Information Literacy Won’t Save Us; or, Fight Fascism, Don’t Create A LibGuide

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Image c/o Patrik Theander on Flickr.)

In the wake of both the EU referendum and the election of Trump in the United States, there has been a growing concern about the proliferation of “fake news” and the rise of post-truth politics. As William Davies puts it in The New York Times, facts are “losing their ability to support consensus” as we enter “an age of post-truth politics”. This kind of talk is, of course, catnip for library workers because it plays into certain narratives that have dominated the discourse in recent years, specifically the rising importance of information literacy.

Although I would not dismiss the importance of information literacy in terms of education and providing the tools individuals need to think critically about the information they find, we need to be careful not to overplay its effects. Alarmed as I am about the current political environment, I am not wholly convinced that raising the standard of information literacy in our communities will see our way through the rising white nationalist mood that has gripped Western democracies. Well, I’m not convinced at all. Certainly history suggests that a belief that if only people could better interpret the facts we could find our way out of this mess is misplaced.

One of the issues I have with the term “post-truth” is inherent in the phrase itself – that if the current situation represents post-truth, then the period before must therefore be characterised as one where truth was primary and dominated our political and social landscape. There is nothing unique about the notion that fact takes a back seat to narratives. It has been apparent in our politics, in our understanding of history and in our journalism for some time.

In his renowned work of historical theory, What is history?, Carr explores the role of “fact” in historical works. Carr writes:

“The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy…” (Carr, 1990, p.11-12)

He continues with regards to our understanding of 5th century BC Greece:

“Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.” (Carr, 1990, p.13)

In essence, although fact has a place in the historical record, it is secondary to a particular narrative that the historian wishes to present. Our understanding of Greece, as Carr explains, is not strictly factual, the facts are secondary to the narrative the historian sets out. The narrative will contain fact (of course), but it will not primarily be factual. As Professor Barraclough (quoted in Carr) argued, historical narratives are “strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements” (p.14).

To a certain extent, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent comes to a similar conclusion about journalists. Much like the historian, the journalist applies filters and reinforces particular narratives, either consciously or unconsciously. In the book’s conclusion, the authors argue that:

“In contrast to the standard conception of the media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority, we have spelled out and applied a propaganda model that indeed sees the media as serving a ‘societal purpose,’ but not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

In the afterword to the 2008 edition of the text, the authors argue that the rise of technology, increased commercialisation and more competition for advertising revenues have resulted in:

“…more compromises on behalf of advertisers, including more friendly editorial policy, more product placements, more intrusive ads, more cautious news policy, a shrinkage in investigative reporting and greater dependence on wire service and public relations offerings, and a reduced willingness to challenge establishment positions and party lines. This has made for a diminished public sphere and facilitated media management by government and powerful corporate and other lobbying entities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

On the basis of the arguments of Carr, Herman and Chomsky it is clear that public discourse and debate is rarely informed by fact, rather it is informed by the narrative preferences of the individuals disseminating information (this also links in with Nietzschean philosophy – the one philosopher I am familiar with – who questioned the very notion of there being an “objective truth”). This was fine when the media landscape was relatively small-scale, it becomes a different matter when the landscape becomes a vast, unregulated space populated by individuals who reject the responsibilities that come with the narratives they disseminate.

Although Herman and Chomsky’s theory doesn’t exactly fit with the notion of “post-truth” politics, it does have some relevance here. The growing hand-wringing over “post-truth politics” by the mainstream media has been a handy weapon for them to utilise, and one that has helped to mask their own culpability for the current political and social crisis. Under the cover of “post-truth” the media are able to differentiate themselves from the vast swathe of media out there pushing alternative narratives that sit outside the mainstream of post-war public discourse, thus masking their culpability for our current environs.

As Herman and Chomsky have pointed out, the media do not have a good history when it comes to presenting facts or in being “ubiquitous in the search for truth”. Rather it has a history of presenting information that fails to challenge the status quo and rather than speaking out against power they are complicit in power structures and in reinforcing a very narrow economic perspective. This narrowing of public discourse and failure to challenge the orthodoxy has resulted in the media increasingly being seen as part of the political elite. They are no longer holding power to account, they are engaged in a symbiotic relationship where the two feed off each other, one reinforcing the other. When the media and the state become intertwined, loss of faith in the latter also results in a loss of faith in the former, because they have become virtually indistinguishable. Hence we find ourselves in a situation where even were the media to try to hold individuals like Farage and Trump to account, they will be ineffective. Because the media are simply extensions of the system that those individuals and their followers seek to tear down.

