Feminism in a Post-Truth era

[transcript of podcast created 12 February 2020]

Hello, I’m Betty McLellan for Radical Feminist Reflections.

     Well, 2019 is behind us and a new year, a new decade, has begun. So this seems like a good time to discuss something that’s been on my mind for many months as I’ve struggled to make sense of the madness that has gripped the world. As confusing and as frightening as it is to admit it: we are living in what has come to be called a “post-truth era”. Indeed, Post-Truth was the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016. But what does it really mean? The Oxford Dictionary describes it as: “Relating to …. circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

     So, if objective facts aren’t as important as they used to be, what does that mean for ordinary people going about their daily lives? And more particularly, as radical feminists, what does it mean for women? What will it mean for women into the future? I mean, all of our theories since the beginning of Second Wave feminism in the 1960s, all of our activism, all of the gains we’ve made for women, revelations about how women’s lives were virtually shaped by the lies fed to them on a daily basis – all of the work we did was concerned with uncovering the truth. What does it mean, then, when so many of the facts we thought were immutable are being disappeared by those who have discovered the personal benefits of post-truth. When winning is all that counts, the truth is so easily sacrificed.

     Yes, the times we live in are really confusing but, as usual, radical feminists have a choice:

. either to turn our backs on it and pretend it isn’t happening, or

. be determined to understand post-truth so that we might challenge this new, hideous version of patriarchy with greater ferocity than ever before.

I vote for the latter.

Here is: “Feminism in a Post-truth era”.

MUSIC

So, what about post-truth? You know, I used to think the term “post-truth” just referred to the lies being told by certain world leaders and I naively believed it would settle down once those lies were exposed or those leaders moved on. But I was wrong. It’s much more serious than that.

     Remember how we used to laugh at some of President Trump’s more outrageous tweets? We laughed because we believed that sanity, justice, democratic values, would prevail in the end.

      Then there was Kellyanne Conway, advisor to the President, using the phrase “alternative facts”? We thought it was strange but, also, amusing. It has slowly dawned on me, however, as it has on many thinking people, that this is no laughing matter. To move away from having truth as a shared imperative is a deadly serious proposition.

     And it’s not just influential leaders who are adopting the post-truth narrative. Think of the millions of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to believe in him. The millions of people in the UK who voted for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in spite of his known violence against women and in spite of his tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. Think of the vast majority of Australians who were swayed by lies and misinformation and voted to keep an embarrassingly incompetent conservative government in power, rejecting an opposition who, while not perfect by any means, went to the election with policies that were overwhelmingly pro-the people, pro-worker, pro-justice and human rights.

     Something serious is happening. The world as we have known it is changing. The solid foundation on which democracy was built, the values of truth, justice, human rights, which we believed were unchangeable, immovable values, are being dismissed as elitist and as important only to a small minority of people who think they’re better than everyone else. The message about truth and justice has been turned around by those who find that lies and distortions work better for them than attention to the truth.

     News reports based on fact are so easily swept aside with the words “fake news”. Similarly, the work of reputable scientists warning about climate change and global heating, is simply swept away. Indeed, at the height of Australia’s worst bushfires on record, our Deputy Prime Minister slammed those he called “raving inner city lunatics” for making the link with climate change. This followed ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s embarrassing comments in an interview on Israeli radio when he spoke of a “climate cult” holding sway over the world.

     This post-truth era allows desperate men and women to ignore the facts that are staring them in the face and, worst of all, to influence the thinking of so many people who simply want an end to the confusion.

As I see it, it’s imperative that radical feminists take a long hard look at this new and rudderless era we’ve entered into and be alarmed at the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth. After all, we are in a better position than most to understand what it means to live with lies and deception, and the damage such a situation inflicts on individuals and communities, because feminist analysis has revealed that, in every patriarchal society since the beginning of time, women have been victims of the lies told about us. More on that later. First, I want to focus on what commentators are calling Post-Truth and explore possible reasons behind today’s attack on truth.

