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The writers of the Enlightenment looked on human nature through the prism of particular social needs and relations. But they did not suspect that history had put some prism before their eyes. – Plekhanov

We live, whether we like it or not, in postmodern times. For many people, the postmodern distrust of “grand narratives”, the postmodern understanding that facts and knowledge are never pure, but always intertwined with material power, is a mistake attributable to the corrupting influence of “French theorists” and the anti-semitic conspiracy theory of “cultural Marxism”. Those same people want to return to an unmediated conception of facts (biological facts, economic facts) and the confidence inspired by experts who understand complex facts that we cannot, and who are able to communicate those facts free of the taint of ideology. But the genie cannot be put back in the bottle: the understanding of the relationships between knowledge and power cannot be forgotten. Right-wing populism is one expression of this understanding, performed in the service of power inequality itself, but it is not the only one. In postmodern times suspicion of facts, knowledge, and expertise is a problem to be faced, not wished away.

Those who would wish it away do so from the perspective of pure knowledge, of better arguments: it is a matter of thinking differently, of recognizing the expertise of experts. Zeynep Tufekci argued yesterday that the reason nations have been laggard in dealing with coronavirus is an inability to understand complex systems, as if better understanding were the way to overcome generations of knowledge and facts in the service of power. Similarly, narratives of choosing to “be kind” cannot overcome generations of increased alienation and isolation, narratives of “the spread of enlightenment” cannot overcome the material social relations that require ignorance, anomie, and distrust. To take the opposite view is pure idealism, and idealism is too easily recuperated by the power of capital and the state. Jameson and Harvey showed us how postmodernism is the cultural manifestation of particular (neoliberal) changes in the organization of capitalism. We are currently going through another such transformation, though what the outcome will look like is still unclear. We have exited neoliberalism and, likewise, the cultural expression of what comes next will differ from postmodernism. Until then, we are still living in postmodern times.

For many liberal thinkers, the relationship between knowledge and power takes the form of the vexed question, “who decides?” In James Turk’s blog post about TPL, he wrote that “if we authorize censorship by the state and public bodies in the name of equality – to protect marginalized minorities – we have a problem involving who decides what expression to suppress.” And yet, as Dax D’Orazio wrote in a recent CFE blog post about anti-vaxx activism in the context of free expression, it is precisely this protection of minority views that the liberal conception of intellectual freedom was meant to serve: “Freedom of expression is supposed to be a counter-majoritarian check on power that affords objectionable content constitutional protection”. In the liberal tradition, the only answer to the question of “who decides?” is “the individual” (the smallest possible minority), and any other answer is by definition an infringement of individual rights.

In addition to being individualist, liberal intellectual freedom absolutism is idealist, in that tends to ignore the question of real harm because it recognizes only ideas and opinions, speech and expression, as having real effect in the world. There is a long history behind this which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that it takes a lot to overcome the idealist inertia of liberal thought to get it to recognize real harm. It is significant, I think, that trans rights activism and discourse was not enough to elicit a recognition of harm from IF absolutists, but anti-vaxx activism is. To my mind this plays precisely into the question of expertise, opinions, and “facts”: doctors and public health officials are experts worth listening to, but trans people are not (because their knowledge is somehow “subjective” while medical science is “objective”). Experts grounded in hard facts (like the success rates of vaccinations) are more reliable than experts grounded in subjective experience (note too, how transphobia thrives on an insistence of the “hard facts” of biological essentialism). Power is implicated in all of these contradictions, of course, but the refusal to recognize real harm done to trans people but take seriously real harm done through lack of vaccination (which hurts everyone) is, fundamentally, rooted in dehumanizing transphobia itself.

