From: Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Facts and Opinions in Albania

Yesterday I had a meeting with a diplomat posted in Tirana, who decried the absence of truly “fact-based” reporting in Albania. They made a distinction between “fact” and “opinion” and suggested that it was often difficult to distinguish between the two, also in the writing that I have been doing for Exit over the years.

This part of our discussion didn’t go anywhere in particular, but it created a sort of nagging restlessness in me that took a while (and a walk, and a good meal – thanks Anis) to shake off. The issue of distinguishing facts from opinions is not only a problem in Albania or the Balkans, but appears in recent years to have become an issue that has affected the “West” as well, with the emergence of the anxieties surrounding “fake news,” opinions masking as facts, also known as “alternative facts” or simply called, with an old-fashioned term, “propaganda.”

The Western “fake news” discourse has even found its way back to Albania, with Prime Minister Edi Rama using the term in order to rally the sympathy of the internationals while he relentlessly attacks independent reporting. But it wasn’t Rama who first used the term “fake news” in Albania. For this, we need to go back to then EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin’s suggestion that certain media would be related to “criminal interest groups” purveying “fake news.”

But let us return to what I think was the basis of my discussion with the diplomat in question, namely their belief that “fact” and “opinion” can be neatly separated. This distinction is the product of more than two thousand years of the development of a certain Western philosophical tradition, and intimately bound up with other Westerns notions such as subject–object distinction and particular Aristotelian interpretation of truth as correspondence to reality. All of these concepts and distinctions have been exhaustively investigated and problematized during the latter half of the twentieth century, in particular by a group of philosophers loosely (and erroneously) grouped together under “post-modernism.” Their work has fundamentally undermined any hard distinction between “fact” and “opinion.” Facts are simply observations of the world that are widely and broadly shared. Quite often, we relegate the presentation of facts to epistemologically shaky practices such as science, but this seems practical as long as it “works.”

It is no surprise that precisely this group of philosophers has been accused, in particular by those on the rights side of the political spectrum, of undermining the foundations of truth, reality, facts, and so on, as if they committed a crime against “Western civilization.” I personally don’t think that pointing out that key concepts from a Western tradition of thought are simply just that, key concepts from a Western tradition of thought, is a particularly criminal act; it simply encourages a bit of humility in the face of the radical diversity of thinking humans are capable of.

So for a “fact” to exist we need two things: 1) an implicit acceptance of a “naive” (pre-post-modern) Western philosophical perspective (objective reality exists, subject–object duality, reason is legit, etc.); and 2) a broad, shared worldview among a certain population. If either condition is lacking, the fact–opinion distinction crumbles.

As regards the first condition, we can look at the controversial example of the Amazonian language Pirahã, which is supposed to have a series of obligatory evidentiality markers that force the speaker to indicate with every statement whether they experienced it themselves, or whether someone else did. Linguist Dan Everett speaks in that context of the “immediacy of experience principle.” In a fundamental sense, he claims that in Pirahã society one can only meaningfully express facts (something that made the Bible translation that Everett was involved in terribly difficult). Thus in Pirahã, the dualism between “fact” and “opinion,” as well as concepts such as “truth” and “reality” largely breaks down.

As regards the second condition, a broadly shared worldview is the reason that Western countries such as the Netherlands or Germany have a relatively “neutral,” “balanced,” and “fact-based” media landscape, which is mirrored by a political system that is based on consensus and coalition governments, at least for now.

In Western countries with polarized political landscapes, such as the UK or US, the distinction between fact and opinion is much more difficult to establish. This goes hand in hand with the politicization of scientific practices (see debate around the climate crisis) and a general distrust of “experts” of any type. A similar phenomenon can be observed in Albania, whose polarized political landscape immediately renders any statement about any topic “political” – and therefore an “opinion.”

Moreover, the particular the way in which political discourse was structured during the dictatorship has profoundly influenced the concepts of “fact” and “opinion.” Ardian Vehbiu has written extensively on this particular topic, but it is useful to point out that a simple remark such as “there are no tomatoes,” a factual observation one could make on the market when there are no tomatoes, was not considered a fact, but rather a dangerous political opinion that could land you in the interrogation chambers of the secret service. Such a very different appreciation of the distinction between “fact” and “opinion” cannot but have left deep traces in current Albanian discourse. In fact, the simple statement “there is no water” in present-day Tirana may well be considered either a fact of life or dangerous fake news, depending on whom you ask.

This, then, is the explanation for the difficulty of “fact-based” reporting in Albania. First, the dictatorship already fully undermined the “naive” Western perspective on objective reality, which has been further exacerbated by a complete polarization of public discourse driven by the political system.

However, this does not mean that everything in Albania is a mere “opinion.” It simply means that the distinction between “fact” and “opinion” is established on different grounds than objective reality or a Western philosophical definition of truth. In order to understand how this works, we need to return to a distinction between two different types of truth that existed in ancient Greek philosophy, alētheia and etumos/eteos.

The first term alētheia is the type of truth (let’s call it Aristotelian) that we use when stating that a certain fact is true, that it corresponds to our shared idea of objective reality: It is “true” that the sun is shining today in Tirana, this is a “fact” because everyone agrees. This is also the type of truth that is undermined once perceptions of reality start to diverge widely and consensus can no longer be found.

The second term etumos or eteos was largely lost in the Greek tradition, but referred to truth as an inherent property of something. This also means that this type of truth is closely bound to the person who speaks it, and that we can even use it to refer to the “truth” or “truthfulness” of a certain person. This other idea of truth has largely disappeared in the Western tradition (because Enlightenment, reason, etc.), but it reappears prominently in the work of Michel Foucault when he discusses “speaking truth to power.” The “truth” Foucault refers to here is not the Aristotelian truth of alētheia but truth as etumos. In this sense, “truth” is not a correspondence relation between statement and reality, but a practice of a subject. Truth does not exist; truth is practiced.

In a social context in which the traditional Western distinction between “fact” and “opinion,” between “truth” and “falsehood” has practically broken down, another truth and fact has emerged. And this truth as etumos is precisely a concept that I see doing the heavy lifting in Albania every day. The “facts” that are recognized are those uttered by those who speak truth to power, the artists who protest for more than a year against the destruction of the National Theater, the students protesting against the destruction of higher education, the women of Astir protecting their houses, the journalists fired for the criticism of the government – they are the ones producing “facts.”

So the question, honored foreign diplomat, should not be: Does this statement correspond to reality? The question should be: How much state violence is exerted against those making the statement? The answer will lead you to the facts.