And this is ultimately the key. The problem is not information literacy. The problem is that there is a movement that seeks to tear the entire system down (for a variety of reasons – although primarily its source is racism). What we are encountering is not simply addressed by encouraging people to read more critically (although long term this strategy may help), it requires continuous and persistent challenging of those that seek to tear everything down. It’s this that we must consider when we think about how best to support our communities and tackle the threat that they are facing.

Earlier this year, Steve Bannon (appointed chief strategist for the Trump presidency) gave an interview to The Daily Beast where he declared that:

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Earlier in 2014, Trump himself declared that:

“You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

There are clear echoes here of the past. It’s very easy to fall back on Nazi Germany analogies, but here it seems appropriate. Now, as then, we are living in the aftermath of a substantial economic shock, one that has seen the poorest punished hardest whilst the wealthiest continue to prosper. Now, as then, people are turning to extremes for answers. As it was in the 1930s, it is the far-right that have prospered by blaming “the other” and profiting from a clearly stated desire to tear down the whole edifice. As Ian Kershaw, one of the leading historians on Nazi Germany, notes of this period in German history:

“Voters were not for the most part looking for a coherent programme, nor for limited reforms to government. Hitler’s party was attractive to them because it promised a radical new start by clearing out the old system entirely. The nazis did not want to amend what they depicted as moribund or rotten; they claimed they would eradicate it, and build a new Germany out of the ruins. They did not offer to defeat their opponents; they threatened to destroy them completely.” (Kershaw, 2015)

This is where we are in the West. Those that are turning to Trump (or to Farage) are not interested in “truth”, in “facts” or in critical thinking. They simply want to tear the whole thing down. They want to “drain the swamp”. To smash down the system that they feel has abandoned them and create something that puts their interests first. And where there are desperate people searching for someone to speak for them, there are those that are only too willing to exploit them. A defence against exploitation is not information literacy (although this doesn’t mean that we should abandon it, it is still a vital skill to encourage critical thinking). A defence against exploitation is the dismantling of capitalism, the real cause of people’s alienation and abandonment.

In terms of how we tackle this, I have no answers. I’m not going to sit here and bash out some glorious plan that will save us all and reverse the hell that we have allowed to be visited upon us (and let’s not kid ourselves, we have allowed this to happen). But my mind does turn to Orwell (as it often does) and his thoughts when reflecting upon the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. In his essay, Looking back on the Spanish War, Orwell writes:

“One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections amongst the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes.” (Orwell, 2000)

The “pinch” has come. We must continue to “squeal” at every opportunity, we must not give them a moment, we must not for one second normalise a vile politics that seeks to divide and tear apart our communities. And we must not ever, no matter how difficult the fight, collapse into defeatism.

References

Carr, E.H. (1990). What is history? London: Penguin.

Herman, E.S. & Chomsky, N. (2008). Manufacturing Consent. London: Bodley Head.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)

Post-truth politics and librarianship

To what extent can information literacy address so-called “post-truth politics”? (Image c/o freestocks on Flickr.)

Post-truth politics. Nothing screams zeitgeist quite as much as a blog post about the emergence of “post-truth politics”. At present it seems to be everywhere. Political tweets, articles in national media, analysis by the commentariat. In the aftermath of Brexit and with the emergence of Trump as a presidential candidate in the US, it has almost become a short-hand method by which to describe the current political climate. As someone working in the information profession and being politically engaged, the topic itself is like catnip to me. The notion of “post-truth” as someone who deals in facilitating access to information? How could I not jot down a few thoughts?

A few weeks back I was flicking through a collection of essays by George Orwell (living the stereotype). One essay in particular caught my attention: Looking back on the Spanish War. The Spanish Civil War is a bit of an obsession of mine. Being married to a Spaniard has helped feed this (on top of a history A-level where the study of fascism was the basis of the entire course), and I pretty much seek out as much information as I can on the most romanticised of 20th century conflicts. Orwell, of course, was actively involved in the conflict. Along with many other leftists, he left the UK to join the International Brigades and fight fascism in the truest sense of the phrase.

