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January 22, 2012


Whose Reality You Talkin’ Bout?

by Mike M

If you haven’t read the piece from yesterday’s Post on information silos and the subjectivization of fact in a fragmenting media environment—absolutely, do so.  It builds on fascinating work by people like Farhad Majoo, and his book True Enough, which is a great and essential read about the emerging character of our “post-fact society.”

The accelerating subjectivization of reality represents a profound social and political development, but it also has implications for making strategy.  One great genius of U.S. Cold War strategy was that it rested on a pretty solid bipartisan, broadly-shared consensus in the country; which in turn rested on a largely agreed fact base—about the nature of the world, about U.S. power, and so on.  At times that consensus became ossified into bias and groupthink, but for the most part it was constructed on what its primary authors—beginning with George Kennan—hoped and intended was a fully empirical look at the world as it was.

Today, not so much.  Competing versions of basic facts (global warming is happening/is not; President Obama is a Muslim/is not; the country is becoming more unequal/is not; Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11/was not).  If ideological media outlets create distinct fact environments—which rise, ultimately, even into the public officials who make policy (as they did, surely, during the Bush administration debates on the intelligence surrounding Iraq’s involvement with terrorism)—how can we make anything approaching coherent strategy?

What if it turns out the postmodernists and deconstructionists were right, at least as empirical assessments of the loss of an objective reality on which to base social policy?  What happens to strategy in a world without a unifying narrative?

One initial thought:  It becomes entirely reactive, because there’s no basis to create an anticipatory set of policies that link together and reflect a serious theory of how the world works.  The room for serious, long-term, administration-spanning strategy (as opposed to political “strategizing”), in fact, shrinks to almost nothing.  Which begins to sound, in fact, grimly familiar.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. H
    Jan 23 2012

    Maybe. But isn’t the notion of a largely shared worldview as the basis for American foreign policy at any point in our history arguably a myth? From Adams v Jefferson to to Kennan v Lippman to Carter v Reagan, both foreign policy “wise men” and our chief diplomats don’t seem to have ever really operated off a shared interpretation of history, allies, adversaries, or policy.

    But even if you grant there has always been disagreement over strategy colored by political philosophy and competition for power, it doesn’t obviate the blog’s point.

    We all tend to live more and more in bubbles of information that reinforce our worldview (although it’s not clear to me how it’s much worse now than say, in the 18th century–how would measure such a thing?).

    The acceleration of closed mindedness suggests all those cognitive biases just get harder to unlodge. But they were always hard to dislodge. Underlying the blog’s philosophy is the idea that somehow there is a measurable or demonstrable “right” strategy, if you just kept a more open mind than most of the rest of us have.

    Since even the most careful and respected historians routinely reinterpret the major strategic decisions and their “goodness” (cf dropping the atomic bomb), I wonder if there is ever any way to prove the hard causality the blog posits.

    – H

  2. Monk
    Jan 23 2012

    I submit that the debate is (seems to be?!) between those who accept that there is such a thing as an external, objective reality–and those who consider reality subjective; it is what I say it is. The opinion makers who have used today’s tools to mold mis-information, to create the illusion that all ‘facts’ are ideological reflections of opinions, have created an evil genie which will be very difficult to re-cork. It is one thing to have serious policy differences and debates and prescriptions (healthy), and quite another to disagree on the underlying reality which needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it only takes one side to be on LSD to create the dichotomy and dilemma. Today, so much of the public sees ‘facts’ themselves as ideological–rather than just looking at facts through an ideological prism. Any policy maker in the future, especially those who encourage this sad state of affairs, will come to rue this sad state of affairs.

  3. Matt J
    Jan 24 2012

    The fragmention and polarization of information and politics is clearly a major factor in modern life — not long ago I read Bill Bishop’s “Big Sort,” which looks at the physical geographical outcome of this same dynamic and its implications for politics as people put themselves voluntarily not just into information silos but into geographical ones that more or less correspond to their worldviews.

    If we pretend to be strategists, though, we had better take this whole notion of socially constructed reality with a couple of large tablespoons of salt. It is a factor, sure, in politics and perceptions, and one that must be taken account of in those dimensions the making of strategy. It influences the social and political context profoundly. But as H notes, it always has — perhaps its impact is magnified by modern technology and social trends, but it’s always been more or less present.

    At bottom, however, there remain certain physical facts which will produce certain physical outcomes — global warming is an excellent example. However we choose to construct socially our interpretation of the truth of this matter, at the end of the day it will or will not occur; if it occurs, it will unfold at a certain rate and have whatever consequences its actual extent entails. Polities whose social construction of reality most closely matches the actual, hard objective reality will be best positioned to react and will thus gain a strategic edge over those whose socially constructed reality is a poorer match. Some problems will be less solidly grounded in physical fact, and more inescapably linked to competing constructions of “fact” (the whole complex mess of COIN/IW, for one), but even here there will be objective realities, and the players who understand them most correctly will gain advantage.

    So I’ll go ahead and admit to being basically an empiricist. It’s likely, in my mind, that the evil genie of subjectivism to which Monk refers, a product of generations of Western philosophizing increasingly unconnected with the objective reality I believe to exist, represents a serious handicap for our political and intellectual elites in making strategy. We need to take account of the social construction of reality, but we’d better be alert for ambushes from the real thing.

  4. Jan 26 2012

    Great points all. I think the literature here isn’t denying empiricism–indeed it’s supporting it. The argument is that there ARE facts to be had, at the bottom of it all; a realist/empiricist position, more or less. The problem, as Matt puts it well at the end, is the “ambushes of the real thing,” and this is the idea today–the combination of technologies, a fragmented media market, and natural human psychological dynamics that create a situation in which I “believe” the facts I am told by a given source; and there are 15 sources putting out “their” facts. That does not deny the existence of “the” facts, but it also posits an empirical situation in the body politic in which that existence doesn’t much matter any more.


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