The quest for truth in the age of demagogues

Ten years ago a global financial crisis shook the neoliberal consensus to its foundations, leaving much of the world precariously balanced between a residual neoliberal economic regime and an emergent populist and anti-liberal order.

Three recent and major occurrences have contributed to the emergence of that order: the decision by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States on 20 January 2017 and the re-entry of far-right political groupings into mainstream politics across Europe and the US.

The claims of populism

Each of these occurrences has involved a shift in the public discourse from reasoned argument and persuasion to assertion and populist ‘post-truth’ rhetoric. That rhetoric is based on three claims.

First, populism claims that ‘the voice of the people’ takes precedence over all other sources of legitimate political authority: the judiciary, parliament and local government. The complexity of democratic sovereignty is thereby collapsed into a notion of ‘the sovereignty of the people’. The separation of powers – the constitutional cornerstone of liberal democracy – is thereby put at risk.

Second, populism claims to know what constitutes ‘the people’. Within the current political discourse ‘the people’ are variously defined as ‘ordinary people’, ‘decent people’ and even ‘real people’. The point is to define ‘the people’ against some available ‘other’. Pluralism – the cultural heartbeat of liberal democracy – is thereby not only put at risk but denied.

Third, populism claims a monopoly on the truth regardless of its factual accuracy. To tell an untruth with a view to deceiving others is one thing. To tell an untruth that we have wrongly persuaded ourselves is true is another. But to state an untruth that neither seeks to deceive others nor is a consequence of self-deception is something different again. It is an expression of power and control, demanding unconditional assent.

Institutional priorities

The institutions of civil society stand as a defence against populism and serve therefore as a safeguard against demagoguery of whatever political stripe. The question is: how should the university – as one such institution – respond to the claims of populism?

The prime responsibility of the university is to insist on the distinction between truth and untruth, verifiable belief and wishful thinking, fact and fantasy. The quest for truth may be characterised by false starts, blind alleys, occasional insights, provisional resolutions and leaps of interpretive imagination. But it is what the university stands for.

Second, universities are – as the term suggests – universal. They are by definition inclusive. ‘Universal’ means much more than – and, indeed, something very different from – the international marketisation of higher education with a view to the recruitment of overseas students. It means resistance to any form of institutional insularity or exclusivity.

Third, universities are, within the broader framework of civil society, spaces of dialogue and critical reflection: spaces that acknowledge as their raison d’être the need for dissent and disagreement within an agreed framework of deliberative endeavour. Universities are places where we learn how to disagree, and where disagreement forms the basis of rational discourse.

Finally, universities provide us with a distinctive idiom: explorative, nuanced, self-questioning, tentative, uncertain and forever in search of fine distinctions. It is an idiom – and a cast of mind – that has little or no place in a populist discourse in which the major protagonists are not only assured of certain certainties but assured of their right to assert those certainties.

But how might we – how can we – translate those institutional priorities into workable values at the level of professional practice?

A profession of values

Institutions are only as good as the practices they sustain. In the case of universities those practices comprise – primarily – research, scholarship and teaching, each of which requires of its practitioners a particular value-orientation.

To lead an academic life is to learn what truthfulness, respect, authenticity and magnanimity mean in practice:
  • Truthfulness as quest: To distinguish truth from deliberate untruth, self-deception and the assertion of manifest untruth is a prime responsibility of the researcher, scholar and teacher.

  • Mutuality of respect: Attentiveness towards others – and honesty in our dealings with colleagues and students – form the moral basis of academic practice within the fields of research, scholarship and teaching.

  • Authenticity as a way of life: The university exists within the horizon of individually important and publically significant questions which researchers and scholars seek to elaborate and address.

  • Magnanimity and reaching out: Academic life when lived to the full requires a constant movement into what is not known and what is not fully understood. Research, scholarship and teaching are rooted in the acknowledgement of ignorance.

A time for questioning

Universities face a hard choice between two sharply contrasting visions of society and the place of higher education within it.

The first is of a society that lacks cohesion and is economically sluggish and politically disengaged. It relies on subjects who know their place in society and are punctilious in the protection of their own private interests. It focuses on the past and views inequality as inevitable.

At the bottom of this society are millions of young people alienated and without hope – and a higher education system that reproduces this inequality and alienation.

The second vision is of a society that embraces difference and is economically resilient and democratically purposeful. It requires citizens who demand their place within the polity.

This alternative society focuses on alternative futures – and looks to a higher education system that challenges that legacy of inequality and in doing so provides hope, social mobility and a renewed sense of civic engagement.

Jon Nixon is honorary professor at the Education University of Hong Kong and visiting professor at Middlesex University in the UK. His most recently authored book, Rosa Luxemburg and the Struggle for Democratic Renewal, will be published by Pluto Press on 20 April 2018. This article is a summary of an address delivered on 14 March 2018 in London, UK, as a contribution to the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Theory Network seminar series.