Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding
The new liberal standard for facts.
The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt distinguished between lying and bullshit by reference to regard for the truth. Liars are those who are aware of the truth, or at least their version of it, but deliberately seek to subvert and mask that truth. Bullshitters, on the other hand, are those who have no direct concern for the truth, but seek only to impress and convey some sense of profound meaning. Bullshit, therefore, is that which implies truth and meaning but in fact contains little substance of either.
This distinction provides a delineation for an uncomfortable trend one can’t help but notice in the “Left” or liberal media; a propensity for bullshit. This isn’t to absolve the Right-wing press and conservative commentary, who exhibit a distorted relationship with truth and reality in their own right. Nor is this to suggest a hard dichotomy between conservatives as liars and liberals as bullshitters, as both sides may display varying degrees of each habit. However, the propensity for bullshit on the Left is arguably more problematic because, unlike modern conservatism which doesn’t even pretend to care about subverting the truth, modern Left/liberals delight in claiming a moral high ground on truth. Which means that being exposed for bullshit is more damning to its assumed moral superiority. Yet scrutinise the narratives espoused by the Left and you don’t find truth, you find verisimilitude: “truthiness”, the veneer of truth without the substance. In other words, you find bullshit.
I struggle with this because as someone with primarily Left-of-centre politics (foreign policy excepted), my conception of the Left is that speaking truth to power requires rigorous analysis and commitment to truth; objective, reasoned and reality-based critiques of the world we find ourselves trying to navigate. Instead, what passes for Left liberalism today is “fashionable nonsense”, sloppy thinking on important issues that gets excused by its target audience because it meets the new epistemic standard of proof for Left-leaning liberals: “Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding”.
Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding is a form of epistemic relativism; it deploys deliberately vague and imprecise claims that relate in the broadest possible sense to social issues almost all liberals would agree are important, particularly those pertaining to issues like race or gender. It relies on the receptivity bias of the reader who will accept the claims as meaningful and true independent of the veracity of the argument. Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding claims thrive on ambiguity in the intended message because the intent is not to inform or provide an exposition of truth; the intent is to convey pseudo-profundity and impress the reader by conveying CorrectThink appropriate to the liberal narratives du jour.
We can illustrate the concept of Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding with several examples. Take an article in the Washington Post published around the time of the World Cup Final, which suggestively wondered why Argentina did not have more Black players in their squad. You would be forgiven for thinking that the article consisted of some investigative journalism into potential issues in Argentinian football, barriers to players of colour or evidence of discrimination. In fact, the article didn’t even discuss the Argentinian team, football, or indeed, anything to prove its central point. Instead it consisted of historical meanderings, some interesting and important, but ultimately entirely tangential or unrelated to its thesis, and contained the usual anachronisms and patronising cultural imperialism of the American Left. In effect, the article was relying on little more than innuendo to prove its thesis, and could rely on the fact that the question itself was Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding to infer proof of malevolence, at least to American liberals. The article had to be corrected (much to the glee of the conservative Right-wing press) to state that the Black population of Argentina was “actually far less than one percent” (based on a 2010 census); seemingly they couldn’t bring themselves to state the figure of 0.3% outright, as it would provide an immediately more obviously plausible answer to its innuendo-laden question: simple demographics.
Consider another article in the journal Foreign Policy, provocatively entitled Queen Elizabeth II Wasn’t Innocent of Her Empire’s Sins. Similarly, you would be forgiven for thinking the article actually focused on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and her role in the “empire’s sins”. Except, the article opened in 1550 with another Queen named Elizabeth - the Virgin Queen herself - and Elizabeth II appears to be mentioned all but twice. The focus of the article was primarily Queen Elizabeth I, the 16th Century Caribbean plantations, and a litany of events that occurred 200-300 years before Elizabeth Windsor was born. You would think the author just got his Queen Elizabeth’s mixed up, but alas this was not the case; the reasoning was deliberate, and follows the template of anachronistic, circumstantial links and the historian’s fallacy of presentism (historical determinism fostered onto interpretations of the past through the lens of present perspectives).
