This is Teun Dekker, vice dean and associate professor of Political Philosophy at University College Maastricht. He is one of five the panellists of the Debate Café organised by Studium Generale and the study association Scope Economics on Monday evening, 20 February. The theme of the debate, held in the Aula of the Minderbroedersberg, is ‘Post-truth – What counts for people: Expertise or populist opinion.’
Fake news, alternative facts, lies, emotions and personal beliefs first. It appears to be a very new phenomenon, “but that’s only to some extent true”, argues Patrick Bijsmans, assistant professor of European Studies. “Politicians have always emphasised certain aspects of reality and ignored others.” Assistant professor of Economics Dominik Karos agrees, and makes a further point: even when we learn that a given message is incorrect, that fake news doesn’t vanish from our minds right away. And this effect is only getting worse now we all live in our own bubble and consume only news that already fits with our views.
For Dekker, this underlines the importance for democracy of a good debate. “The quality of discussion in our society has been dropping.” Seeking the best answer has, in his view, given way to simply airing opinions. “Let’s clean up our debate.” Sjaak Koenis, associate professor of Philosophy, is less concerned with opinions and bare facts. “That’s not what counts. The interpretation and theory are more important. When Trump claims something completely fake about Sweden, that doesn’t worry me. What worries me is if he were able to exclude the groups and organisations that might contradict him. We need checks and balances in politics, in science. It’s really problematic when you sideline journalism and science. Luckily, it takes a hell of an effort to change the institutions.” And yes, Koenis continues, we’re all living in our own bubble. “I don’t think there’s one public any more. But the fact that there’s a separation between the different bubbles is troublesome. If you only read those articles that share your opinion, the checks and balances can’t work either.”
Moderator Vigjilenca Abazi, assistant professor at the Law Faculty, suggests that facts are no longer important in politics in general, not only for Donald Trump: “When a British minister said something about Brexit that wasn’t true, a journalist said: ‘Sir, those are not the facts.’ The minister answered: ‘That’s how I feel it.’” Koenis responds: “We should realise that our democracy has changed. We no longer believe our experts – journalists, scientists. That makes the debate more complex and messy.” But we shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the media, says Bijsmans, supported by Rina Tsubaki of the European Journalism Centre. “If you see the extreme right-wing news site Breitbart every day, you might think what they’re saying true.” Or take the Dutch broadcaster NOS, which reported last weekend on the start of the election campaign of the ultra-right politician Geert Wilders. “The NOS talked about a massive turnout of people”, says Bijsmans. “But that wasn’t the case. You saw more journalists and security people on the street than citizens; even Wilders himself admitted that. Still, you’re bound to think it’s true.”
Abazi asks who ought to shoulder the blame for this anti-knowledge, anti-expert sentiment. Karos: “For too long we haven’t listened to the many outsiders in our society. Now they have a platform on social media, and now we have a problem.” Dekker points the finger at teachers. “We’re also to blame. Good education is fundamental in a democracy; it’s how we transfer our values. Education teaches you to see the world through other eyes. Education makes everybody an expert. It prepares our children to be good citizens, people who think critically. A university should do that too, but it has to start at primary school.”
One student in the audience has “a practical question”. “No one in this auditorium is a Trump supporter. How can we communicate with someone who lives in a different reality, a different world?” Wonderful question, Koenis replies. “Maybe you shouldn’t put all your hopes in public debate. My experience is that people want to express their interest or their anger. The debate flames up and then fizzles out. People aren’t persuaded by others’ opinions.” Karos thinks “we should invite them, talk to them and take them seriously.” Dekker would like to see a forum where people are forced to interact about their differences. In his youth the Netherlands had only two television channels. “We all saw the same shows, series and news. We saw what other people were thinking. These days we’re lacking such a forum.”