“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
~George Orwell in 1984
In November 2016, The Guardian reported: “In the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year. Defined by the dictionary as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’…use of the term ‘post-truth’ had increased by around 2,000% in 2016” compared to the previous year.
Of course, the suggestion that Donald Trump, Brexit, and a new buzzword herald a new era of dishonesty in history is persuasive only to those who know nothing about history or human beings. Go back to the earliest civilisations and you will find the lie limbering up for its long journey through the ages, sabotaging every attempt at true human community. There is no post-truth era – the lie has always been the scourge of society and the nemesis of leadership.
The reality is that people who condone falsehood are in effect promoting misleadership. When a society, even one in which lies are told in every moment, repudiates its commitment to truth, leadership must inevitably suffer. Leadership is built on vision, virtue, and vigilance, all of which depend on truth; misleadership, by contrast, seeks only to deceive, control, and exploit, with an ever-lurking propensity for violence.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, Barton Swaim parades the moral confusion that gives the post-truth epithet its only relevance. While he correctly notes that American political culture pre-Trump was hardly characterized by reverence for truth, he sees Trump as different not because “he treats the truth with contempt”, but “that he does so openly, almost gleefully, as if he has discovered the phoniness of a myth that holds everyone else in check”.
Swaim argues that the “myth” was “a Protestant-Evangelical ethic of honesty that defined American political culture…”. Ignoring the fatuous implication that non-Protestant Americans were not terribly concerned about truth, one wonders whether our Washington Post scribe is conscious of the fact that the “ethic of honesty” is not only essential to the well-being of rational beings, but also to human relationships and community generally.
When he goes on to say: “We rarely appreciate how American this fixation on honesty is”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he believes his fellow citizens – or the Protestant-Evangelicals at least – have some sort of unhealthy obsession, a neurotic attachment, to the idea of honesty. Is he being honest? Does he even care? Does The Washington Post care? Sadly, the muddle-headedness has not yet run its course, as Swaim continues:
“Trump perceived, correctly in my view, that political rhetoric in the US had become empty, a vast collection of platitudes and bogus phrases that bore no real connection to the truth. Everyone else pretended to mean what they said when they didn’t; Trump simply dropped the pretence. The result is a post-Christian political discourse of a distinctively American sort: blunt and self-assured and largely free of the obligation to express yourself with sincerity.”
He then closes with this cute piece of bravado, blissfully unaware of the irony tweaking his cheek: “I find it hard to lament the quickening demise of the old honesty-based political culture. It had become cheap and false. If Trump hadn’t snapped it, somebody else would have.” In other words, the honesty-based culture had become dishonest, and Trump snapped it by being, well, ‘almost gleefully” dishonest. Does Swaim really, I mean honestly, want the demise of a commitment to honesty to be followed by an open acceptance of dishonesty? The hypocrisy that at least implicitly acknowledges the sovereignty of truth, is not as malignant as the cynicism that says there is no such thing.
A big part of the problem today, of course, is the media saturation that facilitates the dissemination of fake news, for which read propaganda, and the incessant flow of disinformation. In an insightful essay, Why the News Makes Us Dumb, written some 25 years ago, C. John Sommerville, a history professor at the University of Florida, threw a lot of light on the so-called “post-truth” phenomenon.
Defining news as “what has happened since yesterday’s paper or broadcast”, he pointed out that it is a product that inevitably has a major impact on the way people think about politics, society, science, religion, and everything else. The fact that it is a product for which commercial success has priority over truth obviously has serious implications for the kind of understanding people have of our world, and consequently, the very well-being of our civilisation.
The problem goes beyond the usual instances of bias, over-simplification, omission, hyperbole, fallacious reasoning, unfalsifiable accusations, vagueness, and bald-faced lies. It centers on the nature of the product itself:
“What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.”
Sommerville concluded that there was no easy fix for the problem since it is the immediacy of the news, its essential focus on the present moment, that distorts reality. In a society in which the relationship people have with news tends to be either addiction or indifference, it is hard to argue with the validity of the title of Sommerville’s essay. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that so few people today read any of the history, philosophy, or classic literature that would provide them with the context and the insight that enables a proper understanding of developments.