I don’t know anything about Ariel Pontes, the author of this article, other than seeing that they’re a member of the Effective Altruism community. (Which is a small red flag in and of itself, as it tends to be full of hyper-rationalist solutionist dudes.)
However, what I appreciate about this loooooong article is that Pontes applies philosophical concepts I’ve come across before to talk about the different roles language can play across the political divide.
People are not just tricked into believing falsities anymore, they no longer care about what’s true or false as long as it supports their narratives and hashtags. But can we draw a sharp boundary between smart, rational, objective people, and crazy, fact-denying post-truthers? Or do we all use non-factual language to some extent? What are we really doing when we say things like “meat is murder” or “all lives matter”?
Most people would probably agree, if asked, that humans are prone to black-and-white thinking, and that this is bad. But few of us actually make as constant conscious effort to avoid this tendency of ours in our daily lives. Our tribal brains are quick to label people as belonging either to our team of that of the enemy, for example, and it’s hard to accept that there are many possibilities in between.
Once we start seeing language as a tool used to play different games, it becomes natural to ask: what types of games are people playing out there? In his lecture series posthumously published as How To Do Things With Words, J. L. Austin introduces the concept of a “performative utterance” or “speech act”, a sentence that does not describe or “constate” any fact, but performs an action.
In his lectures about performative utterances, Austin introduces what he calls the descriptive fallacy. This fallacy is committed when somebody interprets a performative utterance as merely descriptive, subsequently dismissing it as false or nonsense when in fact it has a very important role, it’s just that this role is not simply stating facts. If somebody goes on vacation after a stressful period at work and, as they finally lie on their beach chair in their favorite resort with their favorite cocktail in their hands, they say “life is good”, it would be absurd to say “this statement is meaningless because it cannot be empirically verified”. Clearly it is an expression of a state of mind that doesn’t really have a factual dimension at all.
What’s important to emphasize here, however, is that those who attack speech acts as false or meaningless are as guilty as the descriptive fallacy as those who defend their performative utterances on factual grounds, which is regrettably common. People are not usually aware that, besides labelling a statement as “true” or “false”, they can also label it as “purely performative, lacking factual content”. The performative nature of language is not something people are explicitly aware of in general. As a consequence, when a statement is phrased as factual but is confusing and hard to grasp as factually true, our intuitive reaction is to label it as false. On the other hand, if a statement becomes part of our identity as consequence of being used as the slogan of a movement we strongly support, we feel tempted to defend it as factually true even though it might be quite plainly false or factually meaningless.
Language is complex. A statement can always be interpreted in many ways. In the age of social media, where a tweet can be read by millions of people, it is always possible that somebody will read a malicious insinuation into an genuinely well intended comment. Because of this, it is often helpful to say what you don’t mean. Of course, no matter how much effort we make, somebody might always attack us. This is a reality we have to simply come to terms with. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.