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Why the consensus on facts, opinion & experience has weakened

Internet “culture” relies on the activity taking place at its core or constellation of services and most engaged users. The quality of the conversation seems to decrease when dissent and reaction to bad ideas trigger overreaction from the public sphere, which manifests in actions such as banning and deplatforming; sometimes, even social and professional retaliation.

Instead of following the Socratic tradition of persuasively refuting declarations, ideas, or bad faith commentary, private companies often bend to pressure and end up silencing those who had trespassed the lines set for cultural etiquette (canons of a historical moment and place).

Everybody seems to talk about cancel culture, yet nobody takes a general perspective that would give them a decisive panoramic view of the zeitgeist we are living in: there are no right and wrong factions since everybody seems prone to accuse and overreact, once one of the public personas they admire gets carried away in social media, triggering a mob reaction in whichever sense may apply.

Taking it easy

Censoring books and deplatforming poor, misleading, or plain wrong public discourses will not solve anything, nor it will help us get some perspective on how societies build necessary consensus around core ideas and beliefs.

We share basic “canons” that allow for commenting, reinterpretation, refusal attempts, and finally, their superation and substitution by other core beliefs.

Besides theories of knowledge that help us distinguish between “episteme” (what we know), “doxa” (the opinion we hold on what we know), and “gnosis” (what we know from experience, that is, our perspective of things), we also cultivate a relationship with other people’s core perceptions and ideas, which affect what they think they “know” (and their vision of reality).

Bad ideas, fallacies, and reckless opinions can trigger reactions that may affect political outcomes, justify wars, or even amplify the inadequacies of public policies regarding the way we live, the energy we use, how we react to a pandemic, how we overcome an economic downturn, how we punish unlawful behavior, etc.

We seem to forget each time there’s no mathematical formula to reach universal consensus and prosperity in a context of social and political freedom; political scientists and philosophers have argued that the enemies of an open society are not those who dissent.

Dissent is, if anything, a foundationstone for the progress of both science and democracy. Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt, and before them Henri Bergson, explained how dissenters were often crucial to foster breakthrough in any given human discipline.

Is it really that loud and nasty out there?

The humanities, science, and democracy are subject to reinterpretation over time, but advances in any field, when subject to the scrutiny of their time, are often rightly refuted (as bad conjectures, theories, or ideas shall be) but often wrongly dismissed.

Over centuries, the Church oversaw and ultimately decided what was right and wrong in the humanities, in culture, and in science, from the religious canons from the literary to the scientific ones; even “rational” canons of beauty such as the mathematical Golden Ratio had been reinterpreted by religious thinking, from Ramon Llull to Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci), to Gottfried Leibniz.

But what do we know about “canons” (our accepted body of cultural, religious, legislative norms and rules) beyond the apparent, and how they have been established since ancient times? Is the currently perceived dysfunction an outlier, or rather a hypersensitive overreaction in sync with the current cultural and media fragmentation at the core of Internet culture?

We are finding out that even the most apparently rational and unbiased ideas are “partial” by design since they were issued in a particular context and culture and reflect the core principles and structures, we built over centuries that we mistake by “reality.” This is why, when designing algorithms, they seem to reproduce outcomes already known in the culture they are issued from.

The Waterseller of Seville (“El aguador de Sevilla,” 1618-1622), baroque masterpiece by Diego Velázquez

So when we wonder how to reckon with misinformation (real and perceived —for example, when it is subject to interpretation—) and lies that, according to studies, spread faster and more easily than the truth because they are often better suited to prevail in the permanent popularity contest of Darwinian memetics (memes people help popularize), the temptation of overreaction can be more damaging than information or ideas built on bad faith strategies.

The problem with algorithms and pattern recognition

So far, attempts to reach algorithmic formulas capable of impartially deciding what is true (or, at least, what is trustful/credible) has confronted the current limits of artificial intelligence: it’s easy to train a computer to recognize patterns in pictures to the point of abstraction (and of Platonic ideals of things), but so far attempts to appeal to universal formulas of truth, fairness, justice, etc. have encountered a disturbing outcome: algorithms reproduce human bias, and they end up being as culturally parochial, opinionated, partial as human institutions (minus the ability to weigh decisions according to the complexities of any given context).

For example, philosophical tradition has sanctioned as logical and self-evident the difference between the so-called “natural laws” (based on reason) and “positive laws” (those developed in a given society and time, such as the continental European tradition —Latin or civil law, based on a codified system issued from Roman juridical canons— and Anglo-Saxon law —based on custom—).

