Alternative Facts, Twitter, and the Death of Socrates

At times, history seems to repeat itself; or as Mark Twain purportedly said, if history does not, “at least it rhymes.”

Today’s contentious arguments over “fake news” and “alternative facts” are such an occasion for rhyme. These issues bend Western history back upon itself to its very origins, to the stage-setting events springing from the confrontation between Socrates and the Sophists, and how in response Plato created the university.

In this ancient event, there are both parallels and lessons for today.

The Original “Fake News/Alternative Facts”: The Trial and Death of Socrates

In ancient Greece, the Sophists were the first “professional,” that is, paid, teachers. Their name roughly translates as “wise ones,” and their “wisdom” consisted in a hyper-cleverness that would impress Bill Maher.

The Sophists’ core curriculum consisted of three basic lessons.

First, different cultures and people hold widely different views of what is right and wrong. Hence, the Sophists taught, when confronted with anyone advocating for a traditional moral claim, the wise, “clever” thing to do is to interrupt and counter each claim by noting that there are other people and cultures who have a contrary opinion, thereby making all value claims equal and any appeal to a specific moral standard look ridiculous and parochial.

The second lesson of the Sophist curriculum is that justice is simply “the interest of the stronger,” or at least a convention without substance beyond its enforcement.

Third, and this is how the curriculum became monetized, the Sophists offered to teach the sons of wealthy families—or anyone willing to pay—how to “make the worse appear the better cause” in the democratic assemblies where legislation was passed. Obviously, this was just as valuable a skill for those seeking social and political advantages then as it is today for the clients of professional, well-paid lobbyists, spokespeople, marketers, and consultants.

In Socrates, the Sophists and their powerful political allies had met their match. He was the rhetorical foil to the Sophists at dinner parties and in the marketplace; and more than that, he embodied a simple and immovable moral rectitude that spoke for itself—res ipsa loquitur. Unable to outmaneuver him in debate, the Sophists and their allies found themselves contrasted with a person of real moral integrity.

The comparison was not flattering. So Socrates had to die. They accused him of impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates was brought to trial.

We know how the story ends.

The Platonic Response

Of course, the story does not end with Socrates’s execution by hemlock at the hands of the Athenian assembly and courts.

One of Socrates’s closest associates, Plato, son of a prominent, wealthy, aristocratic Athenian family, was appalled by the injustice of the death. The experience of seeing “facts” and “evidence” totally subverted into “fake news” to justify the execution of a man of Socrates’s intellectual and moral caliber shook Plato to the core. He spent the rest of his life creating a full-blown intellectual and institutional response to Socrates’s death, and in the process he invented the university and the philosophical and scientific methods that helped create Western culture.

Plato realized that to save society from the unbridled self-interest unleashed by the Sophists, their worldview had to be overwhelmingly and systematically refuted. To this end, Plato founded the Academy, a learning community on the outskirts of Athens in a forest dedicated to the hero Academos. Here Plato gathered the best minds of his day into a community organized around the logical pursuit of truth and rational dialogue. Like Socrates, the Academy as a community embodied a commitment to personal integrity, and a commitment to accept the outcome of rational discovery, whether or not it served one’s interests or confirmed one’s beliefs.

This act was pivotal for the world. Out of the Academy came the first mathematical model of the universe, which, with a series of tweaks and adjustments, held sway for more than a thousand years. The scientific and humanistic disciplines were first created at the Academy. And from the Academy came Aristotle, the star pupil of the school, who created formal logic, taxological biology, systematic physics, aesthetics, political science, and perhaps one of the best works on ethics ever written.

The Platonic academic community did everything the Sophists claimed was impossible—it attracted people from different cultures and backgrounds to form a new community founded on reason. It discovered and established objective standards of inquiry and argument, self-governance, and a rule of life guided by discovery of truths they did not know prior to inquiry.

Both the creation of this community of learners and the intellectual output of their work became a living refutation of the Sophists.

For a time, at least.

The Sophists Return: Postmodernism and Twitter

We are beginning to see a return to the Sophist mind-set, along with a professional elite who profit from it. All around us in the Western democracies, a vast cultural amnesia is being spread by our elites, wiping out centuries of vital cultural memory, and the first signs of impact are deeply disturbing. Indeed, the effects we are beginning to experience should disturb us today in the same way the death of Socrates disturbed Plato more than two thousand years ago.

Perhaps the most formally developed statement of the reemergent Sophist worldview is given by postmodernism. Postmodernists maintain that truth is community-oriented or culture-relative; that there are no universal or transcendent truths; and that language is an instrument of “empowerment.” Like the Sophists, postmodernists maintain that there is no “meta-narrative” in which truth claims can be compared and adjudicated. For them, truth and justice are nothing more than manifestations of power structures, and hence language, “narrative,” is used for changing of the balance of power in one’s own favor.

While these ideas have been developing among intellectual and cultural elites who profit from professional services and communications in Western democracies, a vast new technological infrastructure has also been created that can deliver this mind-set to the masses instantaneously. For example, twenty-four-hour cable news provides a dominant medium for separating “narrative” from scientific or moral substance. Cable broadcast has become the equivalent of the ancient arena in which gladiators of narrative battle each other. The medium and the message are a perfect fit—every point of view broadcast appears to have equal standing and merit. The aim is not to persuade or discover the facts through reason or knowledge but to showcase a never-ending battle to talk the loudest, longest, and have the last word.

How does this practice of “shaping the narrative” differ from the ancient art of making the worse appear the better cause?

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, and the internet in general, are further tools for postmodern cultural influence. Online, every point of view and its opposite are presented in infinite variety with equal purchase on our attention. The medium does not include a methodology for adjudicating claims made in virtual space. This virtual community does not collaborate in setting intellectual rankings of claims and rules of inquiry, as the Platonic Academy did, because to do so would be to privilege one narrative over another, and so to subjugate one community to another.

In these and many other ways, we have re-created the conditions and ideas of pre-Socratic Athenian democracy. But while the ideas are essentially the same, the scale and the stakes are vastly greater. Today we have powerful technological platforms that promulgate and empower pre-Socratic/pre-scientific points of view on a global scale. Today we confront not reckless graffiti on an ancient alley wall, or the subversion of justice in isolated communities, but a situation in which every idea and every self-interest can be promulgated and spread instantly to tens of millions of people everywhere.

Democracy cannot survive in a society that rejects all standards of truth, rational discourse, fair procedure, and measured response. When cultural and political leaders in democracies are as agnostic as the Sophists about truth and justice, and hence believe that the cultural and political institutions of democratic society are to be used to serve their own interests without normative checks, democratic institutions are doomed. Democracy requires a moral warrant of self-governance to underwrite its operations.

So today we must respond to a globally enabled pre-Socratic, pre-scientific mentality. That response must be of equal force and integrity to the response marshalled by Plato. If our democracies are to survive, we will need to restore the purchase of reason in our daily lives and interactions with each other. We will need to restore our capacity for the willing submission of our own ideas to the rigorous, public discovery of truth; and we will need to restore the self-discipline to acknowledge higher norms that, while never perfectly stated or implemented, are nevertheless understood.

We will never create a perfect circle, but we understand what one is. In like manner, we will never articulate every truth or fully comprehend the good and beautiful, but the true and the good and the beautiful remain the necessary North Stars to guide and to govern our common struggles and longings in democratic society.

Dr. Scott T. Massey is chairman and CEO of Global Action Platform, Emmy-nominated television documentary producer, and published author. He serves on several boards, is a noted speaker, and is professor of strategy and competitiveness at Belmont University.

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