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Sexual equality and post-truth: making distinctions

Date:20 March 2017
Author:Roos Feringa
Sexual equality and post-truth
Sexual equality and post-truth

On 7 March 2017, the eve of International Women’s Day, the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, in collaboration with the Centre for Gender Studies, hosted a panel discussion evening on ‘Gender and Sexual Equality in a Post-Truth Age’. Four panellists contributed to the conversation and over the next few weeks we will be publishing some of their remarks here on The Religion Factor. Today we have the first instalment from Frederik Boven, coordinator of the workgroup LGBT and religion of the Groningen and Drenthe chapter of the Dutch LGBT organisation COC Netherlands.

Frederik Boven is religion coordinator at COC Groningen & Drenthe, a Dutch support organization for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trangenders, etc. He studied political philosophy and the philosophy of psychology.

What are the implications of so-called ‘post-truth politics’ for the pursuit of sexual equality? How do sexual identities intersect with Christian faith? Frederik Boven delved into these two questions during the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain #IWD2017 panel discussion on on gender and sexual equality in a post-truth era. His argument: post truth is less about facts than about common sense and minority experience. Neither have become irrelevant, although the commonness of ‘public’ communication has come under pressure as a result of remediation.

What is post-truth?

The idea of post-truth has been raised by journalist and political commentators, mostly referring to the seeming increasing irrelevance of factual truths in contemporary politics. Think of President Trump who doesn’t care about scientific facts on climate change. Or closer to home, think about Geert Wilders who keeps talking about ‘mass’ migration, even though population growth due to immigration is currently not more than average, both historically and compared to other European countries.

To be able to talk about sexual equality and post-truth, we need to decide whether facts are indeed the kind of truth most relevant to sexual equality in the Netherlands. My central claim is that it is not. Instead, I will point to two alternative conceptions of truth and post-truth, which I believe are more relevant to Dutch debates on sexual equality. I think making these distinctions is important if we are to make headway in the debate.

Institutional facts

‘Argument between scientists transforms some statements into figments of one’s subjective imagination, and others into facts of nature.’ – Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar

Institutional facts are the rational and cognitive truths established by institutions such as science, journalism, courts and also churches. Such institutions are fact-builders: by following certain procedures they aim to establish certain things as true, and other things as false. As Bruno Latour has shown for science, facts are not discovered, but created, through collaborative work between humans and non-humans in complex networks.

For example, scientists have worked to establish that sexual diversity occurs in all communities and that it cannot be ‘cured’ (it is not a disease). To do this requires the work of rendering very diverse communities comparable, and of dismantling the old disease metaphor for homosexuality.

On this conception of truth, non-truth has the nature of either a lie, the denial of something you believe to be true, or a disagreement, the denial of something true that you happen to doubt. For non-truth to be a case of post-truth this denial would have to originate in a disregard for truth.

I do not see this in Dutch debates on sexual equality. True, in the Netherlands there are still two or three Christian denominations that flat out deny that there are gays, lesbians and bisexuals in their midst. Or they believe that their presence is not permanent, working on the assumption that homosexuality can be cured. I would hesitate to call this post-truth, though, because Christians confront scientific truth in the name of another truth, i.e. the truth of their religion. In addition, their impact on the Dutch public sphere is marginal.

Also, on the basis of Bruno Latour’s work (who wrote also about the truth-conditions of religion), I think another explanation suggests itself for what journalists have been describing as post-truth: the truth-conditions of science and religion have become harder to obtain in a public sphere fragmented by social media enclaves. Even so, new media have always offered both opportunities and challenges to truth-building institutions. What is new today is not remediation (the invention of new media) but the speed with which new media follow each other. The question is really whether the cumbersome institutions of science, religion and journalism can keep up the pace of present-day remediation. I believe they will ultimately be able to, and that in no way we have seen the last of their fact-building activities.

All in all, I see no indication that Dutch public debates on sexual equality have moved beyond truth in the sense of institutional facts. I feel that two other kinds of truth, which do not revolve around facts, are more important to these debates. This is not incidental to debates on sexual equality, nor to the Dutch public sphere, but says something about the nature of public spheres more generally: facts are not the most important kind of truth in civil communication.

Common sense

Even the experience of the materially and sensually given world depends upon my being in contact with other men, upon our common sense (….) without which each of us would be enclosed in his own particularity  Hannah Arendt

The second kind of truth I would like to discuss is common sense. This kind of truth is more feeling than thought. It is a shared feeling for what is true, important, and realistic. Common sense depends on the accumulation of interactions with other members of the community.

For the mainstream in the Netherlands it has become common sense that sexual diversity is pervasive, that it doesn’t matter, and that one’s sexual orientation cannot be changed. Orthodox Christians who are non-heterosexual, however, often lack a sense that their sexuality is normal. This is so because they rarely have affirming interactions with fellow-Christians, which could instill in them the judgment that there is nothing wrong with who they are.

