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Post-truth

The phenomenon of “post-truth” rocketed to public attention in November 2016, when the Oxford Dictionaries named it 2016’s word of the year. After seeing a 2,000 percent spike in usage over 2015, the choice seemed obvious. Among the other contenders on the shortlist were “alt-right” and “Brexiteer,” highlighting the political context of the year’s selection. As a catch-all phrase, “post-truth” seemed to capture the times. Given the obfuscation of facts, abandonment of evidential standards in reasoning, and outright lying that marked 2016’s Brexit vote and the US presidential election, many were aghast. If Donald Trump could claim—without evidence—that if he lost the election it would be because it was rigged against him, did facts and truth even matter anymore?1

After the election, things only got worse. Trump claimed—again with no facts to back him up—that he had actually won the popular vote (which Hillary Clinton had taken by nearly 3 million votes), if one deducted the millions of people who had voted illegally. And he doubled down on his claim that—despite the consensus of seventeen American intelligence agencies—the Russians had not hacked the American election.2 One of his handlers seemed to embrace the chaos by arguing that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”3

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-12 at 11.25.47 PMAfter being sworn in as president on January 20, 2017, Trump offered a string of fresh falsehoods: that he had the biggest electoral victory since Reagan (he didn’t); that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest in US history (photographic evidence belies this and Washington, DC, Metro records show subway ridership down that day); that his speech at the CIA resulted in a standing ovation (he never asked the officers to sit). In early February, Trump claimed that the US murder rate was at a forty-seven-year high (when in fact the Uniform Crime Report from the FBI showed it to be at a near-historic low).4

The Oxford Dictionaries define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In this, they underline that the prefix “post” is meant to indicate not so much the idea that we are “past” truth in a temporal sense (as in “postwar”) but in the sense that truth has been eclipsed—that it is irrelevant. These are fighting words to many philosophers, but it is worth noting that this is much more than an academic dispute. In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” (defined as being persuaded by whether something feels true, even if it is not necessarily backed up by the facts) in response to George W. Bush’s excesses in relying on his “gut” for big decisions—such as the nomination of Harriet Miers for the US Supreme Court or going to war in Iraq without adequate proof of weapons of mass destruction. When the term was coined, “truthiness” was treated as a big joke, but people aren’t laughing anymore.6

With the largely fact-free campaign over Brexit in Great Britain— where hundreds of buses advertised the bogus statistic that the UK was sending 350 million euros a week to the EU 7—and the growing use of disinformation campaigns by politicians against their own people in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, many see post-truth as part of a growing international trend where some feel emboldened to try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around. This is not necessarily a campaign to say that facts do not matter, but instead a conviction that facts can always be shaded, selected, and presented within a political context that favors one interpretation of truth over another. Perhaps this is what Trump’s chief surrogate, Kellyanne Conway, meant when she said that press secretary Sean Spicer had intended to present “alternative facts” regarding the size of the crowd at the inauguration,8 when Trump seemed miffed by official US Park Service photos showing thousands of empty seats.

So is post-truth just about lying, then? Is it mere political spin? Not precisely. As presented in current debate, the word “post-truth” is irreducibly normative. It is an expression of concern by those who care about the concept of truth and feel that it is under attack. But what about those who feel that they are merely trying to tell the “other side of the story” on controversial topics? That there really is a case to be made for alternative facts? The idea of a single objective truth has never been free from controversy. Is admitting this necessarily conservative? Or liberal? Or perhaps it is a fusion, whereby largely leftwing relativist and postmodernist attacks on the idea of truth from decades ago have now simply been co-opted by right-wing political operatives.

The concept of truth in philosophy goes all the way back to Plato, who warned (through Socrates) of the dangers of false claims to knowledge. Ignorance, Socrates felt, was remediable; if one is ignorant, one can be taught. The greater threat comes from those who have the hubris to think that they already know the truth, for then one might be impetuous enough to act on a falsehood. It is important at this point to give at least a minimal definition of truth. Perhaps the most famous is that of Aristotle, who said: “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”9 Naturally, philosophers have fought for centuries over whether this sort of “correspondence” view is correct, whereby we judge the truth of a statement only by how well it fits reality. Other prominent conceptions of truth (coherentist, pragmatist, semantic) reflect a diversity of opinion among philosophers about the proper theory of truth, even while—as a value—there seems little dispute that truth is important.10