     Philosophers and social scientists have been raising the alarm about this for many decades but calling it something else: Friedrich Neitzche, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and others.

     Writing in the 1970s, Hannah Arendt spoke of a “defactualised environment” in which factual truths are “always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organised lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods….” (Arendt. 1972. Crises of the Republic, pp. 6-7).

     Hannah Arendt’s “defactualised environment” is a fair description of the kind of behaviour we witness from politicians and political parties today. In fact, lies, denials, distortions, spin have become so common that we have come to expect it from politicians and seem to accept it as part of the political discourse. This, of course, is a tragedy.

But how has it happened? How has truth, which is the most important stabilising factor in communities everywhere, come under such attack?

     I believe it’s been coming for a long time, at least, in my memory, since the social justice movements of the 1960s and 70s. As I see it, we are still living in a period of backlash against those movements. The resentment about the strength of the movement for Women’s Liberation, liberation for African Americans, Indigenous peoples, Gay and Lesbian people, resentment about the attention given to the need for justice for all who were living outside the mainstream, was huge. And that resentment on the part of many has been smouldering just below the surface all this time. That their position of dominance was being undermined couldn’t go unchallenged.

     And so, the backlash that has gathered momentum over the decades, is today expressed in the rise of an influential ultra-conservative right, including hard-right religious conservatives, of white supremacists, of men’s rights organisations, and of strident anti-immigration groups.

     And all who feel that their privileged position has been undermined, have been encouraged by the existence of powerful politicians whose values are similar to their own. Take Donald Trump, for example. To his devoted followers, the truth is of no consequence, it seems. It’s the emotion that counts. It’s someone with similar resentments to their own who is willing to lead them. That’s what they want, and they will follow blindly without reference to the truth. Many evangelical Christians in the US want so badly to believe that Donald Trump is the President who will save America and bring back the America they once knew, that they seem to have suspended all pretentions to the truth. Listen to this: When a journalist asked a group of evangelicals why they support Trump so wholeheartedly, they said “It’s really quite simple. Family values, honesty, integrity, character – and that is everything that President Trump represents”. It boggles the mind, when the backlash against the notion of justice for all is so strong that it alters people’s perception of the facts.

     That’s the first contributing factor to society’s descent into post-truth, as I see it – a backlash against any idea of social justice for all.

     Another contributing factor is neo-liberalism, which saw governments surrendering power to multi-national companies and encouraging the dominance of economics, competition, profit and the interests of shareholders over the wellbeing of ordinary citizens. And ever since, we have lived with the lies about what they call ‘trickle-down’ economics, i.e., if governments ensure that businesses get huge profits and low taxes, then their profits will trickle down to all the workers, and everyone will benefit. Except that it hasn’t worked that way. The huge profits trickle down, or up, to CEOs and shareholders, while workers’ wages remain stagnant. And governments know it.

     Of course, the greatest and most dangerous lie of all in the service of neoliberalism is the one that comes from climate change deniers. In Australia, the fossil fuel industry is a powerful force, and conservative politicians don’t dare entertain the thought that coal, e.g., should be kept in the ground for the good of the planet. Consequently, the facts scientists present about the urgent need for governments to introduce legislation leading to the cutting back of carbon emissions are met with scorn by politicians who are content to spread lies and misinformation about the health of the planet.

     And, as hard as it is to believe, we now know that, in April of last year, a group of ex Fire Service chiefs, with decades of experience studying and fighting fires, requested an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to talk about climate change and the probability of horrendous bushfires, and he refused to meet with them. They persisted with their request for a meeting and he continued to refuse. As the world now knows, the predictions of the fire chiefs have come true. I have no doubt that those who witnessed the ferocity of Australia’s recent bushfires, those who lived for months breathing in smoke, no fresh air, those who lost loved ones in the fires and those who continue to fight the fires that are still flaring up today, have great difficulty believing the “nothing to see here” attitude of the government. How can they still deny the link between the fires and climate change? Because the fossil fuel industry holds the Australian Government to ransom.