Or the claim by the Scientific American that apparently “Western science recognised only one sex” before the 18th Century and introduced a “two-sex model” to reinforce gender and racial divisions. Here we have the #FollowTheScience crowd, forgetting that sex dimorphism was covered in Biology 101, and deciding to merge junk science with junk history into Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit. The article itself that the Scientific American was promoting with those claims, however, primarily focused on the phenomenon of intersex (individual’s born with combinations of sex characteristics), seemingly oblivious to the fact that those combinations are themselves still derived from sex dimorphism (i.e., a combination of characteristics from two sexes). Nor did the article seem concerned with addressing how people had somehow magically arrived at the Enlightenment if, as alluded, women were invented by some White men in the 18th Century. Was the overwhelmingly liberal academy (just 9.2% of college professors in the U.S. are conservative) concerned with such pseudo-profound, pseudo-scientific bullshit? Not at all. It seems American liberal academics are now only “scientific” when it suits, and happy to default to hyper-relativist and hyper-subjectivist epistemic standards as and when the narrative demands.
Of course, this raises an important question: why? What could be driving this culture of Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit on the Left and in the Left-liberal media? One potential answer offered by psychologist Pamela Paresky could may be the need to demonstrate “moral purity”, which arises when an ideological monoculture takes hold of a group. Within an ideological monoculture, consensus is expected and demanded, and moral virtue is signalled to the group by demonstrations of outrage and contempt for anyone not pot committed to whatever consensus the ideological monoculture demands. And where the ideological monoculture is centred on identity, opinions or different perspectives become conflated with “harm”, with the result that debate on any topic is not considered along objective criteria - pros vs. cons - but instead replaced with subjective moral sensitivities to the issue.
This may explain why Left-liberals are more concerned with being morally righteous than with being factually correct or theoretically sound. In a paper by Tetlock et al. (2000), the authors highlighted that moral outrage may be deployed in order to protect “sacred values”, defined as:
“any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular value.”
Because any consideration beyond the sacred values are precluded, people engage in emphatic performances to distance themselves from That Which Is Verboten according to their ideological monoculture, which takes two main forms: moral outrage and moral cleansing. “Moral outrage” manifests as eviscerating the character of anyone who does not endorse the Sacred Values, the expression of anger and contempt, and support for ostracisation and punishment for those who transgress against the Sacred Values. “Moral cleansing” is a form of self-cleansing, which manifests as the display of unrepentant loyalty to the Sacred Values, defined by:
“rigidity, accompanied by righteous indignation and by blanket refusal even to contemplate certain thoughts...is essential for resolutely reasserting the identification of self with the collective moral order.”
Considered in this framework, it becomes unsurprising that the Sacred Values of identity result in the propagation of Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding claims from Left-liberals, the histrionic responses to any perceived transgression from the accepted mantras of CorrectThink, and the justification of total character assassination against anyone who deviates from the ideological monoculture.
These concepts of sacred values, moral purity and moral cleansing, can also be illustrated by example, and possibly no single individual serves as a more tragic example of this culture than J.K Rowling. Consider the extent of the moral outrage directed at Rowling, which extends to Left-liberals excusing and justifying signs such as this:
The person making such a sign and waving it in public would also be engaging in their ritual of moral cleansing, performing their moral purity to the group, and signifying that they would never even question the sacred values in question. To understand the vitriol directed at Rowling, it is necessary to consider what those sacred values are. Until recently, most Left-liberals had fairly broad acceptance that sex and gender were distinct; sex was biological, while gender was more socially constructed, encompassing a broad spectrum of masculinity-femininity. Recently, however, this has been flipped by “Theorists” (primarily at the far-Left of U.S. academia in pseudo-academic fields), who began to apply relatively accepted concepts of gender identity as socially constructed and masculinity-femininity as a broad spectrum, to sex. In this theoretical framework, it is sex that is constructed; this is the sacred value. Thus, sex has, in effect, conceptually supplanted gender. The sacred value is that if a man or women decides that they are the opposite sex, it is true and valid because it is an expression of their innate gender identity. This is why previously accepted concepts - like the need for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria - are now verboten, because they are inconsistent with the sacred value. This also lies at the core of the debate over self-recognition because it creates a massive legislative conflict with existing equality legislation, which is sex-based, not construct-based. Academics and politicians, even if Left-liberals, who do not affirm this sacred value are eviscerated (as in the example of former University of Sussex professor Kathleen Stock, forced to resign due to death threats, or Labour MP Rosie Duffield - a survivor of abuse - being shouted down by men in Parliament).
With this backdrop, let’s come back to the example of Rowling. Former Huff Post journalist EJ Rosetta was tasked to investigate the rampant transphobia of JK Rowling. Or, more appropriately, allegedly rampant. Rosetta’s Huff Post bio describes her as a “Lesbian and Bisexual writer for many major LGBT publications”, and thus no doubt the Huff Post considered Rosetta a trustworthy pair of hands to write an article on Rowling entitled, “20 transphobic JK Rowling quotes we're done with.” Instead, this was her ultimate conclusion:
The full thread is a worth a read, and Rosetta was, of course, fired by the Huff Post for the crime of maintaining journalistic integrity and declining to write any such article.
