The idea of society as a manufactured construct had a respectable pedigree long before Donald Trump got his hands on it with his grabbing slogan “Make America Great Again”. In 1796, George Washington had expressed the hope in his farewell address to the American people “that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained”. Noel Pearson, a campaigner for the rights of the Aboriginal People of Australia, used the same metaphor of making and maintenance when he said, “our project with the empowered communities is about nothing less than carving out a power for ourselves to maintain the distinctness of our people” (Garma Festival, 2014). The claim that nations, constitutions, and laws are all made things isn’t new. The ancient Jewish work Ecclesiasticus reports that the “carpenter, and workemaster … and they that cut and grave seales … The smith also sitting by the anvill … the potter sitting at his worke … will maintaine the state of the world” (Chapter 38: 27-34). It is in this long tradition that my new book The Making Sense of Politics, Media, and Law argues for the usefulness of manual crafting as a way of making sense of the world. I am referring here not only to the physical crafting of material objects, but also to the manipulation of minds by appealing to the psychological sense of making. I demonstrate that manipulation is especially effective when it takes the form of performed crafting processes (witness the popularity of cooking shows on television) and that the same effects can be sublimated through the manual action of hand gestures and related rhetorical techniques (Donald Trump’s well-known precision-grip circle gesture made with a thumb and a finger is a case study of the phenomenon).
Crucially, I argue that a fresh appreciation of making, and improved definitions of what “making” means, can give us constructive ways to engage with such current challenges as populist political performance, fake news, cancel culture, and the legal recognition of transgender rights. Construction, it turns out, is key to constructive criticism and constructive debate. As recently as April 2023, after the UK Minister for Women and Equalities had asked the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission to advise on the possibility of defining the protected legal characteristic “sex” as “biological sex”, the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall objected that such a change would risk “opening yet another chapter in a manufactured culture war”. The metaphor of creative writing and manufacture is apt. The aim of The Making Sense of Politics, Media, and Law is precisely to consider the ways in which cultures are manufactured through rhetorical performance in politics, media, and law. When the philosopher Elaine Scarry recounted the great range of candidates that have been put forward for the category “artefacts” in her article “The Made-Up and the Made-Real”, she noted as possibilities that “nation states are fictions (in the sense of created things), the law is a created thing, a scientific fact (many argue) is a constructed thing”. My book takes such possibilities seriously and considers how the notion of manufactured truth can inform our understanding of the tradition of making judgments in law and the trend of making judgments in society at large.
If we are not familiar with the arts and crafts by which the world is made and maintained, there is a danger that mischievously artful and crafty people will make our minds up for us. Perhaps we think that we can confidently distinguish fact from fiction. If so, it probably never occurred to us that fact, no less than fiction, is a thing made up. That “fiction” has always meant “making” will not surprise us. It derives from the same Proto-Indo-European root word (*dheigh-) that gives us the making words “configure”, “dough” “effigy” “figment”, the Latin verb fingere “to form”, and the Greek word teikhos meaning “wall”. More surprising, perhaps, is that the word “fact” also has its root in a sense of “making”. Deriving from the Latin facere, meaning “to make or do”, a fact (factus) is not a discovered thing but a made thing; a manu-fact-ured thing. This observation is much more than an etymological quibble. We should take seriously the possibility that everything we call a fact was produced by some artificial process, and that ultimately some person or human system produced it. Wisdom lies in attending to the process by which the fact was made and to the motives and credentials of the maker.