I want to tell you about a new project a group of us are working on, but first, some background.
Since the late nineties, when I was working in the public relations business, I’ve been fascinated by people’s relationship with the information they consumed, their knowledge of the materials they used to build their world view. It was important for me to understand if they knew how their information diet was collected, assembled and distributed. Client education (“No, sir/madame, the reporter won’t let you verify the article before it goes in the paper.”) was a large part of the job.
Flash forward 20 years or so and that old fascination with worldview building has hit the front page, with a scary, Orwellian twist.
Post-truth is the word of the year. Barack Obama is lamenting the fact that “everything is true and nothing is true” and surrogates for the president-elect are asserting that “there’s no such thing anymore…as facts.”
Of Facts and Democracy
As a lawyer I’ve learned that the institutions which keep us from the wolves: the rule of law, democracy, individual rights, are, in a way, an illusion. If we are willing to ignore them they can be made to — in a manner of speaking — go away.
Let me explain by way of practical example. I often represented clients with clear, even uncontested, claims against debtors who just wouldn’t pay. My clients often (quite reasonably) couldn’t understand why a judge’s say so wasn’t enough to get them what they were owed. Why, after paying me to get a judgment in their favour, did they also have to pay me to force their debtor to give up a statement of assets, and then pay a bailiff to seize those assets and on and on?
“They’re wrong, the judge said so, why don’t they just pay up?”
The answer, unfortunately, was that not everyone follows the rules, even if they know they’re wrong. Worse still, if someone is willing to defy the rules, the rules themselves are only as good as the punishment the rule breaker receives for breaking them.
To put another way, the rules often work because, at a certain level, we all agree that the consequences of not getting along are worse than making the compromises necessary to get along. That’s great when the rules and punishments are clear. Unfortunately, many of our rules are unwritten and traditional with no punishment baked into them other than social censure.
The rule that “facts matter” (or even exist) in public debate is one of these traditional rules and the social censure baked in means less than ever.
The fact-checking model presumes that all audiences are equally interested in the truth and all politicians are concerned about being caught lying. But 2016 exploded that…Trump exposed a way in which it can’t work, which is when you overwhelm the system with a repeated refusal to be embarrassed about saying things are not true. That suggests something new and dangerous.
I fear that the post-fact society is exposing the flaw in our social contract; that the value of facts in public discourse is just another mutual illusion that someone bold enough can ignore with few consequences.
I fear that other institutions could be similarly exposed.
I’m not willing to give in to these fears without doing something about it.
Accordingly, some of my smart, creative friends from across the political and professional spectrum are gathering together with me to develop a new Canadian NGO tentatively called The Fact Project.
Our terms of reference outline that we are going to develop public education around four principles that seemed self-evident not too long ago. They are:
- Facts exist.
- Facts are discernible from opinion.
- Facts are superior to opinion as a foundation of public policy and public debate.
- Reasonable people can disagree on the best response to facts but a “post-fact” world (what some are calling a “post-truth” world) threatens institutions and values which are fundamental to Canadian society including democracy, equality and the rule of law.
We’re hoping to develop media literacy programming, public education campaigns and accountability journalism and to call out particularly good (and bad) uses of facts in the public sphere. We’re going to do it in partnership with experts in those fields and we’re going to do it in the Canadian context.