Rather than be presented with actual evidence, instead Rosetta was provided with a list of excuses, which ranged from “it’s just common knowledge” to “I’m not doing your research for you” to “she just is” to “it’s hard to pick one quote bc it’s just everything she says, ever”. Which is precisely what Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit looks like when truth is secondary to the narrative. Rowling’s real crime is to question the sacred value, which means she must be eviscerated, and people scrawl “Kill J.K. Rowling” signs to purge themselves of her tainted WrongThink. Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit has some nasty consequences.
We can identify a taxonomy for Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit. At the top of the hierarchy is subject matter, almost always related to concepts that Left-liberals support at the broadest levels, with special emphasis on race and gender. For example, it is difficult to find someone on the Left or a liberal (acknowledging the two are not necessarily one and the same) who does not agree that racism is a blight on society, or that trans people should have the opportunity to live safe, legally recognised, and dignified lives in society. However, the boundaries of these braod levels of acceptability become very blurred when we get to the next level in the taxonomy, which is the target issue to which the authors will link with the subject matter.
This level in the taxonomy is where Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit manipulates the broad positions of acceptable agreement on the subject matter to mount claims or arguments that may be entirely unrelated, or only tangential to, the target issue. The target issue is often addressed through the lens of #FollowTheScience (a manipulation of science in favour of a preferred end, like in the Scientific American example above) and/or historical half-truths or revisionism (as in the Washington Post and Foreign Policy examples above), which are used to add pseudo-profound weight to the truth-y sounding claims. And as the authors of the claims can rely on an uncritical, reflexive reception from Left-liberals, there is no need to substantiate the claims, make a persuasive case, or even address a central point (insofar as it is possible to identify one).
The final level of the taxonomy, therefore, is the receiver of the Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit. Because the subject matter is, in the broadest sense, something the Left-liberal reader accepts as important, they are prone to the “Barnum effect”; gullibility to vague, pseudo-profound bullshit based on the preconceived acceptability of the statements. As the reader will approach pseudo-profound statements with an expectation of meaningfulness, their response is defined by uncritical open-mindedness (vs. true critical open-mindedness, which requires serious consideration of alternative ideas), and accepting of vague and tenuous claims without much analytical scrutiny or critical reflection, simply because the rhetoric deployed is Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding.
This taxonomy also provides two convenient escape routes to dismiss any criticism of Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit. The first is the motte and bailey fallacy, where the claimant begins with a bold, controversial claim (the motte), comfortable that they can retreat to an obvious, uncontroversial position (the bailey). In this regard, it doesn’t matter how specious the arguments around the target issue of the Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit are, because it is always possible to retreat to the uncontroversial subject matter level to shield from criticism. Thus, for example, the Washington Post article can be defended by going from the motte of the innuendo that Argentina has some wantonly discriminatory policy against Black footballers, to the bailey of some opaque statement that there is a history of racism in Argentina.
This example illustrates the second, related, escape route, because such a rhetorical strategy has the effect of gaslighting any criticism; “you’re only taking issue with it to downplay/deny racism is a problem...typical White male”. Any objections to Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit, any call to factual accuracy, is considered as itself proof of guilt and “complicity”, evidence that you are in fact a malevolent actor standing in the way of social progress. This tautological reasoning ultimately has the effect of positioning Sufficiently Truth-y Sounding bullshit as unassailable in the eyes of its supporters.
In the end, the reality is that this culture on the Left has, and will have, consequences. It immediately refutes any claims to a moral high ground. It makes a mockery of the concept of truth. It has laid waste to the intellectual tradition on the Left that valued objective critiques and was skeptical of overly theoretical pontificating, both of which were viewed as barriers to a better society. It has given birth to a noxious form of cultural imperialism on the American Left, which removes agency from every other country and culture and superimposes its own cultural context on to every conversation. And while it sees itself as above the fray of the so-called “culture war”, it is nothing but a frontline, mud-filled trench in that hopeless conflict.
More tragically, it has weaponised the very identities the Left purports to speak for and forced them - often vulnerable adolescents - on to this “culture war” frontline. This culture is about coercion rather than consensus, is exclusionary rather than inclusionary, and seeks to impose monocultural homogeneity in contrast to its lofty claims of diversity. It has denigrated these important issues into a caricature of themselves. I will never understand how anyone justifying this culture of Sufficiently Truth-y sounding bullshit thinks this is the “progressive” way forward.