Reading through his reflections on the Civil War, one passage particularly hit home…forgive me if I reproduce it here in its entirety, but I think it is justified:

Out of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point — the presence in Spain of a Russian army [Note: the Russians provided strategic support and hardware for Republican elements, but did not send in their army]. Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain. There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not. Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this. Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain. Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their’ legionaries’. I have chosen to mention only one point, but in fact the whole of Fascist propaganda about the war was on this level.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

Orwell wrote these words in 1943.

Post-truth politics is, ultimately, a fancy new term for an age old…truth. In many ways this is hardly surprising. There is a tendency to re-package old ideas and present them as somehow new challenges for a new generation, when quite often they are old ideas that are re-packaged and presented as somehow new [citation needed].

When it comes to Brexit though, I wonder to what extent the vote to leave can simply be blamed on untruths or a sense of “post-truth politics”. Of course perhaps the prime example of the notion of post-truth politics was the infamous Vote Leave bus that suggested £350m being sent to the EU could be spent on the NHS instead. Despite being dismissed as “misleading” by the Chair of the Statistics Authority, the statement clearly influenced some, as demonstrated in this recent piece by Faisal Islam for The Guardian:

“I would go mad if this money doesn’t go into the NHS, I will go mad. I want to be assured that this money – because that’s why I voted to come out,” says Shirley.

But to what extent was the reality of Brexit really about “post-truth politics”? Certainly there are those that were misled, and there are those that would have been persuaded by falsehoods, but by no means can we paint Brexit as solely the consequence of post-truth politics. It is, for example, undoubtedly true that the European Union has adopted and pursued an extensive and damaging economic agenda across the continent. Casting an eye towards Greece is enough to underline the extent to which the EU is hardly a benign, friendly force for good. Economically speaking it is highly destructive. This is certainly a truth for those on the receiving end of the economic brutality. And a truth that is felt by the working class across the continent, those who do not feel the economic benefits so many of us take for granted (can anyone seriously argue that the working class in Greece have benefitted from the EU’s interventions?).

In this respect I was what might be described as a “reluctant remainer”. For me, if it was purely down to the economics of the European Union, I would have voted out. No-one who cares about the poorest in society could possibly consider the anti-democratic and destructive economic policies of the EU and believe that these are things that should be embraced. But then there are the social aspects. I am pro-immigration (indeed, I’m pro-“no borders”), and for me a vote to leave would have had disastrous implications for not only immigrants at home (which given the rise in racism seems to have very much come to pass), but would have given a powerful shot in the arm for far-right movements across Europe (who wasted no time in celebrating Brexit). That I could not countenance. And it was for that reason I voted to Remain. But, there were strong and powerful reasons to Leave, and they were not about “post-truth politics”, but a deeper truth about the reality of how the EU operates.

In terms of how this fits in with our work, would we make much difference here? Certainly, I think librarians clearly have a key role to play in terms of information literacy. We should be out there presenting the facts and working to ensure greater democratic engagement. And when I say “we should be out there” I mean we should be active, we should not just be waiting for folk to come to us in our libraries or institutions, we should be going out to them. Actively engaging wherever possible, working with communities, helping them to make sense of the huge volume of misinformation that proliferates during any political campaign.

But I don’t think better critical thinking amongst voters would necessarily have made a difference in terms of events such as Brexit. Yes there was inaccurate information from the Leave campaign that appears to have persuaded some to vote to leave, but would it have been any different if people were better equipped to assess the information provided? If you see the economic consequences of the EU in the Mediterranean, would you have been none the less persuaded to vote to Remain if you knew that not only were we not spending £350m per week on the EU that could have been spent on the EU, but that Turkey is unlikely to join any time soon and that we would have to join an EU army? Or would these truths make no difference whatsoever? Would the truth of the economic conditions enforced by the EU outweigh such “truths”? Or would the evident democratic deficit? And there are, of course, the racists and xenophobes who will take a racist position and disregard any “truths” that they are confronted with.

“People have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. I think we need to hear the voices of experts now more than ever. One look at the state of our media underlines how little the experts are heard, dominated as they are by commentators who pontificate on what they “reckon”. But experts and professionals can’t change realities or affect the lived experience of others. An individual critically analysing information in the run-up to the referendum could just as easily have voted to leave as voted to remain. Criticality and information literacy are not panaceas, but they help shine a light that can be shone into the darkest corners. Ultimately, it is not truth alone that will determine voting intentions, but how heavy that truth weighs.