Over the last few years many thoughtful discussions have taken place on the tragedy of the death of truth. Of course, those discussions do normally not involve the peddlers of untruth, even when they advance crazy stuff like the concept of alternative facts. Cleverly, perhaps, populists will allow liberals to get angry about the selling of untruth as a respectable position, but as a matter of demagogic principle populists only discuss what they want to discuss and a debate about the soundness of something like alternative facts is certainly not it. They know that without a counterpart for the liberals the discussions will soon die out. Instead, notorious liars turn the table on truth seekers by attacking the truth as fake news. They exploit the relativity of truth they themselves have invented to make obvious truths relative. All part of Demagogy 101.
The relativity and death of truth are associated with another phenomenon much less discussed, but even more serious, and that is the death of ethics. We have forgotten, or are been led to forget, that there are things that are right and need no further explanation. A statement like ‘it is wrong to let human beings drown in the Mediterranean when it can be avoided’ requires no further justification. If you need justification for not justifying such a statement you can, of course, look to Kant and his categorical imperative, but why bother: it is obvious. Defenders of obvious ethical stances cannot help themselves providing further justification, however, despite it being entirely unnecessary. In itself this is not a problem, except that by making an obvious ethical stance contingent they make what is obviously right vulnerable. When liberals start to argue that any problem associated with rescue of the drowning is resolvable, they have opened the door to the populist. That sort of discussion is their chosen playing field. Liberals will immediately be met with immoral provocations like ‘we have to let them drown because it is a deterrent’ – and they do not see that they have made this sort of view part of the mix entirely unnecessarily. What it worse, they have ended up becoming the mid-wives of a position that is now official policy, see the criminalisation of the rescue efforts of SOS Mediterranée, for example.
That there are obvious ethical positions that require no justification does not mean that people of good will should become blinkered or unquestioning, of course. But it does mean that people of good will must be far more conscious of what can and should be debated and what not. Liberals should learn just one lesson from the populists – and that is how to define the playing field. To date, only two voices on the left have shown any ability in this respect and that is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the shining example, and Bernie Sanders. The tragedy of the immigration policy of Angela Merkel, so obviously right, was that it did not have voices like those of Alexandria and Bernie to defend it. Instead liberals resorted to their favourite game of finding faults with their own.
What is needed most of all, however, is a revival of ethics in general. We are being sucked into a news cycle where only provocation and politics matter, and in the process we are starting to forget what is obviously right and the search for the more complicated right. The word ‘moral’ has been discredited and identified with ‘repressive’, often of a sexual kind. That is a distortion, of course. ‘Moral’ in its true sense is about repression of evil and a search for what is good! We may sometimes disagree on what is good, and that is alright. The worst thing is if we just do not care, and that, tragically, is our current trajectory!