Whenever you say, “I live in a post-truth world.” you prove yourself wrong. You can say “we”, you can say “they”, but you can’t say “I”.
“Post-truth” is used to describe a world in which facts don’t matter. Emotion trumps truth. Yet, to say “post-truth” means that you care enough about the truth to point out the truth of post-truth, and that you have enough truth to decide that post-truth is true, all of which is very un-post-truth of you. Therefore, every time you describe our age as post-truth, you in some small way disprove yourself. Unless of course you are only using the word “post-truth” as an emotional wrecking ball, in which case you just proved post-truth is true.
It gets worse.
The sudden popularity of the word “post-truth” may simultaneously create and destroy the world it describes. Let’s start with the creation – “post-truth” leading to less truth.
1) Dividing the world into two eras, a “post-truth” and a pre-Trump “truth”, obscures the truth. Politics has been theatre for some time. Remember the Iraq war? Society and the media drifted off into a fantasy land of WMD and Al-Qaeda connections. In 2005 Stephen Colbert coined “Truthiness” to point out the same thing. The word “post-truth” was coined in 1992 by a writer describing what he called “Watergate Syndrome”: a preference for wilful ignorance.
Trump’s so-wrong-it’s-not-lying style is also not new. It’s called bullshit. That’s “bullshit” in the technical sense of the term. In 1986, Harry Frankfurt wrote “On Bullshit” pointing out the kind of talk where the concern is not with truth or untruth, but with impact. Trump is a bullshitter par excellence. And Bullshit is an art form as old as humanity.
2) If you believe the other side cares about truth, then you will try engage with them. But if you think the other side has gone “post-truth”? The solutions become rather different.
Yet both sides seem to believe in truth. We have at least two big problems that will get worse if “post-truth” becomes a conversation stopping label:
- Historically, social networks have underpinned all manner of bizarre rumors. What’s new is that we are in a world of global hyper-rumors, spreading through splintered networks which never listen to each other.
- On the right are many people who can be described as having a “Right-wing Authoritarian” personality which is defined by hostility, conformity, and over-submission to authority. Finding the truth consists of listening to the leader, copying your neighbor, and kicking the crap out of the enemy. The rise of post-truth represents not the decline of a concern about truth, but the mobilization of a block of people who are very easily misled. And when they’re led by a bullshit artist…. Some one has to keep them in touch with reality.
3) Point out all the bullshit and people will see bullshit everywhere. Trust in all sources of media will fall. Where will these people go? Some will retreat to the people they trust: their social circle, the world of hyper-rumor.
Now for the destruction. “Post-truth” reveals an extraordinary concern with truth. Fact checkers are popular. The big online players may start putting “truth” into the algorithms. The need for critical thinking skills, real journalism, and verified facts is being spotlighted like never before. A fish doesn’t care about water until it’s on land. We didn’t care about truth until Trump.
In summary “post-truth” reveals the power of language. Naming is an act of creation. Not only of a word, but of a reality. What world the word “post-truth” will help create remains to be seen. If we are lucky, “post-truth” will destroy post-truth.
Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:
Watch Colbert on Post-truth vs Truthiness, plus some examples of a post-truth world in action. Here.
The Nation revisits 1992’s lesson on post-truth. Here.
Watch Harry Frankfurt discussing bullshit. Here.
Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarian personalities. Available for free here.