But, from the context of human culture, natural law and legal positivism are both social constructions, even when we attest that natural laws are “universal,” “eternal,” or “constant.” They do change over time, and anybody living today, even democratic conservatives, would be revolted to confront the reality of “freedom” both French and American revolutions fought for, who (and why) was considered a full citizen.

Not to talk about the same concept of “freedom” in 6th-century-BC Athenian so-called “direct” democracy: any citizen over 20 had to take part on it, but the idea of citizenship was so restrictive that women, slaves, soldiers, foreigners, and absent citizens (due to travel, for example) were banned from participating. Participants in Athenian democracy needed to be male and over 20, be born of two Athenian parents, be present in the city at the moment of the vote and have completed military service.

Fortunately, both “natural” and “positive” laws (both culturally constructed) evolve over time; so far, we have been used to trusting the incremental arrow of progress as an undeniable advance that cannot work in reverse. But human culture is far from being subject to the laws of physics, where time is unidirectional; Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt, among others, warned us that liberties that we consider solidly established in “mature” democracies could in fact deteriorate and evolve in reversal.

Concepts, social perception, and law evolve over time

Some technical pundits insist on the need for impartial mechanisms capable of adjudicating factual disputes on the Internet. Ideas such as “data feeds” that would make any event subject to a decentralized registry that cannot be unilaterally modified or falsified may work with formal or institutional events, but such a rigid, Byzantine system would have a harder time with the perspectivism of human interactions.

The boundaries between what we think we know scientifically (episteme), opinion (doxa), and experience (gnosis) have never been crystal clear, and we base our body of knowledge in a constant process of critical rationalism. To test how good a statement is, it may be difficult (sometimes impossible) to prove right, but it may be possible to refute it: it takes only finding a swan that is not white to refute the thesis that all swans are white.

Some influential technologists (with an opinion partly vested in their own investment portfolios) apply their usual diagnostic to the current crisis on our rational perception of reality (episteme). If our “information supply” (as if “information” was the cheapest, most annoying commodity) is “broken,” all we have to do is to come up with a formula to fix it. Is that easy? Not that fast.

Lazarillo de Tormes and his blind master (around 1880) by French realist painter Théodule Ribot; depiction of the rogue protagonist of 16th-century Spanish novel picaresque novel El lazarillo de Tormes

Our society is built upon consensuses that aren’t mathematical but based on old canons that are context and time-sensitive; they are built on top of cultural consensus and are prone to the historical evolution of societies. Public lynching, the red scare, or general sentiment about untenable conditions nowadays were pervasive only decades ago, whereas culturally related societies like the United States and North America have radically different institutional policies regarding firearms and criminal procedures, including capital punishment.

Such consensuses come from long processes of codification of ideas, principles, models, and we sometimes forget human cultures respond to a particular framing of reality; the events that followed the era of discovery, from the Columbian Exchange to the scientific and humanistic advances that led to the scientific revolution and liberal democracy, evolved around a set of values that predates those events by millennia.

A reed, a measure, a rule

When we think about “canons,” we identify the Greek origin of the word but have forgotten its original meaning. Before our culture interiorized its abstract meaning, “canon” responded to a world based on objects from reality: in ancient Greek, “canon” designated the stem of a rose bush or a reed, but later on, due to the evolution of the Classical world (interested in improving their knowledge and in applying it), it also designated a wooden rod used to measure equal parts for masons, carpenters, and sculptors to improve the precision of their work. During Enlightenment, a similar quest for precision and ratios issued from Nature inspired the metric system and other efforts of applying rational perception to the world surrounding us.

The canon wooden rod and the metric system are the materializations of a cultural effort to create models, principles, or rules from everyday rituals not officially harmonized before. Conceptual canons follow the same mechanism, and their origins can be traced to old festivals and events that happened in early agrarian and pastoral societies, which evolved from seasonal repetition to a linear succession.

Philosophers, anthropologists, and historians have explored the transition from a pastoralist and early agrarian view of the world to historical perception of things. Prehistoric cosmogonies based on seasons and the concept of recurrent time (Nietzsche’s “eternal return”) celebrated important, recurrent moments of the year such as solstices and lunar cycles, sowing and harvest, animal itinerancy, etc.

When cyclical

As societies moved toward specialization, so did the need for ritualization of meaningful customs, moving from a cyclical, mythical time to one of linear events, of “evolution” and “history.” To Western culture, this pre-canonical transition from cyclical perception to a “codification” of rituals or “history” happens between the Athens (later Rome) and Jerusalem, between pagan culture from the Mediterranean basin and religious rituals from the Levant that persevered to “historify” old stories through rituals.

