Am I? Are we? : A social scientist on social media in a post-truth scenario

Warning: personal essay / rant, no references

Being a chronic people-pleaser with strong opinions is not easy. When one is younger and still unsure, it seems like the best way to deal with a situation demanding your opinion is to shut up, not invite conflict, listen, and learn. Yet, as one grows older, one finds that conviction of thought pushes one to speak up more, but conviction does not automatically imply the confidence to express articulately, convincingly. One aspires to badassery, but doesn’t always find it possible to be adequately badass, for any number of reasons – say, the abiding desire to be polite, to not piss anyone off, worst of all, not feeling articulate enough… The conflict is real. (For me in any case. Maybe I must stop talking in general terms.)

On social media, people are constantly exchanging opinions and supporting articles, and every once in a while, some of these provoke me enough to want to respond. But do I rise up to this challenge adequately? I am used to preaching to the already converted, in class, among colleagues, where it is simply a question of contributing new perspectives to enrich the conversation. In my bubble, I am quite competent. But the world out there is so much larger than one’s own bubble. The world out there is electing your worst nightmares into power, defining and defending ‘economic growth’ and ‘progress’ in ways that increasingly shortchange the marginalized, making condescending, ugly, hateful remarks about “presstitutes” and “sickulars” (of which I would make a textbook case). How does one engage with this world?

Does one engage at all, is perhaps the first question. If this were a flow chart, this is the point where a lot of people would probably say no, and exit. Irrespective of where we stand on the political spectrum, we are all guilty of increasing intolerance, especially of contrarian views. Because my own politics arise from a perhaps-too-sharp-for-my-own-good moral compass, I am often at the point of dismissing people entirely because their political stand is problematic, reflects their moral standing, and is unlikely to change. Not to mention that engaging is exhausting, so why bother? Why not just move from Facebook to Instagram, post pictures of cute dogs and rainy windows and preserve one’s sanity?

Often I think of doing just that, and then decide I am still in the game. I am not exhausted enough yet, and my outrage still has a pretty amazing reflex so I cannot help but react. I still care enough, maybe too much: recently I lost sleep two nights in a row because I thought I hadn’t defended democracy adequately to a friend on a particularly exhausted, tense night. Living in my bubble is also not adequate. It’s nourishing, amazing for the ego, safe… but I am not confronting reality in it. As an activist and social scientist then, I have a job in the world, to actively contend with reality, even if it is an undesirable one filled with people I violently disagree with, and work for things to change.

I’ve said yes, now we move to the next step. What are my tools then? My methods are qualitative: I try to keep an open mind, observe social situations, and write about them. I am no fly-on-the-wall: I would be seriously delusional if I didn’t acknowledge that my presence in these social situations, and who I am actively influence the social situations I plant myself in. Inside my bubble, we are all mostly agreed in that there is no such thing as an absolute, objective truth in the social sciences, that it is not possible to know one. Researchers have a necessarily partial view of the world because… really, how can we be all-seeing? The hard / natural sciences often claim to be all-seeing, because unlike the social sciences studying humans, unpredictable, biased humans, they have a set of reliable rules and principles with which to understand the world. (Fair enough, but it amuses me greatly to see the cockiness employed by scientists and economists sometimes in presenting their findings, as if they are infallible. If one is in the job of discovering and learning more about the universe, the underlying assumption then is that there is a lot we don’t know yet, and that there’s yet undiscovered ways to know the world better. How then can one be so sure about the veracity of one’s findings, and the watertight rigor of one’s methods with no room for doubt or… possibility?)

Anyway, so the social sciences are not objective, all seeing. I, for one, am not one much given to talking in numbers and statistics. I could rant, as I have multiple times before, about the hegemony of numbers, the politics involved in these reductionist ways of seeing the world, how the marginalized and their particular structural conditions only appear in extended interaction, not statistics, numbers are not the only kind of ‘facts’, la la la la la. Wait. Then am I saying the social sciences are, wait for it… post-truth?

The horror of that prospect cost me one night’s sleep, before Google reassuringly told me that this is a topic social scientists are still debating at conferences, and that I don’t need to single-handedly resolve it overnight. Phew, but really, are we post-truth? Here, ‘we’ refers to all of us in the highly social world of social media (in a meta way, also the fodder for future social science). No matter where we stand on the political spectrum, we all pick the articles and ‘facts’ that support our own stand, and find ways to counter others (“Look at the numbers I am showing you” in the same breath as “but you know the problems with the measurement of the GDP/poverty line/unemployment rates”). Confirmation bias is absolutely a thing. Hell, politicians, consultants, activists, businessmen, lawyers, economists have all been in the business of cherrypicking the facts that suit their projects. Even if one aspires to objectively present all sides of a debate, is there any way of ensuring that every relevant ‘fact’ ever discovered has been accounted for on all sides, before examining which side the debate has tilted? The most we can do is to check the veracity of each fact: it’s why all the sciences, hard and soft, natural and social, insist on rigorous citations, so we can examine how this fact was arrived at, and what credibility it has. However, can we say that we know the whole truth about something, especially given the biases in popular media, poor representation of some voices, limited internet penetration, whatever else? Is this what the social sciences have always gotten to, that humans are all political, all post-truth, so what we can say about humans in the social sciences is also post-truth? Should the word ‘post-truth’ then be reclaimed? How then can we know the world in “true” ways?

The mind boggles, rather, my mind boggles. I don’t know where I go on this flowchart (or whether I have considered everything in order to make a decision even, ha.) But even in my boggled mind, there is a sliver of clarity. (And I must admit that this sliver of clarity is not inconsistent with what I already believe in. I am happy to be challenged.) I am even more convinced, along the lines of thalaivar Flyvbjerg (and Aristotle before him) that the intellectual project is a moral one, an examination of power, ethics and values, what we stand for as a society. If we are agreed in the ideals we desire for the world – a consistent pursuit towards excellence, progress, equality, and liberty – how exactly do we define these terms, and how do we move towards them? Do our findings (in either kind of science) potentially move us towards these ideals, or away from them, or rather, how can our findings be employed? Moral prerogatives are not imperative just for the social sciences, just as rigor of method is not a requirement for just the hard sciences. History has taught us that racism, genocide, war, colonialism can all be pretty darn scientific. Hell, the quest for reason is essentially a moral one (hello Enlightenment, and the ballast it gave to the natural sciences, no citation). Plus, the most objective, positivist scientists are paranoid about intellectual property rights and plagiarism, so there is no need to pretend that the sciences are too cool for ethics and moral values (or politics – don’t want to leave that out).

Circling around, the way to engage with the world, for me, is on moral terms. (This is the provisional conclusion my rant led to, and I am happy to be challenged). It’s why I am able to reconcile the roles of researcher and activist to myself too. The next step would be to work through my inarticulacy and diffidence. Suffice to say that I have great admiration for people on all sides of the debate who can be eloquent and convincing on social media, and I absolutely aspire to be one of those people. I could absolutely write another 1500 words on how I did not sleep after I had to correct a Facebook post of mine multiple times for grammatical errors, even contemplated suicide, but perhaps this will do.

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