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How the powerful are perverting the truth

Credit: Anthony Devlin / Getty

Credit: Anthony Devlin / Getty

September 21, 2018   5 mins

This tweet from the South Yorkshire constabulary – to which we’ll return – reminded me of something I wrote for a scientific journal in 1996:

“Most of us are critical realists, in that we believe the Universe exists and that we can learn something about its mechanisms by measuring observable phenomena.”

At the time that felt uncontroversial; now it makes me laugh aloud. Not because I no longer believe in the Universe, or the importance of using language as precisely as possible to describe it, in order to produce valid conclusions about the laws that govern (biological, psychological, cultural) existence. I laugh because I no longer believe that “most of us” think any such thing.

“Most of us” – most of those with power, anyway, about whom I’m most concerned – “most of us” seem to believe that the Universe exists only as an extension of our own desires, and that its reality is nothing more than anything we care to assert at any given moment in time.

To such pathologically subjective people – path-subs, let’s call them – simply to declare “This is a fact” is sufficient to turn “this” into a fact; no more evidence about the nature of “this” is required, and any evidence that is produced, which appears to contradict the claim, can – and must – be dismissed out of hand.

Once you accept that powerful people and institutions have adopted this path-sub worldview, then a lot of what at first seems crazy about modern life begins to make sense.

Don’t believe the world is round? Just say “The world is flat”, and pancake-like it becomes. Look what happened to Angelos Sofocleous when he tweeted “Women don’t have penises”: hounded from the philosophy magazine he edited. (Let’s take a second to note the delicious, beautiful irony of Mr Sofocleous’s name.)

You can dismiss the suffering of Sofocleous as mere student idiocy. Until you remember the British state’s definition of hate crime:

“Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

The Crown Prosecution Service, from whose site I’ve copied that definition, goes on to say:

“There is no legal definition of hostility so we use the everyday understanding of the word which includes ill-will, spite, contempt, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment and dislike.”

I’ve bolded the overt insertions of path-sub thinking in those definitions. For a hate crime to be committed, it’s sufficient for me to assert that it has. End of debate. I don’t even require to have witnessed the incident to which I’ve decided to apply the label. And that criminal offence itself might have been motivated by “unfriendliness”. Remember that, the next time you stand on my foot on the tube, and don’t return my friendly greeting.

To be clear: I’m temperamentally opposed to the concept of hate crime, since to my boring old Tory mind it is the crime that matters, not its motivation. Ian Baynham died from the kicking he received from a pack of homophobic scum; Alan Greaves was battered to death by non-homophobic scum. The deaths of Ian and Alan don’t weigh differently, to my mind. I couldn’t care less about the motives of their attackers.

However, I can accept that society might take a different view. I can see why its politics might say, “The motivation for some crimes is so abhorrent that we label them as hateful and judge their protagonists especially harshly.” You and I can disagree about this; nothing bad would follow.

But the path-sub perversion of the hate crime definition does matter, because it distorts reality. It leaves the critical realist – the man or woman who requires evidence to back-up assertions about the state of things – at the mercy of the path-sub activist, who can change reality (“That was a hate crime”) at the tap of a keyboard. And once we grant permission to the path-subs to create the reality in which we all have to live, we are at their mercy.

Especially in South Yorkshire? Before pushing the path-sub envelope with that interesting take on hate crime, exemplified by our opening quote, South Yorkshire constabulary turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of hundreds of South Yorkshire girls, over a period of years. Professor Alexis Jay, who investigated this atrocity, concluded that police “gave no priority to child sexual abuse, regarded many victims with contempt and failed to act on their reports of abuse”.

This, um, flexible approach to applying path-sub rules about hate crime strikes people as bizarre. South Yorkshire police want to know if you’ve done anything mildly unpleasant; that same force declined to investigate the objectively hateful. Similarly, you can be arrested for saying “Excuse me, do you realise that your horse is gay?”, but the Metropolitan police won’t lift a finger while you subject a Conservative MP’s children to what anyone reasonable would call vicious psychological abuse. Even if they’re standing next to you while you do it.

Isn’t that a contradiction? Surely, think Tories and liberals across the centre-Right spectrum, surely this obvious contradiction will cause the whole path-sub house of cards to collapse?

Dream on, matey. The contradiction isn’t a problem; it’s an inherent and deliberate attribute of the path-sub architecture. While old-fashioned types like myself worry about the incoherent stances adopted by various institutions in hock to path-sub thinking, the path-sub activist rejoices at our confusion. Path-sub politicians and activists couldn’t be happier that I’ve spent a few hours trying to unravel their contradictory ideas: that’s two hours a Conservative didn’t spend rallying the electoral base to fight back. That’s two hours when they were out there, bending reality to their will.

From universities, to our criminal justice systems, to our politics. Path-sub is the mindset of the Corbynite – you can see their spiteful toddler “deductions” all over social media: “Because all Tories are evil, there is no level of abuse to which they cannot be subjected.”

This week, Rupa Huq, a Labour MP from west London tweeted an image of the gates at Downing Street:

The gates, of course, were put in place to protect our democracy from terrorist attacks. Let’s not forget Rupa Huq’s party leader’s interesting history with regard to the progenitors of some of those terrorist campaigns, for example being arrested at a demo organised to show sympathy for the Brighton bombers.

Huq knows this. She knows that you know that she knows this. But neither the grotesquely offensive nature of her tweet, nor the overt rewriting of history by a former sociology lecturer matters a damn. Huq says: (Female) Tories have gates to protect their splendid isolation, and that becomes the truth.

Everything real is contingent to the path-sub’s political desire. If reality is contingent then the truth is subjective, or, more accurately, the “truths” are subjective, from which it follows they can be put into a rank order.

Truth A – that Thatcher had security gates installed because terrorists were trying to kill her – can be held in the hands of path-sub MPs, and measured against Truth B – that Thatcher was a Tory, Tories hate and fear the people, so Thatcher installed gates to keep the virtuous mob from the door. Guess which “truth” the Corbynite university lecturers are whispering in the ears of your children.

Back in 1996, I wrote that we can’t understand the universe, in any useful way, without accepting that it exists beyond our consciousness. Throughout my adult life I’ve believed that words matter, as they are our thoughts made (metaphorical) flesh, and so are also real objects in that same universe they are attempting to describe. Words are real things, with power.

Increasingly, and terrifyingly, only the last sentence of that paragraph holds water. Words have power, all right, but their actual meaning (define “hate crime”) no longer matters. Facts don’t matter. Biology doesn’t matter. History doesn’t matter. The truth is whatever the pathologically subjective declares it to be.

Such wordcrime is strong enough to destroy institutions (see our police service and universities for details). Liberals and Conservatives must stop ignoring this. What would happen, for example, were a pathologically subjective Corbyn-led government to assert that “There’s no such thing as a good Conservative”? What reality do you imagine would follow from that?

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.


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