“What is truth?” is one of the moral and philosophical questions for the ages — something that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle grappled with. It is the question that Pontius Pilate famously posed to Jesus.
But this epistemological question has been bombarded, of late, by the onslaught of a disinformation age, aided and abetted by trolling and cancel culture. Truth has become something that is individually wrapped. In the current format, it fosters distrust of our public institutions and officials.
But author Jonathan Rauch argues in his latest book, “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” that the result is a crisis of democracy. Rauch rejects America’s contemporary servile desires to rely on disinformation.
For those frustrated by the lack of quality within our public discourse, Rauch provides salient insight. He has penned, in my view, one of the most important texts in the first half of 2021.
“The Constitution of Knowledge” is the system of rules and institutions that society needs in order to remain tethered to reality. It is the process that transforms disagreements into facts. Void of a constitution of knowledge, one fires shots into a Washington, D.C., pizza establishment in 2016, based on a widely debunked conspiracy theory alleging a child pornography ring led by Hillary Clinton.
Our current public discourse increasingly values the vociferous, outlandish, unsubstantiated and the oft-repeated. It is an era where suppositions stand proxy for facts.
Unconscious biases without the systems provided by the constitution of knowledge become our truth. We seek the silos of conformity, where legitimacy is conferred by agreement, unencumbered by judicious scrutiny. Opinions that align with our beliefs can morph into facts that become a truth endowed almost exclusively by a misplaced reliance on feelings.
In a constitution of knowledge, if person “A” wants to assert something is true and person “B” disagrees, there are steps they must take. They must structure their arguments; present their positions in formats that make them susceptible to opposing inquiry. The constitution of knowledge, therefore, represents the layers required to keep us honest.
The ongoing critical race theory debate serves as the perfect metaphor for Rauch’s thesis. I consider the critical race theory discussion, in its present form, to be a disingenuous ruse. In the words of Big Daddy from Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the critical race theory debate possesses “a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity.”
By definition, a debate assumes two sides are presenting opposing arguments. That’s not what’s occurring with critical race theory.
Proponents are debating the efficacy of critical race theory as a graduate-level seminar that seeks to understand that in the post-civil rights movement era, there remain durable examples of social and racial inequalities, while their antagonists counter with bombastic, inaccurate non-sequiturs to promulgate fears — a catch-all phrase embodying supposition, innuendo and falsehoods. This does not legitimize critical race theory, but it is impossible to reach a judicious conclusion when the objective is countered with the subjective.
Embracing a constitution of knowledge would have been handy in the Nikole Hannah-Jones/UNC tenure debacle. Once race and gender became the dominant themes, nothing else was important.
It did not matter to those in support of Hannah-Jones that an award-winning journalist violated one of the most fundamental rules of journalism ethics. There were several errors in her introductory essay in The 1619 Project. All journalists are susceptible to errors, but we are required to take responsibility for the accuracy of our work.
Instead of owning the miscues, as every journalist is taught, Hannah-Jones defensively doubled down, initially making incendiary comments that she later attempted to scrub from social media.
In the quest to secure our binary truth, such considerations were not factored. Rauch is pushing us to hold all parts of the argument, including those that run counter to our preconceived beliefs.
Are the rules that govern a constitution of knowledge applicable only when they work in our favor? Is it only the contrarian view that requires fact-checking?
“The Constitution of Knowledge” is not presented to provide a definitive or alternative outcome, but offers that the path pursued to reach stated outcomes is more important. In the age of disinformation, the various platforms that confirm our biases are granted an entrenched legitimacy, delegitimizing the contrarian perspective.
Social and digital media disarms the constitution of knowledge because it eschews standardized criteria to reward attention. Outrage and conspiracy theories become the coin of the realm, while judicious inquiry is bequeathed with distrust and suspicion — a product of a bygone era.
“The Constitution of Knowledge” should be required reading for every citizen — unless, of course, one believes the hackneyed approach that’s currently eroding American democracy and dominating public discourse is acceptable.
The Rev. Byron Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.