     You know, I came across a meme the other day on the “Grandmothers for Climate Action” Facebook page. There was a man standing at a podium ready to give a speech, and someone close by saying “You don’t have to be right… Just create doubt” – which is exactly what climate change deniers do in this Post-truth era. They don’t even have to lie. They just tell half-truths and create enough doubt to deflect people’s attention from the truth.

Now, I’ve talked about the backlash against the efforts to bring social justice for all. I’ve talked about neoliberalism and the privileging of economic concerns over the welfare of people and planet, as possible contributing factors in the growth of post-truth.

     There’s a third contributing factor, in my opinion, that must be brought into the equation, one that has been of particular concern to radical feminists since it appeared on the horizon: Postmodernism. While postmodernism was embraced by most academics and institutions of higher learning, it was always met with suspicion by radical feminists who called it out as a convenient theory that sought to erase women as a social class.

     Back in 1996, Renate Klein and Diane Bell edited a book, now a feminist classic, called Radically Speaking, in which they challenged Postmodernism as a theory that rendered “women’s ongoing multifaceted oppressions by men as … at best irrelevant, at worst non-existent” (p. XX). So, not just that women as a category disappears but that men’s violence toward women, men’s oppression of women, becomes irrelevant or non-existent. Very convenient.

     According to Postmodernism, nothing matters. Everything is fluid. There’s no such thing as objective truth. Truth is fluid. Gender is fluid. The binary, man/woman, is replaced by gender as non-binary. So, in the era of post-woman and post-man, you can be anything you like. You don’t need to be concerned about biological facts because there’s no such thing as objective biological facts — except that there is. The evidence is there.

     You see, when truth is fluid, when facts are not facts, all that is left are individuals searching for a truth that gels with their own prejudices and desires, and that’s a real problem. It’s not difficult to see how such confusion can be easily exploited by politicians, business leaders and others who are prepared to use lies, half-truths and misinformation, to influence people to support them and their views.

So, what should our immediate response be as we contemplate this changed world we’re living in?

     First, I would suggest, we need to acknowledge that post-truth is a thing, a strategy used by politicians and others to confuse and influence people, to ensure that their own conservative view of the world remains paramount. And that lies, half-truths and misinformation are used, with no feeling of shame to go with it, no internal imperative to be transparent or accountable. That’s the first thing we need to do: Acknowledge that post-truth is a thing and be alarmed at the thought that this is the new normal.

     Second, we need to remind ourselves that this is not new for women. Lies, innuendo, misinformation have always been used against women. Perhaps we need to revisit the writings of feminists whose research and analysis allowed us to see how our lives had been fashioned by the lies told about us, lies that filled us with shame and guilt. Also, lies about how women should live, dress, speak, act.

     Revisit the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, who, in the mid-1800s, confronted the men of the church for perpetuating the story that Eve tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Eve was the temptress, and poor Adam, who, they would have us believe, would have continued in obedience to God, was helpless to stand up against this evil woman who led him astray. To this day, women are subject to such lies and innuendo – woman as temptress, seductress, sexually provocative – and men still aren’t called upon to be responsible for their actions.

     Maybe we need, also, to revisit the work that Adrienne Rich did in the 1970s, of feminist historians, of anti-pornography activists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, to remind ourselves of the painstaking work done by such feminists to uncover the lies and false information aimed at keeping women in their place.

     And finally, as we continue the work we’ve been doing to ease the burden for women by speaking out against men’s violence, against pornography and prostitution, and by working with individual women who are victims of the privilege men enjoy under patriarchy, we must do our work now fully cognizant of the fact that this post-truth era makes it so much more difficult for women – and for us, in our efforts to create a fairer society for all who are disadvantaged by the gross inequalities under patriarchy.

     Yes, it’s more difficult but, as we’ve proved time and time again, knowledge is strength and, armed with knowledge, armed with truth based on solid analysis, radical feminists will continue to speak the truth and stare down this latest iteration of patriarchy, till sanity and justice are restored.

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