French scholar in comparative literature William Marx recently dedicated one of his classes at the Collège de France to the emergence of canons to avoid the curse of cyclical cultures: forgetfulness and eventual obliteration of a value system.

The Flight of the Prisoners (1896) by James Tissot

William Marx begins by mentioning the story of the Jewish scribe Esdras (Ezra); Jewish people had just returned to Israel after ending their captivity in Babylonia in 538 BCE. It was the beginning of the seventh month (then September), and Ezra approached his wooden tribune to address the people.

He opened the book of the law and reminded them it was a day of celebration and consecration: they had returned to their land, and now they could open and read the sacred text. According to the story, they were happy; everybody shared food with whoever did not have food. On the second day, the scribe, the notable Nehemiah, and others around them sat down to read and interpret the sacred words of the law of God. Through Moses ‘ intermediation, they realized that God had written that the sons of Israel had to celebrate the holiday of the Sukkot in huts built of branches like it was written.

Birth of canonic authority and linear narrative

People had not performed the holiday in captivity, and it became a big celebration. But also, the ritual was an excuse to recover a party celebrated before Babylon, a remotivation of religious practice linked to two other key events for a people who had decided to vindicate their bonds to a shared past: the Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year (Yom Teruah in the Bible), and the day of atonement or prayer, the Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

By ritualizing old cyclical parties associated with the seasonal calendar of pastoralist and agrarian early societies, they symbolically blended on the same event the material (harvest) with the Mosaic covenant of the exodus and survival in the desert. A religious “canon” had been born, and cyclical perception of time had blended into something more similar to a linear tale, “History.”

A similar phenomenon happened within societies issued from Athens and Rome. As people abandoned “paganism” and philosophies of life such as stoicism and epicureanism became a formative framework for patricians and their relations (including slaves of Greek origin that taught in Roman households during the Roman period), Christianity spread across the Mediterranean basin and beyond.

There’s an analogy within Christianism and the ritualization of old holidays by the Jewish after returning from Babylon, beginning as a thanksgiving holiday to bless the harvest: Christmas, or the celebration of the Nativity of Christ, is embedded on top of a Roman pagan holiday that coincides with the winter solstice: the celebration of Sol Invictus.

It’s also a new beginning when the days will start getting bigger, and the prelude of what has to come in spring (Friedrich Nietzsche masterfully highlights this forgotten meaning in the preface of The Gay Science (Second Edition).

From linear time to fragmentation

To avoid any clash with old popular rituals, both Judaism and Christianism offered a transcendent change within continuity, so the holiday of Sol Invictus, an important day across the Roman Empire from the Atlantic confines of Western Europe to the border with the Parthian Empire in Central Asia, became the biggest holiday for Christendom: the Nativity of Christ.

By preserving the pagan holiday (related to the rhythms of agrarianism and pastoralism) behind a new signification, an old cyclical event entered the linearity of the historical “canon,” an event that would prevent complex societies from “forgetting” an ever-evolving codification of rules, principles, and models.

We are still immersed in this framework, which reminds us of William Marx. Maybe, just maybe (this is speculation, nothing to do with William Marx’s magistral class at the Collège de France), with cybernetics, we are building a layer on top of human culture so complex and transformative that we are abandoning “historicism” for good to enter in a time that, according to German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, is already “fragmented.”

The Conjurer, oil on panel painted by Hieronymus Bosch’s workshop between 1496 and 1520; scene of a Renaissance mountebank fleecing credulous gamblers

We are creating new canons. We just don’t know yet (because we are in the midst of it) whether we are working in a change within continuity (like the transformation of pagan holidays into “historical,” canonical events, ideas, processes) or in something beyond what we have explored so far.

Here’s how Friedrich Nietzsche finishes his preface for The Gay Science‘s second edition:

“But if anyone could, he would surely pardon more than a little foolishness, exuberance, and ‘gay science’—for example, the handful of songs that have now been added to this book—songs in which a poet makes fun of all poets in a way that may be hard to forgive. Alas, it is not only the poets and their beautiful ‘lyrical sentiments’ on whom the resurrected author has to vent his sarcasm: who knows what victim he is looking for, what monster of material for parody will soon attract him? ‘Incipit tragoedia’ we read at the end of this awesomely aweless book. Beware! Something downright wicked and malicious is announced here: incipit parodia, no doubt.”