Jonathan Rauch. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2021. 280 pp.
Review by Jeff Frenkiewich
8 April 2021
It seems that the United States––the world––is undergoing an epistemological crisis. Established facts are put into question as would-be autocrats weaponize social media to spread lies and conspiracy theories, leaving ordinary citizens to question what is true. The events of 6 January 2021 illustrated the deadly stakes involved in this crisis as our democratic institutions, and the very fabric of our civil society, come under threat.
Jonathan Rauch’s answer to this world of misinformation and “alternative facts,” a world in which “cognitive blunders” have led to a “war over knowledge,” is for society to embrace a liberal epistemic order that can address failure of reason, force pragmatic conciliation, and ensure a functioning civil society––a Constitution of Knowledge (p. 17).
Just as the United States Constitution (Rauch turns to this metaphor throughout his argument) calls on “We the People” to take an active role in the care of our democracy, Rauch calls on those invested in truth to take an active role in an epistemic civil society where “reality is what we know, not what you or I know” (p. 131). Expectedly, the author is critical of those on the Right who have mobilized social media to spread chaos and confusion and have employed a “firehose of falsehood” to create “epistemic helplessness” (p. 166). However, Rauch also argues that as dangerous as the Right’s persistent drive to dehumanize and subjugate marginalized people is, the Left’s “emotional safetyism” fails as a response and is altogether counter to the goals that liberals espouse (p. 200). The author is critical of those on the Left, especially liberal academics, who fall victim to a “spiral of silence,” those who employ epistemic protectionism and coercion to shape individual perspectives (p. 195). In his words, “false and harmful words are not the problem; false and harmful ideas are the problem and suppressing them does not defeat them: demonstrating that they are false and replacing them with better ideas defeats them” (pp. 207–08). In short, both sides of the political spectrum fall victim to enforcing conformity, paralyzing the democratic discourse necessary for epistemic engagement and compromise––both sides in this “war over knowledge” are culpable in the crisis.
We must be cautious to not settle with the premise that the aims and tactics used by the Right are morally equivalent to those used by the Left, as there seems a clear divide between those who spread lies for the purpose of cementing autocratic political power and subjugating marginalized people versus those who wish to challenge the centuries’ old narratives that buttress institutional racism and sexism. However, Rauch’s point here is that regardless of who claims moral superiority in the “war over knowledge,” all of us must look in the mirror and question what role we have played in promoting the current state of epistemic radicalism. Those who claim membership in the reality-based community must do better in combatting false and harmful ideas without falling into tactics that run counter to the goals of the liberal epistemic order––a worthy aim if we wish to move forward in forging and protecting a pragmatic epistemology.
Cancelling false and harmful ideas may not be the answer for building a better epistemic order, but, unfortunately, Rauch does not provide the reader with an adequate answer for how to counter the barrage of misinformation that undermines truth and threatens social justice. Epistemic citizenship under the Constitution of Knowledge requires individuals to “unmute” themselves, engaging their voices in the struggle for social justice (p. 232); yet we know that participation in discourse is regulated by power. One just need turn to Rauch’s chosen model, the Constitution, to see how certain groups are marginalized and silenced in the creation and execution of government––to assume any different when it comes to the creation and governance of knowledge seems naïve.
The author tries to dismiss this concern about the epistemic disenfranchisement of marginalized people by arguing that silenced peoples need just continue the long and arduous struggle for justice until their voices are heard (see p. 255); he points to the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for civil rights as an example. Yet, one is rightly critical of a constitution that requires people to fight two hundred years to have their voices heard––Rauch’s nostalgia for a status-quo Enlightenment-era timeline of social justice is unacceptable. The premise that one’s unmuting with a dose of patience will adequately address the inequalities of power in our society is not sufficient. To the point, one could frame the explosion of trolling and cancelling on social media, in part, as an epistemic insurrection against those who have held the power over discourse for so long. At no other time in history have people been so easily able to organize and have their voices heard when speaking out against the oppressive forces that aim to marginalize them. Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge may have worked for the enlightenment thinkers he showcases, but if it is to have any success in governing the truth in modern society, there must be structures in place to ensure equal voice and justice at the epistemic bargaining table.
Without a doubt, the information age and the dawn of social media have challenged the governance of knowledge and Rauch’s argument that society needs a Constitution of Knowledge deserves consideration. However, if the reality-based community wishes to protect truth and govern knowledge creation, marginalized individuals (on both the Left and the Right) must have a voice of equal power as part of the conversation. Rauch’s call for all members of society to be invested and active in the creation of knowledge is a worthy appeal, but just as the Constitution is an unfinished document in its protection of individual rights, Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge is an unfinished document in need of a mechanism for protecting the epistemic rights of all people.