Plato’s use of the idea of a noble lie was oppressive. He wanted to tell the people a tale of their origin that would encourage them to bend and bow to the idea of a stratified society, and he suggest that this would make everyone better off — and we clearly see that today for what it was: a defense for a class society that kept a small elite at the top, not through meritocracy or election, but through narrative.
But there is another way to read this notion of a foundational myth, and that is to read it as that “common baseline of facts” that everyone is now calling for. This “common baseline” is often left unexplained and taken for granted, but the reality is that with the amount of information and criticism and skepticism that we have today, such a baseline will need to be based on a “suspension of disbelief”, as William Davies suggests:
Public life has become like a play whose audience is unwilling to suspend disbelief. Any utterance by a public figure can be unpicked in search of its ulterior motive. As cynicism grows, even judges, the supposedly neutral upholders of the law, are publicly accused of personal bias. Once doubt descends on public life, people become increasingly dependent on their own experiences and their own beliefs about how the world really works. One effect of this is that facts no longer seem to matter (the phenomenon misleadingly dubbed “post-truth”). But the crisis of democracy and of truth are one and the same: individuals are increasingly suspicious of the “official” stories they are being told, and expect to witness things for themselves.
[…] But our relationship to information and news is now entirely different: it has become an active and critical one, that is deeply suspicious of the official line. Nowadays, everyone is engaged in spotting and rebutting propaganda of one kind or another, curating our news feeds, attacking the framing of the other side and consciously resisting manipulation. In some ways, we have become too concerned with truth, to the point where we can no longer agree on it. The very institutions that might once have brought controversies to an end are under constant fire for their compromises and biases.
The challenge here is this: if we are to arrive at a common baseline of facts, we have to accept that there will be things treated as facts that we will come to doubt and then to disregard as they turn out to be false. The value we get for that is that we will be able to start thinking together again, we will be able to resurrect the idea of a common sense.
So, maybe the problem underlying misinformation and desinformation is not that we face intentionally false information, but that we have indulged too much in a skepticism fueled by a wealth of information and a poverty of attention? We lack a mechanism for agreeing on what we will treat as true, rather than how we will agree on what is – in any more ontological sense – true.
The distinction between a common baseline of facts and a noble lie is less clear in that perspective. A worrying idea, well expressed in Mr Davies’ essay. But the conclusion is ultimately provocative, and perhaps disappointing:
The financial obstacles confronting critical, independent, investigative media are significant. If the Johnson administration takes a more sharply populist turn, the political obstacles could increase, too – Channel 4 is frequently held up as an enemy of Brexit, for example. But let us be clear that an independent, professional media is what we need to defend at the present moment, and abandon the misleading and destructive idea that – thanks to a combination of ubiquitous data capture and personal passions – the truth can be grasped directly, without anyone needing to report it.
But why would the people cede the mechanism of producing truth back to professional media? What is the incentive? Where the common baseline of facts or the noble lie will sit in the future is far from clear, but it seems unlikely that it will return to an institution that has once lost grasp of it so fully. If the truth cannot be grasped directly – if that indeed is socially dangerous and destructive – we need to think carefully about who we allow the power to curate that new noble lie (and no, it should probably not be corporations). If we do not believe that the common baseline is needed anymore, we need new ways to approach collective decision making — an intriguingly difficult task.