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 12.46.56 AM (2)For now, however, the question at hand is not whether we have the proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth. As a first step, it is important to acknowledge that we sometimes make mistakes and say things that are untrue without meaning to do so. In that case, one is uttering a “falsehood,” as opposed to a lie, for the mistake is not intentional. The next step beyond this is “willful ignorance,” which is when we do not really know whether something is true, but we say it anyway, without bothering to take the time to find out whether our information is correct. In this case, we might justifiably blame the speaker for his or her laziness, for if the facts are easily available, the person who states a falsehood seems at least partially responsible for any ignorance. Next comes lying, when we tell a falsehood with intent to deceive. This is an important milestone, for we have here crossed over into attempting to deceive another person, even though we know that what we are saying is untrue. By definition, every lie has an audience. We may not feel responsible for uttering a falsehood if no one is listening (or if we are sure that no one will believe it), but when our intent is to manipulate someone into believing something that we know to be untrue, we have graduated from the mere “interpretation” of facts into their falsification. Is that what post-truth is about?

The lines between the stages above are perhaps unclear and it is a slippery thing to migrate from one to another. The first time Trump said that there were no pre-inauguration conversations between his National Security Advisor and Russian officials could perhaps be attributed to willful ignorance. But when his own intelligence services then revealed that they had briefed him on exactly this—and Trump continued to deny it for two more weeks—one begins to infer intent. After Trump kept repeating his claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal ballots, the New York Times made the bold decision, just three days into his presidency, to print a headline saying that Trump had lied.11

There are other interesting relationships one can have with truth. In his delightfully brash yet rigorous book On Bullshit, philosopher Harry Frankfurt makes the case that when one is bullshitting, one is not necessarily lying but instead may just be demonstrating a careless indifference toward what is true. Is that what Trump is doing? And there are other, more partisan, attitudes that one can have toward truth as well. When Gingrich claims that how we feel about the murder rate is more important than FBI statistics, one suspects he is just being cynical; he is a kind of enabler for post-truth. Those political shills who “spin” the truth most favorably to their advantage, knowing full well (along with most everyone else) that this is what they are doing, are not just bullshitting, for there is clear intent to influence others. Yet post-truth also exists in an even more virulent form. This is when selfdeception and delusion are involved and someone actually believes an untruth that virtually all credible sources would dispute. In its purest form, post-truth is when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie. Pundits may argue over where Trump fits into this range: whether he is a deceiver, indifferent, cynical, or delusional. Yet all seem sufficiently hostile to truth to qualify as posttruth.

Even though it seems important to illuminate their differences and understand that there are many ways one can fit underneath the post-truth umbrella, none of this should be acceptable to those who genuinely care about the notion of truth. But the tricky part is not to explain ignorance, lying, cynicism, indifference, political spin, or even delusion. We have lived with these for centuries. Rather, what seems new in the post-truth era is a challenge not just to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself. When an individual is misinformed or mistaken, he or she will likely pay the price; wishing that a new drug will cure our heart disease will not make it so. But when leaders are in denial over basic facts, the consequences can be world shattering.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-13 at 12.46.56 AM (3)When South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed that antiretroviral drugs were part of a Western plot and that garlic and lemon juice could be used to treat AIDS, over 300,000 people died.12 When President Trump maintains that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese government to ruin the American economy,13 the long-term consequences may be equally devastating, if not more so. Yet the real problem here is not merely the content of any particular (outrageous) belief, but the overarching idea that— depending on what one wants to be true—some facts matter more than others. It is not simply that climate-change deniers don’t believe in facts, it’s that they only want to accept those facts that justify their ideology. Like all conspiracy theorists, they feel entitled to a double standard whereby they simultaneously believe (with no evidence) that the world’s climate scientists are part of a global conspiracy to hype the evidence on climate change, but then cherry pick the most favorable scientific statistics that allegedly show that the global temperature has not gone up in the last two decades.14 Deniers and other ideologues routinely embrace an obscenely high standard of doubt toward facts that they don’t want to believe, alongside complete credulity toward any facts that fit with their agenda. The main criterion is what favors their preexisting beliefs.15 This is not the abandonment of facts, but a corruption of the process by which facts are credibly gathered and reliably used to shape one’s beliefs about reality. Indeed, the rejection of this undermines the idea that some things are true irrespective of how we feel about them, and that it is in our best interests (and those of our policy makers) to attempt to find them.

