“Next time you go looking for the truth, get the whole thing…It’s like a good fuck: half is worse than nothing at all.”
Westworld Season 1 Episode 9: “The Well-Tempered Clavier”
My personal shift to a searing focus on theories of knowledge reached overdrive in the aftermath of the election. In my previous essay titled “The epistemic Wild West,” I argued that the rise of the term “fake news,” or the intentional creation and spread of false and misleading information to influence current events, indicates that there exists a crisis of expertise in political discourse. Everyone claims to have the truth, and no one is trusted enough to be an authority.
The epistemic Wild West speaks not only to the idea that we can sling truth claims around at high noon without repercussion, but also that there is a necessary lawlessness effectuating it all. The most dangerous effect of this phenomenon is that what we once thought to be assessments of truth or methods of arriving at truth—e.g. Critical thinking, logic and reason, “Fair and Balanced”—are used to attack views that are different from one’s own. As an alarming example, President-Elect Donald J. Trump, in his first press conference as President-Elect, excoriated CNN correspondent Jim Acosta by calling him and his organization “fake news” to raucous applause from Trump staffers. So it seems to me that the metaphor can do a lot of work if I attempt to unpack the wilderness of the “Wild West” and the anxieties that allowed it to be a normatively acceptable space for John Wayne-esque conduct. And here, too, the HBO series Westworld, the show, does a bit of work, as indeed it is a theme park designed to be a space in which all of these unfettered, lawless behaviors are embraced and encouraged.
The overarching premise of the show seems simple enough on its face. Well-to-do patrons pay a fortune to enter a 19th century park populated by hyperreal humanoids called “hosts.” In this park the patrons get to live their hedonistic, depraved fantasies without consequence; they can kill, maim, and rape without being hurt or suffering legal consequences. Without spoiling too much, what is important is that denying moral concern to the hosts props up the lawlessness of Westworld while, in turn, the lawlessness precludes patrons from ever seeing the hosts as objects of moral concern (for the most part—again, watch the show). Though there is a very clear lawlessness built into the park itself, there is a much more insidious lawlessness that operates when the hosts know more about their existence than they were programmed for, and the question of “how is their consciousness fundamentally different from our own” becomes chillingly apparent.
One shortcoming of my previous article is that I did not map the metaphor of the epistemic Wild West enough in my assessment of “fake news” and its dangerous effects on discourse. To be sure, apart from the sparse governmental infrastructure to regulate the Western front, which Westworld plays up, part of what made the west wild was a profound anxiety that saturated the consciousness of all involved; to borrow a Hobbesian phrase, it seemed like a war of all against all. I must admit, even if I successfully do it in this article, that the epistemic Wild West will still be a limited metaphor. This is mostly because metaphors do not have to capture everything about its target; they merely have to do an exceptional job of emphasizing certain aspects of its target while hiding others. That being said, focusing on the lawlessness as presented in Westworld will do a lot of work in this article, as the lawlessness made apparent in the contemporary political discourse is that of “how is another self-proclaimed truth fundamentally different from another’s?”
As argued above, the epistemic Wild West is a crisis of expertise at its core. Therefore, it is important to define what exactly an “expert” is. For the purposes of this discussion, an expert must meet two conditions: 1), that they have esoteric knowledge about a certain discipline, and 2) that they engage in foundational debates about things that they have esoteric knowledge of. I’ll call 1) the advanced knowledge condition and 2) the position of influence condition. On this definition, a political philosopher is an expert because 1) she has esoteric knowledge on the philosophical subdiscipline she works on, say, immigration law and philosophy, and 2) she holds an influential position (e.g. a professorship of law), and thus possesses the clout necessary to engage in academic discourse about foundational debates within said subdiscipline (e.g. the philosopher is well published in what constitutes the state’s rights to control its borders). Experts play critical role in the layperson’s use of language insofar as their work serves to underwrite meaning. This also means that not meeting both conditions disqualifies one from functioning as an expert. In one case, a graduate student might have the advanced knowledge to take part in an academic debate without the professional status ordinarily required to do so, whereas a politician may have a given office without the knowledge or ability to exercise his powers and fulfill his duties.
This is important because, when we think of an expert or a group of experts, not only are they valuable in that they have more advanced knowledge than the lay person, but that they value knowing in some specific sense, i.e. it is in their job description to know. The discussion of expertise above allows me to introduce a useful fiction: that, prior to the phenomenon of fake news, political discourse did operate in a way that its participants did value knowledge for its own sake, even though particular opinions differed. In other words, even though reasonable minds did disagree on certain political issues, we valued other minds as reasonable ones nonetheless.
The Wild West, as both a historical fact but more so a cultural idea, is wild not just because it is unmitigated confrontation, but because it has not been tamed: geographically, topographically, politically, or legally. That the contemporary crisis of fake news is riding trumps wave of anti-immigrant populism seems to play into all of those cards. Right-wing nationalism presents itself much like a John-Wayne type character. Whiteness, riding in, looking to tame not the lack of truth, but claims about truth from people who should not be able to make such claims. To me, the hosts on Westworld are sympathetic figures because they occupy a position that has too many similarities to the political position of Black, Brown, Trans, and LGBT folks (and this says a lot about the world outside the show than it does the park itself). It does not matter that we mislead marginalized people, because deemphasizing critical consumption of knowledge implicitly endorses the position that marginalized groups are incapable of knowledge. To the extent that the hosts on Westworld are not the focus of moral or epistemic concern, their situation sheds a unique light on the lack of consequence present in spreading a white nationalist truth in our world, ignoring the moral and epistemic personhood of marginalized people.
And this is where the epistemic Wild West as a metaphor pens the script of its own demise. If we implicitly accept that what we are going through now is a devolution of political discourse, an overthrow of the supposed “expert elite”, are we ignoring the fact that epistemic injustice has always existed, that “fake news”—even by any other name—has historically drowned out the thoughts and the personhood of marginalized groups? Might it be that historical analogues of fake news live to hide themselves, such that those who are oppressed and misled are thereby unable to make sense of their social experience? Might it be that fake news is only politically consequential because it so shamelessly offends White liberal sensibilities? Though these questions are rhetorical to the extent that we all know their answers, my raising them forces me (and, I hope, us) to see that fake news is not the transition from trusted knowledge to misleading knowledge. It is the shift from one way in which knowledge has been weaponized in the public sphere to another, but we just happen to be knowers at the time of such a tectonic shift.
All this brings me to the Janus-faced nature of censorship, which contemporary discussion on fake news renders apparent (to me, at least). Having once conceived of censorship as cutting off speech, censorship also operates when entities conflate politically important information with other, pointless information. The gatekeepers of knowledge thus overwhelmed, there exists a practical impossibility in separating the wheat from the chaff. In Zeynep Tufecki’s New York Times piece, she argues in exactly these terms, that censorship as information overload conflates “what we have a right to know with what we have no business knowing.”
Such is the nature of the epistemic Wild West: confusion abounds anew.