Leadership In The “Era Of Post-Truth”

“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.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. In human communication there has always been room for lies and half-truths and today on the web there is now so much news that it is practically impossible (and perhaps useless) to filter to separate the true, or at least the likely, from the so-called fake news. What is needed is leadership with qualities that are scarce in today’s society and politics. First of all the coherence between what is said and what is done, that dowry called “integrity”, which is the moral form of the old timeless dignity. It seems very trivial but just look around to find out that it is not so common at all. Secondly, knowing how to put your skills and energy at the disposal of society, and I especially add young people, without any second purpose other than to contribute to leaving society better than we found it.

  2. I like the break down of the different perspectives of truth. Though, because I gather data and evidence, I see truth as either something someone can observe and measure or truth as something someone believes.

    I don’t see this as a problem with truth as long as people recognize that there are differences and that the whole true is a blend of these different perspectives on truth. But, I strongly believe that we must ground truth in something we can observe, something we can measure, so we don’t go into a complete fantasy world — then start making decisions in our reality basing those decisions on information that is pure fantasy.

    The real world example of this is Anitfa. They say and believe they are anti-fascists yet use fascism and violence.

  3. Jeanine – thanks for your thoughtful comments. Just a few points of clarification: honesty as a concept presupposes truth, and in fact is a commitment to be truthful; secondly, emotions must be distinguished from attitudes – if we become slaves to our emotions and let our intentions flow from them, we will be in trouble, as has become the case today; and thirdly, the fact that truth is hard to come by hardly releases us from the moral obligation to try and act in accordance with truth. Obviously, each of these points has deep philosophical underpinnings deserving of much fuller treatment, but the main point stands, without a commitment to truth, humanity is in trouble, and honesty becomes meaningless.

  4. I enjoyed reading Sommerville’s input. In Bias (Goldberg, 2002) the fact that negative news increases ratings was made clear so the media deliberately polutes our minds with the worst of life thereby creating cognitive biases that lead us to believe the world is far worse than it is.
    The Emotivist Theory needs to be updated to reflect new research about the purpose and use of emotions that lead to emotions actually making sense. We misinterpret their meaning which is why they seem illogical. That era is coming to an end.
    I find honesty more important than truth. Sometimes a person believes they are being honest but they are misinformed so they are not being truthful but their intentions are good. To me that matters more than whether what someone else says is always 100% factually correct. Did the person intend to deceive? Were they making the best effort they could under the circumstances to be honest?

    For example, imagine a situation where an adopted child who is unaware of their status as “adopted” is in the room while someone asks their mom about the pregnancy in ways that must be answered. If she is aware of facts about the birth Mom’s pregnancy she might respond as if she is the birth mother. I don’t think an ill-timed question from an uninformed person mandates disclosure of information that is private. Life is full of myriad situations where total honesty is not okay including CIA positions, undercover work, etc.

    There are higher purposes than truth in some cases. For example, the undercover agent/detective is working for the public good and the best way to achieve that goal may be to lie to learn information about individuals that are detrimental to the public good.

  5. When people talk about data they often talk about “single source of truth”. What is truth? Truth is what “is” true and what “is wanted to be” true.

    Gravity is true. We can prove it through experimentation.
    Religion is true. We can prove it through a survey.

    But which of this is true… the Earth goes around the Sun OR the Sun goes around the Earth?

    We choose the Earth goes around the Sun as being true because the predictive mathematical model is a heck of a lot simpler. Did you see the math required for how the Sun goes around the Earth? It’s like predicting the fly path of a drunk mosquito.