This article is predicated on the view that without a clear idea of exactly how our knowledge-making procedures work, it is difficult to arrive at a full understanding of disinformation and cancel culture, and it advances the view that Jonathan Rauch’s recent The Constitution of Knowledge provides us with an indispensable account of how those epistemic procedures function. Having acquired a sound understanding of how the knowledge industry works, cancel culture and disinformation emerge as rogue interventions in the battle of ideas.
Disinformation and cancellation are signs of the times. It is often claimed that the former is the weapon of choice of a particular kind of political Right, perhaps even a populist Right, while the latter is mainly the practice of the far-left, although we find occurrences of the two phenomena on both sides of the political spectrum. Why speak of them in the same breath? They both belong to the epistemic agonism of today: you might engage in conflict by means of either strategy, seeking to advance your cause through spreading information which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny or “bettering” your opponent not through argumentation but through the attempt to have them expelled from the public sphere (whereby they are banned from a platform, lose their job, etc). Disinformation smothers accurate information; cancel culture suppresses ideas.
It can be difficult to disentangle the producer of disinformation from the victim of cancellation. Alex Jones has had his content removed from numerous platforms, his accounts on a number of other websites have been deleted, and his company may no longer use a well-known online payments system to sell things in its online shop. Is he a victim of cancellation? The more plausible conclusion is that he is a promulgator of disinformation. (It is more accurate to say that Jones fell foul of the policies embraced by Big Tech. Such utilities rely on policy design as well as product design.) What of Kathleen Stock, the British university professor who holds what we now call “gender critical views”? Is she guilty of peddling false information? The more convincing conclusion is the opposite of the former case: she is the victim of cancellation.
One can reach tentatively for such conclusions, but one does so with great trepidation. Postmodern philosophy, which started a fashion for uncertainty (characterized by subjectivism and relativism), has undoubtedly made it more difficult to get to grips with these phenomena. After all, as Sokal and Bricmont argue, postmodernism promulgated “cognitive relativism”, which reduces our defences when it comes to dealing with disinformation. (1) And specific strains of this kind of theory have also led us astray when it comes to cancel culture. Herbert Marcuse, truly a herald of this culture, championed what he called “repressive tolerance” in an essay bearing that title. “Liberating tolerance, [..]” he blithely argues in the piece, “would mean intolerance against movements from the right and toleration of movements from the Left” (2).
Of course we have solid academic work about the exact nature of disinformation and the business of cancelling, but it may well be that there remains a lacuna in that work. Perhaps the discussion of these phenomena needs to relate them to our actual business of knowledge-making, defining them in relation to the everyday activity of knowledge production. Perhaps if we had a clearer picture of our knowledge-making processes, it would quickly become apparent that the system which produces disinformation is a grotesque parody of our genuine knowledge-making processes. And perhaps the same knowledge of knowledge-making processes would help us understand what cancellation is.
Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge may well turn out to be the book this generation needs at this juncture (3). In the first instance it offers a comprehensive account of our knowledge-making processes, of what he calls the constitution of knowledge. Having defined the nature of this constitution, Rauch is in a position to offer a critique of disinformation and cancellation. As already intimated, systemic disinformation emerges as a parody of the constitution. He sheds light on disinformation and trolling by contrasting it with the constitution of knowledge. In one section, when speaking of “troll epistemology”, he comments:
It cannot create knowledge, build trust, or settle disagreements. It cannot develop new cancer therapies or discover subatomic particles. It cannot even organize a coherent conversation. (3)
And cancellation proves to be a betrayal of the constitution. The constitution of knowledge – the rules governing knowledge-making – demands we tackle ideas, explains Rauch; cancel culture, instead, targets the person. The constitution, he continues, insists on diversity of expression; cancel culture suppresses such diversity. Cancel culture supports demagogues though the constitution advocates “careful, rational argumentation”. Professional credibility gets built up over time within the context of the constitution; cancel culture wrecks reputations in the blink of an eye.
Independent observers are fundamental to the constitution; cancel culture is the culture of the mob. Bullying is key to cancel culture though the constitution places a premium on “independent judgement”. And the constitution tells us accuracy is the priority; cancel culture says it is politics. Rauch is aware of the fact that cancellation takes place across academia, the media, and the internet. His definition of cancel culture seems most focused on academic life. His choice may stem from the fact that, out of the three, it is academia, in his view, which is doing the least to tackle this kind of bullying.
It has been said that disinformation brings about a situation in which, as Peter Pomerantsev puts it, “nothing is true and everything is possible” (4). In possession of proper awareness of our knowledge-making processes, we might recover clarity about how some things are true and how, with respect to everything we are not sure about, only a limited range of options are possible. On one level, this would represent less of a great cultural achievement than a process of normalization; but it would also mean we had taken a decisive step back from the precipice.
With respect to putting cancellation behind us, the yield would be equally important. It would be a blow against incivility in our public debates. It would help reinstate viewpoint diversity and help put an end to the self-censorship which stymies that intellectual diversity.
Teachers have a special role to play when it comes to finding solutions for our current epistemic maladies. Education is the place where we can start from the beginning once more and try to put in place a sound account of knowledge making and its travesties. One specific domain where we have the chance to make an impact is in the teaching of “Theory of Knowledge”. We could do worse than put Rauch’s wonderful new study on our reading lists.
Brian Russell Graham
- Sokal, A. and Bricmont, J, “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals Abuse of Science”, 1997.
- Marcuse, H., “Repressive Tolerance”, 1968.
- Rauch, J., “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defence of Truth”, 2021.
- Pomerantsev, P., “Nothing is True, and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia”, 2014