On 15 March, Australian Brenton Tarrant entered a New Zealand mosque and brutally massacred dozens of people. Posted online before the attack, Tarrant’s manifesto is an attempt to justify this horrific act of violence on the grounds that white populations across the West are being replaced by Muslim “invaders,” who will ultimately destroy western culture and heritage.
Numerous articles decrying this theory appeared in the weeks following the attack: it was described as racist and misogynistic, garbled garbage and cretinous. Such arguments rest on the idea that the Great Replacement is factually incorrect—a trope that deliberately distorts the fact that demographic trends suggest that white people are becoming a smaller proportion of the population, in order to claim that they are somehow going extinct or being replaced. The Great Replacement, according to this line of argumentation, is detached from reality, much as other conspiracy theories, such as Flat Earthism, are.
The correct response is thus to present new facts that challenge the idea of a Great Replacement. In an article for the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo offers a list of facts to counter the Great Replacement theory, which has managed to capture adherents online. Manjoo suggests that nobody really knows whether whites will become a minority in the United States; that white Americans are not facing a social and economic dead end; and that white Americans will continue to hold a lot of political power in the future.
Are these facts likely to convince those who would otherwise believe in the theory that it is nonsense? Perhaps—but if the rising numbers of flat-earthers and anti-vaxers are anything to go by, deriding conspiracy theories and presenting facts that contradict them are not strategies likely to effect a significant reversal in belief. Science must win hearts and minds, not simply the factual debate. As Helen Pluckrose notes in an article last year, to restore reason, we need to wrap our facts in narratives that appeal to common concerns. The science and facts of demography are no exception to this need to return to a form of story-telling.
Arguments that present better or more truthful demographic facts to combat misinformation have lost much of their force in our era of relativistic postmodernism, which can be described as post-truth: i.e. we have moved beyond the idea that there is an objective, truthful reality by which we can judge the validity of an argument. If such a reality does not exist, then every fact is potentially open to interpretation, the site of various meanings, and no one person can claim a monopoly on truth. Facts, in such a world, can be deployed to support a range of narratives, built around subjective meaning and interpretation. Hence, arguing that the Great Replacement is factually incorrect is difficult, if not impossible—since facts themselves have become just another tool in the service of particular arguments.
There may be an alternative method of combatting the Great Replacement narrative, if we can understand why people come to believe it in the first place. Online alt-right commentators, who disseminate narratives about the threat posed by immigration, do not base their arguments on thin air: they mobilise facts to legitimise what they say. In 2017, Lauren Southern, for example, posted a video entitled “The Great Replacement,” in which she states that, to avoid allegations of “Nazism,” she will back up what she says with data and statistics. She inserts references to The Migration Observatory and the Pew Research Center, along with statements by academics, such as British demographer David Coleman.
The facts cited suggest that demographic change is occurring, and that white populations in western nations are likely to decrease in the coming years. However, the subsequent Great Replacement narrative that is spun out of these facts is bullshit. I use that term in the technical sense employed in Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 article, in which he suggests that bullshitting is the phenomenon of attempting to convince others of what you say, with no regard for the truth.
It is easy to speculate about demographic trends and bullshit about their meaning—ignoring the fact that such projections fail to account for a range of factors, which could change the predictions, such as a decrease in migrant birth rates over time. These bullshit narratives are powerful because they play on the anxieties of populations facing social and economic upheaval in a post-industrial landscape, in a way that appears legitimate. As one recent article suggests, the “lab coat” and “think tank tweed” are the costumes these ideas wear to appear acceptable to a wider audience.
By appearing legitimate and playing on existing anxieties about social change, such ideas gain currency. A video such as Southern’s can spread successfully in an online ecosystem by exploiting the emotional anxieties of individuals and social media algorithms that serve up ever more radical content to users. So, how do we combat bullshit of this kind, if not by recourse to more facts, which are potentially open to further manipulation by those seeking to promote the idea of a Great Replacement?
One obvious solution is that we simply need to restore facts to their proper, objective place above meaning and interpretation: in other words, restore them to their status as truth. However, in order to restore facts to the position they once held, one has to advance epistemological arguments about the nature of knowledge and how we attain it. This leaves one open to counter-claims that this way of knowing is biased and flawed. For example, the dismissal of experts and expertise during the Brexit referendum also shows how hollow the claims were of the importance of facts and their influence on voters as the truth. In short, in order to claim that facts, such as those regarding demographic change, are objectively true, we first have to make a subjective argument.
The claim that particular facts are true because one believes them to be so is an unsound form of reasoning, as it leaves one open to endless challenges from those wielding different facts. Facts do not exist in a value neutral space, beyond contestation. They are deployed in, and become part of, diverse narratives that appeal to particular identities in society. As Ilan Baron, a political theorist at Durham University, notes, “narratives can be understood as the framework within which our interpretations exist.” They function as filters, determining what makes sense and how, and, crucially, this is accomplished through recourse to our own self-understanding. Narratives are unintelligible if we cannot locate ourselves in them, and appeals to objective facts or knowledge fall flat when they fail to relate to the understandings we have of ourselves and our positions in the world. With this in mind, perhaps we can formulate a different way of challenging the Great Replacement theory.
In Farhad Manjoo’s article, two of the arguments that he presents relate to the fact that, statistically speaking, white Americans enjoy a high degree of prosperity and political power. It does not seem likely that those who, like Tarrant, have not enjoyed this success or power, can place these facts into a meaningful and coherent narrative in which they can locate themselves. Does the fact that there are more white CEOs than CEOs of colour help isolated and broken figures like Tarrant make sense of the world?
Of far greater appeal to people like Tarrant are narratives that explain their failure to succeed. The Great Replacement, with its suggestion that the culture in which white males traditionally succeeded is being destroyed, is one such narrative. Narratives provide meaning, not facts, so they can only be combatted using different narratives.
Manjoo’s article indicates one possible way in which we might formulate such narratives. Nobody knows whether whites will become a minority in the United States, despite demographic changes, due to ambiguities surrounding how to define those from mixed minority and white backgrounds. How we interpret this information makes all the difference in the world. A recent study found that, among white Americans, when demographic trends were presented as part of an inclusive narrative, in which whites retain their majority, as a result of those from mixed backgrounds identifying as white, feelings of hopefulness about the future increased. To counter the Great Replacement narrative, we might attempt something similar: for example, by reassuring Tarrant and others that Muslim immigration is not likely to destroy western culture or traditions, as many of these immigrants will come to identify with the dominant culture of their host societies.
Currently, we are failing to tell a story—and this failure provides an opportunity for extremists to tell it for us. As the authors of the study cited above note, “virtually no literature exists on crafting the narratives by which population projections of total growth, changing racial shares, and aging should be shared with the public, who may be the subject of study but also are a key audience.”
By focusing on the bland presentation of statistics designed to refute narratives of a Great Replacement, we reveal our blindness to the importance of narratives. Our narratives shape our perceptions—if we wish to change the way in which increasing numbers of people view the statistics on population change, we have a responsibility to recognise that the Great Replacement is based on a particular interpretation of the facts. Once we do, we will be capable of dismantling the narratives that make those facts of demographic change so dangerous and replacing them with appealing and convincing narratives of our own. In our era of anxiety-ridden ‘post-truth’ politics, a return to the age-old practice of story-telling can help assuage our worst fears, and provide a brighter vision of the future.