Below is a transcript of Clare Martin’s talk available on youtube here on the theme ‘What is moral courage in a divided world?’ In it she gives a brief introduction to the concept of epistemic conflict in the digital age, and asks what does peacemaking in an era of information warfare look like? She was speaking at a webinar on the theme of moral courage that featured Rowan Williams as the keynote speaker.
The digital age has created a proliferation of opportunities for information warfare, or crimes against truth, or epistemic conflict – a more recent term to describe what I am going to speak about. Epistemology is the study of knowledge: what it is, how we decide that we know what we know, and how we tell what’s true from what is false. Epistemic harm is when someone damages the context in which people create or share knowledge with one another.
What are some examples of epistemic conflict? One example is the Russian misinformation campaign which followed the Skripal poisoning. In 2018 Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned using a military grade nerve agent in Salisbury in the UK. Then Prime Minister Theresa May announced in the UK parliament that there was reason to believe this was a Russian attack. To counter this narrative, UK military intelligence found that a Russian disinformation programme had generated not one, but 50 different alternative stories to sow doubt.
Another example of epistemic harm is the decades-long misinformation campaign backed by the fossil fuels industry, to discredit the scientific evidence for the link between CO2 emissions and global heating. This campaign had many elements, including political lobbying, the creation of bogus scientific bodies and the publication of bogus research, and also targeted efforts to discredit or intimidate individual scientists.
So here you have on the one hand a foreign state weaponising misinformation for military purposes. And then in the case of climate denialism you have big business, major corporations, using misinformation within their own societies, for reasons of profit. In Jonathan Rauch’s recent book The Constitution of Knowledge, he talks about how some of the tactics you see in these examples are being used in the context of political polarisation in the US now. He looks at how the Trump era Republican party used this scattergun of lies tactic, where many multiple narratives would be disseminated on any given topic, each one holding a different proportion of truth and falsehood. This huge number of conflicting narratives worked to deflect, confuse, or generate mistrust in the public. Rauch also looks at how the political left uses the tactic of intimidating and discrediting those who don’t conform to orthodox opinion. We know this as cancel culture. Rauch is really helpful in diagnosing this as a landscape of widespread incipient epistemic conflict. In all of these cases you have this conflict which is happening in the meaning-scape of the society, which it’s crucial to point out are not just disagreements. We’re not talking here about when people have differing points of view and come into conflict when they disagree with each other. We’re talking about bad faith moves that deliberately distort the epistemic frame itself, and so that’s why it’s also helpful to think about these as crimes against truth or crimes against meaning.
So for us at St Ethelburga’s this invites the question, what can peacemakers and reconcilers bring to this landscape of epistemic conflict? And how can a peacemaking intervention in the landscape of meaning avert the downstream consequences of epistemic harm? Such downstream consequences could range from the moderate to the severe. They might include, in the case of climate, the rising of global temperatures to 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels that we see today, and all the catastrophic consequences that this brings in its wake. In the case of political polarisation, downstream of these epistemic conflicts we may see eruptions of civil unrest, street violence, or a breakdown in the healthy functioning of democratic deliberation. The question we are interested in is, how can we intervene as peacemakers to name and heal epistemic conflict before it leads to those downstream consequences?
These questions become only more urgent when you take a deeper look and realise that these tactics of epistemic harm are baked into our information infrastructure, in a way that means we are all engaged in them, they are absolutely everywhere. Social media and news media business models are based on generating clicks, which are farmed out of people by way of inducing certain reactions, emotional and physiological, that are known to be addictive: reactions such as fear, shame, righteousness, activating in-group and out-group associations, othering, anger, outrage and so on.
When people draw a comparison between the information revolutions brought about by the printing press and the digital age, these are the kinds of things they are talking about. The printing press was an information revolution that transformed civilisation because it changed how people created, accessed, and shared meaning together. Downstream of the printing press you had religious reformation and new political forms, including democracy in the West. The revolutionary nature of the digital age is equally existential for our civilisation and probably more so, but it is happening so fast that we don’t see it clearly.
At St Ethelburga’s we often come back to this idea that just as we have toxins in our physical atmosphere – CO2, methane and other pollutants – heating the Earth and causing climate crisis, so we have toxins in our cultural atmosphere – algorithms, bots, business models – that are driving a breakdown in our ability to share meaning with one another. At St Ethelburga’s we see work positioned at the point where these two atmospheric disturbances meet: at this intersection between climate and peace. Geologists have named our era the anthropocene, because of humanity’s impact on earth’s biosphere and all living systems. I sometimes wonder if we may see the christening of yet another geological age in the not-too-distant future: the algorithmacene, when it is no longer human beings who are the main agents of change for good or bad on our planet, but instead it will be algorithms that determine our destinies.
We may see a time when governments will regulate social media and media companies, as happened with the tobacco industry, making it illegal to deliberately induce addiction or harmful mental states to drive profit. But until that happens, we are in a situation where our whole civilisation is hooked on a substance, known to be designed to be addictive, where the drug everyone is mainlining, unravels truth, and drives polarisation. At a time when the crises that we face are growing more complex and severe, when these crises are crying out for collectivist, bipartisan, pan-national responses that are innovative, agile and rooted deeply in moral values: at just this time, we are finding our capacity to come together and have constructive conversations across difference – our capacity even to participate in a shared consensus reality that we all agree in – being rapidly undermined.
What does moral courage look like in response to this landscape? It means facing the reality of this much bigger context, and whenever any specific disagreement arises, to see it against the backdrop of this bigger story. It means, where we see misinformation, standing up for the truth. It means having the intellectual humility to listen to another’s point of view, to proactively transcend our own echo chambers. And it takes moral courage to stand up inside our own echo chambers when the people we agree with use information warfare tactics to win points. It takes huge courage to say, I agree with your ideas, but please don’t use bad faith tactics to win the argument.
And in an age that has a highly performative idea of truth, it takes courage to bring qualities like reverence, respectfulness, and humility to the pursuit of truth, and to take seriously the idea that there are wildnesses and mysteries within truth, that it has its own agency and authority. Jung, writing in the 1950s about another age of mass movements and tribalism, said ‘In the collective unconscious of the individual, history gathers itself.’ I often think it takes tremendous moral courage to create spaces for, and be receptive to, hearing this particular dimension of truth.
Finally, I’d like to invite everyone to think if there was a time in your life when you were arguing with someone and it felt horrible and angry and stuck. And then, maybe there came a moment when there was an octave shift in the atmosphere and something opened. And sometimes there’s humour there, and a tenderness. And it’s messy, and you haven’t fixed anything, and you still hate the person, but a certain harmonic quality has been activated inside everyone which feels good.
It’s a quality of presence and religious people might call this God. And psychological people might call it a breakthrough. And maybe people who study cultural evolution might call this a healthy emergent thinking field. But whatever it is, this is the alchemical gold that every facilitator is always chasing after. It’s a vibrancy, a kinetic aliveness which you find in a healthy relational field, and at St Ethelburga’s we believe it is the only ground from which we have any hope of growing our capacity to meet the tremendous challenges of our time.