If one looks at the Oxford definition, and how all of this has played out in recent public debate, one gets the sense that post-truth is not so much a claim that truth does not exist as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view. The Oxford definition focuses on “what” post-truth is: the idea that feelings sometimes matter more than facts. But just as important is the next question, which is why this ever occurs. Someone does not dispute an obvious or easily confirmable fact for no reason; he or she does so when it is to his or her advantage. When a person’s beliefs are threatened by an “inconvenient fact,” sometimes it is preferable to challenge the fact. This can happen at either a conscious or unconscious level (since sometimes the person we are seeking to convince is ourselves), but the point is that this sort of post-truth relationship to facts occurs only when we are seeking to assert something that is more important to us than the truth itself. Thus posttruth amounts to a form of ideological supremacy, whereby its practitioners are trying to compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence for it or not. And this is a recipe for political domination.

But this perspective can and should be challenged. Do we want to live in a world where policy is made based on how it makes us feel rather than how well it will work in reality? The human animal may be wired to give some credence to our superstitions and fears, but this does not mean that we cannot train ourselves to embrace better standards of evidence. There may be legitimate theoretical questions about our ability to know objective truth, but this does not mean that epistemologists and critical theorists do not go to a physician when they get sick. Neither should governments build more prisons because they “feel” that crime is going up.

So what to do? The first step in fighting post-truth is to understand its genesis. It may seem to some commentators that the idea of posttruth simply burst onto the scene in 2016, but that is not the case. The word “post-truth” may have seen a recent uptick—as a result of Brexit and the US presidential election—but the phenomenon itself has deep roots that go back thousands of years, to the evolution of cognitive irrationalities that are shared by liberals and conservatives alike. As previously suggested, it also has roots in academic debates over the impossibility of objective truth that have been used to attack the authority of science. And all of this has been exacerbated by recent changes in the media landscape. But in trying to understand the phenomenon of post-truth we are fortunate to have a ready-made road map to guide us.

In the past two decades’ explosion of science denial on topics like climate change, vaccines, and evolution, we see the birth of tactics that are now being used for post-truth. Our built-in cognitive biases, academic hair-splitting on questions about truth, and exploitation of the media have already had a prior life in the right wing’s attacks on science. It’s just that the battle field now encompasses all of factual reality. Before it was a dispute over a disfavored scientific theory; now it is over a photo from the US Park Service or a videotape from CNN.

Although it may seem alien and perplexing, the phenomenon of posttruth is neither opaque nor impenetrable. Yet neither is it so simple that it can be understood in a single word: Trump. In a world in which politicians can challenge the facts and pay no political price whatsoever, post-truth is bigger than any one person. It exists in us as well as our leaders. And the forces behind it have been building up for quite some time. Although the Brexit vote and the US presidential election may seem inextricably tied up with post-truth, neither was the cause of it—they were the result.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-12 at 2.05.27 PMSource: McIntyre, Lee. Post-Truth. Cambridge, Massachusetts [etc.]: MIT Press, 2018.

Notes
1. See Ashley Parker, “Donald Trump, Slipping in Polls, Warns of ‘Stolen Election,’” New York Times, Oct. 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/us/politics/trump-electionrigging. html. Note that “post-truth” was chosen as the word of the year even before the US presidential election results were announced, in response to a spike in usage after the Brexit vote in June and Trump’s nomination by the Republican Party in July. Amy B. Want, “‘Post-Truth’ named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/thefix/ wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-byoxford-dictionaries/utm_term=.ff63c5e994c2.

2. See Michael D. Shear and Emmarie Huetteman, “Trump Repeats Lie about Popular Vote in Meeting with Lawmakers,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/us/politics/donald-trumpcongress- democrats.html; Andy Greenberg, “A Timeline of Trump’s Strange, Contradictory Statements on Russian Hacking,” Wired, Jan. 4, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/01/timeline-trumpsstrange- contradictory-statements-russian-hacking/.