Liberal idealism leads D’Orazio to see anti-vaxx activism as a problem of knowledge, of ignorance of the “facts” of science. It is a question of beliefs and belief systems: “the decision-making process of parents skeptical or hesitant about vaccination is likely affected by a series of cognitive biases that are strategically exploited by anti-vaccination activists in their very carefully crafted messaging”. Decision-making is thereby impaired by manipulation (power), and so the real answer to the question “who [legitimately] decides?” is reason, sovereign even over the individual, amenable to logical argument and the presentation of facts. Liberal idealism attempts to put the genie of power back in the bottle by claiming transcendental absolute priority of reason over the aberrant abuses of power. They refuse to understand how the “facts” themselves have been used to manipulate people into harms way for generations - think of the “fact” of terra nullius, the fact of racial inferiority, the fact of gender roles. It is no wonder that in a society in which all these power imbalances exist, and in which individual decision-making is prioritized, that people should reject the gesture of experts towards the objectivity of facts. Those who live by the sword…

And yet, and yet… Plekhanov uses the image of a prism not as a metaphor for ignorance which can easily be cleared away by facts and objective science. Rather, it is a metaphor for ideology (in the Marxist sense) and for the social and historical construction of reason and understanding itself. Reason is not transcendental or ahistorical, but has a history, and is constrained and determined by our social relations and our relations to the natural world, as well as to history which has always-already-happened and cannot be otherwise. In the end D’Orazio’s idealism prevents him from seeing the problem of anti-vaxx activism clearly and so prevents him from coming up with an adequate solution. Changing people’s minds through better arguments and a presentation of the facts doesn’t work, not because people are distrustful of experts (though they may be, and with good reason), not because people are unable to comprehend the facts, but because ideology produced by social, material, power relations are strong; indeed, the social construction of knowledge and understanding is so strong as to be unavoidable. Anti-vaxxers, like all minority opinions, are responding to real contradictions in the social relations of a given society. The response is not to restrict ourselves to the realm of ideas, opinions, and arguments, as IF absolutism insists; the solution is, rather, to change the underlying social and material relationships in order to resolve the contradictions that give rise to anti-social ideas to begin with.

We have all experienced the casualness or callousness of overworked doctors, overwhelmed by the assembly-line flow of patients because of the fee-for-service model. The track record of the medical profession with respect to women’s health, for example, is abysmal. The distrust of medical experts is not unfounded in a society of absolute commodification, including the commodification of medicine (yes, even in Canada). The power of the medical profession, the inability of doctors to particularly care (due to the alienation of late capitalism itself) means that parents/patients feel powerless in the face of medical discipline, medical orders, medical professionalism. This powerlessness cannot be overcome by means of knowledge and explanation, but by dismantling structures of power inequality, and hopefully someday the institution of real conditions of human flourishing for all. Perhaps in such a situation expertise might become something respectable as opposed to what it is now, the “objective” prism of a particular regime of power. In this case, then, to be transphobic or an ally, to be for or against vaccination, has less to do with knowledge, facts, and understanding - reason - and more to do with political commitments, choice, and value, which may appear irrational but which, if we dig deeper, are understandable manifestations of deeper, more material irrationalities.

ADDENDUM: On Informed Consent.

Liberalism’s individualism forces it to see society as something unrrelated to individuals, something that confronts individuals antagonistically, that is external to individuals and makes claims on them from outside. This is clearly seen in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, the blueprint of liberal intellectual freedom positions, in which he asks, “What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?” This conception of the individual and society as mutually exclusive, autonomous, distinct arises from the same process that leads to mutually exclusive knowledge and power. This process also gives rise to the distinction between predicate and dialectical logic, which I have written about before in an intellectual freedom context.

Predicate logic requires that things be considered isolated and distinct, and any relationship they might be brought into is an external relationship: individual vs. society, knowledge vs. power. Predicate logic is unable to comprehend or explain the internal relationships between things. As a result, for Mill, society is brought into a relationship with the individual from outside in order to solve certain problems of individualism. Similarly, I see “informed consent” as a way to bring in a certain amount of agency and power (over one’s own health, over one’s own body) as an attempt to deal with certain problems of medical power (i.e. lack of information and lack of meaningful consent). Informed consent is vitally important, but it has to be understood as a limited response to the lack of real power in the doctor/patient relationship. “Informed consent” would not need to be its own thing if lack of it was not already part of the medical relationship.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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