The Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its 2016 Word of the Year. The OED defined it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
This is an extraordinary development. Seeking restlessly for the truth has been at the heart of Western culture for more than 2000 years. Just 30 years ago, the idea of post-truth would have seemed just as absurd as “post-goodness” or “post-food”.
According to my research, journalist Steve Tesich was the first to use the word “post-truth” in a 1992 essay for The Nation magazine. However, it was in Ralph Keyes’s 2004 book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life that the idea of post-truth was conceptually clarified. People whose lives are guided by post-truth believe, he says, that “creative manipulation and invention of facts can take us beyond the realm of mere accuracy into one of narrative truth. Embellished information can be true in spirit, truer than truth”.
We have all sorts of euphemisms for the prickly and offensive word “lie”, he points out:
In the post-truth era we don’t just have truth and lies, but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall short of a lie. Enhanced truth it might be called. Neo-truth. Soft truth. Faux truth. Truth lite. Through such aggressive euphemasia we take the sting out of telling lies. Euphemasia calls up remarkable powers of linguistic creativity [in] addition to golden oldies such as “credibility gap,” “re-framing,” and Winston Churchill’s “terminological inexactitudes,” … Eventually euphemisms themselves develop connotations and spawn progeny. As an executive tells employees in a New Yorker cartoon: “I’m not spinning – I’m contextualizing.”
Paradoxically, lying is not necessarily definitive of post-truth discourse. To tell a lie one must intend to deceive. For the liar, truth is valuable – that’s the very reason why he wants to manipulate it. As Groucho Marx said, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Keyes says that the direct consequence of post-truth is, unsurprisingly, “post-truthfulness”. Post-truthfulness is a distrust of public discourse, not because of the content, which could be true and even scientifically demonstrated, but because of a belief that all words serve a hidden agenda. As a result, no one expects politicians or governments to tell the truth. Both Trump and Clinton, for instance, were constantly denounced as liars during their campaigns.
This is a moment for philosophical reflection. The murder of truth is perplexing, but there it is, sprawled on the carpet like a corpse in a detective thriller. Why are people happier with confirming their own prejudices and luxuriating in warm and fuzzy rhetoric than with facing the facts?
Of course, this is not the first attempt to assassinate truth. In Athens, Socrates was condemned to death for defending his right to seek the truth through public inquiry. His trial was an attempt to stifle the flare of truth because he had become a gadfly reminding Athenians of their ignorance and lack of virtue.
Is the debate about entering a post-truth era just a storm in a teacup? Or are we murdering Socrates again?
There are sceptics. They say that “post-truth” panic is nonsense and that there is nothing to be alarmed about. People are able to distinguish between hard, cold facts and the exaggerated claims of advertising. For instance, when Donald Trump said “I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand,” he was not making a serious claim and no one believed that he was. We do not consider self-promotion and advertising to be lies.
But anxiety about moving into a post-truth era is not altogether unfounded. What happens to community life if we no longer expect to be told the truth by people in authority? Will we respect them? Will we obey them? I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, but the consequences could undermine our democratic society. A book by the influential Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, showed that the key variable in successful societies is trust. Trust builds up social capital, allows business to flourish, and creates strong communities. It’s no accident that impoverished countries have little faith in their politicians.
Oscar Wilde, that ever-reliable subverter of conventional morality, had some sparkling epigrams about lying. “After all, what is a fine lie?” he wrote in one essay. “Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might as well speak the truth at once.”
This makes the problem of post-truth seem trivial, but it is of supreme importance – and it begins with ordinary life, not with the bloviation of ambitious politicians. Maybe we could start by always telling the truth and teaching children the transcendent importance of being truthful. Everyone has a role to play in defending truth in the post-truth era.
Our generation cannot give up on the truth. Lies are seeds of violence, which threaten to fray the bonds of our common humanity. Unless we take this task seriously we are sowing the wind and we will reap the whirlwind.
Martin Montoya is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Navarra, Spain.