3. Scottie Nell Hughes on The Diane Rehm Show, National Public Radio, Nov. 30, 2016, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/scottie-nell-hughes-thereare- no-more-facts. 4. See William Cummings, “Trump Falsely Claims Biggest Electoral Win since Reagan,” USA Today, Feb. 16, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/02/16/trumpfalsely- claims-biggest-electoral-win-since-reagan/98002648/; Elle Hunt, “Trump’s Inauguration Crowd: Sean Spicer’s Claims versus the Evidence,” Guardian, Jan. 22, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/22/trumpinauguration- crowd-sean-spicers-claims-versus-the-evidence; S. V. Date, “Of Course the CIA Gave Trump Standing Ovations: He Never Let Them Sit,” Huffington Post, Jan. 23, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-ciaovations_ us_58866825e4b0e3a7356b183f; Jeremy Diamond, “Trump Falsely Claims US Murder Rate Is ‘Highest’ in 47 Years,” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/07/politics/donaldtrump- murder-rate-fact-check/index.html.

5. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1607/22/nday.06.html.

6. In response to the selection of “post-truth” as 2016’s word of the year, Stephen Colbert said that he was “pre-enraged. First of all, ‘post-truth’ is not a word of the year, it’s the two words of the year. Hyphens are for the weak. Second, post-truth is clearly just a ripoff of my 2006 word of the year: truthiness.” http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/11/stephen-colbertoxford- dictionary-post-truth-truthiness-rip-off.

7. Jon Henley, “Why Vote Leave’s ₤350m Weekly EU Cost Claim Is Wrong,” Guardian, June 10, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/realitycheck/ 2016/may/23/does-the-eu-really-cost-the-uk-350m-a-week.

8. Eric Bradner, “Conway: Trump White House Offered ‘Alternative Facts’ on Crowd Size,” CNN.com, Jan. 23, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/22/politics/kellyanne-conwayalternative- facts/index.html.

9. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1011b25.

10. For those interested in reading more on the fascinating subject of epistemology—the study of the theory of knowledge—perhaps the best place to start is Harry Frankfurt’s erudite but accessible On Truth (New York: Knopf, 2006). For a bit more detail about the various theories of truth, one might turn to Frederick F. Schmitt, ed., Theories of Truth (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

11. Shear and Huetteman, “Trump Repeats Lie,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/us/politics/donald-trumpcongress- democrats.html. See also the story two days later reflecting on this milestone: Dan Barry, “In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and “Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie,” New York Times, Jan. 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/business/media/donaldtrump- lie-media.html. This was not, however, the first time that the New York Times had said Trump lied. See “‘New York Times’ Editor: ‘We Owed It to Our Readers’ to Call Trump Claims Lies,” NPR.org, http://www.npr.org/2016/09/22/494919548/new-yorktimes- editor-we-owed-it-to-our-readers-to-call-trump-claims-lies.

12. Sarah Boseley, “Mbeki AIDS Denial ‘Caused 300,000 Deaths,’” Guardian, Nov. 26, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/26/aids-southafrica.

13. Louise Jacobson, “Yes Donald Trump Did Call Climate Change a Chinese Hoax,” Politifact, June 3, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/truth-ometer/ statements/2016/jun/03/hillary-clinton/yes-donald-trumpdid- call-climate-change-chinese-h/.

14. This claim has been made most prominently by Ted Cruz, who likes to claim that the NOAA’s own data disprove the case for climate change, even while the study he cites has since been corrected: see Chris Mooney, “Ted Cruz’s Favorite Argument about Climate Change Just Got Weaker,” Washington Post, March 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energyenvironment/ wp/2016/03/07/ted-cruzs-favorite-argument-aboutclimate- change-just-got-weaker/?utm_term=.fb8b15b68e30.

15. One glaring example was seen in press secretary Sean Spicer’s presentation of the March 2017 unemployment rate as 4.7 percent. When challenged by reporters that Trump had dismissed such statistics as “phony” in the past (when they favored Obama), Spicer laughed and said that Trump had told him that if he got this question he was to say that such statistics “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Lauren Thomas, “White House’s Spicer: Trump Says Jobs Report ‘May Have Been Phony in the Past, But It’s Very Real Now,” CNBC.com, March 10, 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/10/white-houses-spicer-trumpsays- jobs-report-may-have-been-phony-in-the-past-but-its-veryreal- now.html.

16. Lee McIntyre, Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (New York: Routledge, 2015).

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Categories: Literary Theory, Post-truth

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1 reply

  1. A comprehensive analysis of pot truth. Our political experience in the Philippines speaks of voluminous post truth, too.

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