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A Defense of Truth

by Jonathan Rauch

Pub Date: June 22nd, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-8157-3886-2
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution analyzes and proposes solutions to an “epistemic crisis”: Americans besieged by trolls and cancelers are having trouble telling truth from lies.

Rauch spares neither right- nor left-leaning activists in his latest salvo in America’s information wars. Building on his Kindly Inquisitors (1993) and on an elegant 2018 article in National Affairs, he warns that America is fighting “two insurgencies” that use similar techniques to demoralize opponents: “the spread of viral disinformation and alternative realities, sometimes called troll culture, and the spread of unforced conformity and ideological blacklisting, sometimes called cancel culture.” The author proceeds by way of an extended analogy with the Constitution in arguing that “staying in touch with reality depends on rules and institutions” like those in what he calls our “Constitution of Knowledge.” This system determines what is and isn’t true, involving processes such as peer reviews at scholarly journals and Wikipedia’s multilayered feedback loops. It also requires people to test their ideas against competing views, a need Rauch sees as undermined by realities like speech codes, deplatforming, Twitter pile-ons, “emotional safetyism,” and diversity initiatives that neglect “viewpoint diversity” and overemphasize liberal views. Some of Rauch’s arguments overreach or aren’t new—he’s not the first to lament that liberal professors far outnumber conservatives at universities—but his credentials may persuade readers that they are no less sincere for it. “As a member of a sexual minority and a longtime gay rights (and free speech) advocate,” Rauch finds it “heartbreaking” that many activists “deploy exactly the same socially coercive tactics which were once used so effectively against homosexuals and other minorities,” including shaming and cancelling. “Coercive conformity,” he writes, “was wea­ponized, deployed, and perfected against us.” Even readers who disagree with his politics may be moved by his poignant argument from personal experience.

A thoughtful, occasionally overreaching critique of “emotional safetyism” and other relevant trends.