With the election of Donald Trump and in light of arguments over Brexit on both sides, some have claimed that we’ve entered a ‘post-truth’ age. By that, it is implied that in one full swoop we’ve somehow shifted from an apparent age of ‘truth’ where objective facts were more influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief, to an age that comes after truth, where objective facts are less influential. Whilst use of this rhetorical device serves to dramatise a certain effect in politics or to make a point about the nature of people or electioneering, digging a little deeper reveals, at least to me anyway, an elaborate conscious dishonesty.
If I am not mistaken, ‘two plus two’ still equals four, and we still experience feelings of hunger and tiredness if we go for long periods without food. If this is the case, then truths are surely not beyond human beings. Is, then, the use of the term ‘post-truth’ a failure to obtain knowledge about the complexities of modern socio-political phenomena because we’re caught up in concurrent events which we don’t fully understand (yet)? Is this resolved through merely brandishing a new term like ‘post-truth?’ What about taking, instead, a look at the nature of truth itself? Are we moving into an age where information, ideas, opinions, and in fact just about anything meets and interpenetrates anything to the extent that what we know to be ‘true’ is now being challenged in previous unimaginable ways?
As with many things in life, answers to these questions aren’t straightforward. For a start, ‘fake news’ which gave caesarean birth to ‘post-truth’ is not a new phenomenon. This is partly because in the meaning of a sentence, as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) noticed, ‘there are three psychological elements: the environmental causes of uttering it, the effects of hearing it, and (as part of the cause of utterance) the effects which the speaker expects it to have on the hearer.’ Thus, what can be ‘fake news’ to some can be received as truth by others, and each perspective can of course proliferate through mass media.
Human beings are often quite casual creatures who like embellishing stories by adding a little spice or taking rhetorical shortcuts when pitching their message. Whilst meanings may not change substantially, saying a few things here and there to appeal to people’s emotions and personal beliefs is actually an inviolable facet of human utterance. After all, we speak (to communicate) because others can hear us, which in turn means that we can influence them, and there could also be power and wider human psychology at play too. To a degree, we’re biologically wired in this way since recognition by others stimulates confirmatory, albeit transitory, feelings of self-importance. This might all seem harmless, and it probably is in most everyday situations – thank God, but what I’ve described here is the basic pattern that operates across political influence too.
Putting this aside, it seems a little odd to me that only now we’ve arrived at a radically new age of ‘post-truth.’ What is it about politics that’s so new? Elections, for example, have always been about political parties and candidates vying with each other to convince ordinary people that (only) they will deliver new futures, tapping into people’s emotions, hopes, worries, cultures and pre-existing assumptions. And naturally, they focus on things that give them advantage, which also necessitates sidestepping around inconvenient truths or facts that might go against their viewpoints. In fact, hasn’t it always been the case that policy decisions are based on prevailing values, ideology and political philosophy, not data alone.
The subjective nature of photos and moving pictures too, work to powerful effect in influencing people based on the selective truth on display in-between the four corners of a screen. This is partly why the art of soundbites and choreography in politics has become so important. There is also a very long list of major political decisions that have been taken against ‘objective data’ which the media and ordinary public have chosen to ignore for decades (e.g. gun crime, racism, sexism, climate change etc.).
The availability of information in the twenty-first century, certainly, has vastly increased transparency in how the media, governments, corporates and powerful people have operated/operate and brought to light the way they went/go to great lengths to deny inconvenient truths. Yet, none of this seems relevant to the definition of ‘post-truth.’
As for spin-doctoring, it’s become a necessary tool of sorts for managing the business of journalism. Journalists ask difficult questions but in the process also act as gatekeepers of information, and produce content intended to sell or get noticed. Both spin and gatekeeping can at times conceal truth (try reading tabloid newspapers, for example), yet they aren’t interpreted as ‘post-truth’ conditions.
‘Truth’ as a process works often in mysterious ways. It’s a ‘composite awareness’ that pushes and pulls in different directions of inquiry – usually in a creative, sometimes contradictory, restless tension. The pursuit of truth, nevertheless, requires us to question and to have our own viewpoints (whatever they might be), until we’re enlightened by new knowledge or awareness that convinces us.
Whilst we naturally conceptualise things in our own, rather subjective, cognitive and experiential bubbles, the satisfaction of our egos, ideologies, false consciousness, feudal perversions and unconscious biases etc. are all natural traps that we can easy fall into. Such traps can of course be overcome. But, here’s the challenge: it requires open mindedness, being receptive to challenge, being aware of one’s limits, sincere attitude, Godliness etc. Thus, the counter claims of ‘fake news’ (as crass as they were) directed at media outlets cannot be a sign of some kind of a momentous ‘post-truth’ age.
There is, perhaps, a clue why some are touting this: in the selective appropriation of ‘post-truth’ in retaliation to Trump and Brexit campaign, where the alleged lack of objectivity of some sections of the media and politicians has been called out like never before by Trump and Farage et al. But instead of taking the moral high-ground by helping to reconcile the divisiveness of the world, those called out (in the end analysis) took to faking a new age.