Several Christians have told me that all they had to go on when they discovered they were gay is casual remarks about gays in the media: never had there been any sustained discussion of sexual diversity in their church or even their family. From these casual remarks they gleaned that their sexual identity is ‘wrong’ or ‘a problem’. This is unfortunate, all the more so because when there is a sustained discussion, Christian views on homosexuality are often much more nuanced and complex than these casual remarks suggest.

So the opposite of common sense is not a lie, but being left to your own devices. Post-truth, in this sense, is the radical situation where the responses of real people are not only absent, but have become irrelevant: a certain social media enclave has taken the place of your friends, family and fellow-citizens. It is a common sense that fails to be truly common, as it is based on the judgments of like-minded people only, rather than the plurality of citizens making up a nation.

Post-truth in this meaning is somewhere midway between common sense and what Kant called ‘private sense’ (Eigensinn), which he saw as the hallmark of madness. Ultimately, to move beyond truth in the meaning of common sense would be to lose all contact with reality. Indeed, there is a tradition in the philosophy of psychiatry that follows Kant in seeing a loss or disturbance of common sense as the hallmark of mental illness, especially schizophrenia. I would therefore be hesitant to speak of post-truth, and would rather speak of a withdrawal from any public sphere that is truly public.

Minority experience

Inspired by the universalizing dimension of civil society, core groups assert that it is possible to separate the ‘person’ who is a member of the marginalized out-group from the stigmatized ‘qualities’ that pejoratively define that group’s differences from the core group itself. The bargain seems to be something like this: Insofar as members of these out-groups agree to keep these negative qualities out of public view, they can practice them
freely in their private lives – Jeffrey Alexander

Another form of truth that cannot be reduced to facts is minority experience. This is the kind of truth that is lived and experienced by minorities, whether they are women, lesbians, or scarf-bearing Muslims.

On the one hand these minorities struggle to be accepted as the same. They are just as capable, reasonable and honest as men, heterosexuals, and non-Muslims. For example, traditional voices often deny that lesbian couples are just as capable of raising a child as heterosexual couples. On the other hand, these minorities struggle to be accepted as different. There is always one aspect of minority experience that is difficult for others to acknowledge and accept. In the case of women this stumbling block is their gender, in the case of lesbians it is their sexuality, and in the case of Muslims it is their religion. The standard move in history is to allow these minorities to participate on the condition that they leave this stumbling block at home. It is still often expected from gays, lesbians and bisexuals that they leave their sexuality in private. They have to become desexualized in order to become accepted at citizens on a par with heterosexuals.

On this third conception, post-truth takes the form of the denial of the duality of minority experiences, either by reducing their experience to that of the majority (insistence on sameness), or by reducing their experience to something merely personal (insistence on difference).

I believe that this is where the problems are situated in the Netherlands. Most secular citizens are okay with gay men as long as they don’t kiss or holds hands in public. Most heterosexuals I speak with about this don’t really see the problem. The typical reaction is: “I don’t like it when a heterosexual couple kisses in public either”. However, the two situations are not the same, because homosexuals have a history of marginalization behind them. Rejecting public intimacy adds fuel to the flames of this history. It rekindles feelings of inadequacy and abnormality.

This is no difference for other minorities. The majority has always initially denied the duality of the experience of minority groups. A different sexual orientation was initially seen as a perversion, a disease or simply a case of mistaken identity. It took centuries of struggle by civil rights activists until a different sexual orientation was seen as anything other than a merely personal ‘mistake’.

Post-truth in this third sense would be the situation where not only the judgments of minorities have become irrelevant, but also the stories and performances in which they make their experience accessible. These stories and performances are judgments but provide the material to be judged. Without such material, the public sphere becomes a desert in which only the strongest can flourish. I don’t think we are there yet. Like for fact-building institutions, remediation holds both opportunities and challenges for social movements. There is no doubt in my mind that they will find new ways to continue the struggle for civil rights and cultural citizenship.

Concluding thoughts

What is happening today, and what journalists attempt to capture with the term post-truth, is really a shattering of the image that the public sphere has revolved around factual truth. I believe this shattering holds promises, for it forces journalists and politicians to realize that common sense and personal (minority) experience have always been more important forces in the public sphere than the cold facts produced by institutions. Things will not improve through the efforts of fact-checkers (which I applaud) but through stories and performances that reassert that we are a nation constituted not by a certain religion or by a certain stance on sexual equality but by the sheer condition of living together. The first act of citizenship is to recognize people who identify as Muslim, and may or may not reject my sexual identity, as fellow citizens with the same standing, rights and sway as me – only then to start the debate on how this nation of ours will continue its journey through history.


Jeffrey Alexander. 2008. The Civil Sphere, p. 420. Oxford University Press.

Hannah Arendt. 1968. Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 197. Oxford University Press.

Bruno Latour. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, p. 236. Princeton University Press.


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