Appealing to the power of facts is vital to the survival of our democratic society. It is the only way to preserve our ability to engage in a productive, truth‑seeking dialogue.
So what can we do? First of all, we need to be aware of our own weaknesses. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman proved how much we tend to accept very familiar information as true and not to question it. He calls this “cognitive ease”. We need to constantly reassess our own assumptions.
We need to invest in our ability to make judgements, and in those institutions and systems that “produce the truth” in our societies – schools, universities and the judicial system, as well as the media. We must not allow ourselves to reduce complexity to a mere woodcut. Instead, we need to pay attention to precision and the ability to differentiate.
We need awareness of the limitations of our own options. We are confronted to a greater extent than ever before with all the diversity of the world, but also with the dire state it is in. This also generates a feeling of helplessness given the suffering, poverty and violence that we never seem to be able to do enough to counteract.
Humility is a far cry from resignation. The complexity of our world brings not only uncertainty, but also richness and diversity. If we understand this complexity correctly, then we can also shape and change it.
Democracies need enlightened and resolute democrats. Education, particularly civic education, is the best insurance against manipulation and a susceptibility to being manipulated. Education needs to provide options – but it also requires individuals to be willing to exert themselves. One of the temptations of the internet is to replace expertise, which is difficult to acquire, with rapid and radical assessments. But political judgement and intellectual endeavour necessarily go hand in hand in our complicated world.
Belief in a better world can move mountains – but only reason can protect us from dangerous wrong turns. We need curiosity, confidence and courage. We need a precise and scrutinising gaze that understands the power and usefulness of reason in order to create a fairer and more peaceful future in our overloaded and pain-ridden world.