All of this writing and data analysis is a lot of work! So after more than five years of posting, I've finally launched a Patreon to help pay the bills.

5/26/19

Adorno, on telling the truth

The most profound and insightful writing tells you something new every time you read it, and so it is with Adorno. Last night, re-reading his Research Project on Anti-Semitism, I came across this passage:
A weighty objection might be raised against a thorough scientific treatment of anti-Semitism...One might raise the issue that anti-Semitic propagandists could misuse this and other results of our research. 
We do not share this point of view. The fear that truth can also be put to bad use should never paralyze the energy needed to uncover it in its entirety, especially in such vital problems. The growing custom of suppressing important elements of the truth for so-called tactical reasons is taking on more and more dangerous traits.
It is the reference to "so-called tactical reasons" that caught my eye. What Adorno has in mind here is what I have often called discourse gaming: the practice of trying to manipulate political outcomes by cleverly lying about this, or by maintaining tactical silence about that, or by trying to frame our rhetoric in manipulative ways. Though we rarely say so out loud there is an implicit theory behind all of this: people need to be controlled. They cannot be trusted to know the truth that we know, and to arrive at sound political judgments through mind and conscience; instead, we have to try to arrange the discourse in such a way that they are somehow forced to arrive at the right political conclusions.

A clear example of this problem typically emerges during US elections when Democratic candidates face criticism from their left - which, we are told, might endanger their victory over the Republican. This, supposedly, is why leftists shouldn't criticize Democrats; even if the criticism is true and fair, voters cannot be trusted to hear it. Similarly, we are told that left critiques of liberalism need to be suppressed, not because they are wrong, but because knowing the truth could imperil liberal-left unity against fascism.

Against this, Adorno raises two objections. One is simply to call into question the "so-called tactical reasons" that justify discourse gaming: activists and intellectuals may think of it as an ultra-savvy Machiavellian way to do politics, but really it just doesn't work. Adorno goes on to argue that when we refuse to speak truthfully, avoiding things that seem rhetorically inconvenient and that could be used against us, our politics become "satisfied to bask in general concepts such as the rights of man, progress, enlightenment, etc"; in other words, our cynical sophistry loses touch with reality. And this is dangerous because it plays into the hands of fascists, who pride themselves on courageously facing dark unpleasant truths; when we discourse game, our political rhetoric tends to become "mere phrases, just as the fascist advocates of persecution cynically charge."

Adorno's second objection is implicit in his observation that the truth "can also be put to bad use". The project of discourse gaming only makes sense if there is an alternative rhetoric that - unlike the truth - cannot be cynically misrepresented, co-opted, and weaponized by reactionaries. Adorno's "also" reminds us that no such rhetoric actually exists. Language is instrumental, and the right is endlessly inventive in its ability to turn what we have said against us; tactical silence and clever framing gimmicks can't get us out of this problem.

All things being equal, then, it makes more sense to simply speak the truth. It keeps our politics grounded in reality, and it is no more susceptible to right-wing opposition than anything else. These points may be at odds with the ultra-savvy Lakoffian-framing / Nietzschean post-truth tactical disposition of the modern discourse-gaming liberal-left; but they are, on the other hand, the advice of one of our foundational critics of fascism, written in 1941 by a Jew exiled from Germany. They are, I think, worth taking seriously.