Beyond the Post-Truth Society
There’s been a lot of virtual ink spent recently on the various implications of presidential politics in the hypermedia age. It’s not a secret that the system is dysfunctional, and that having more outlets doesn’t mean greater veracity in the public discourse. Yet things have escalated beyond all of this in the electoral aftermath, and not simply due to the implausible result. We seem to have a societal issue with “truth” no longer even being a pretend virtue, yielding a world in which blatant untruths can enhance one’s political standing, and where fact-checking only seems to diminish the role of facts even more.
We should have seen this coming, and indeed the Oxford English Dictionary did. In picking its 2016 word of the year last month, the OED entered more serious terrain than usual (previous winners included vape, selfie, and a ‘tears of joy’ emoji). For this year, coming on the heels of Brexit in the UK and just before the results of the US presidential election, the OED settled on “post-truth” as its annual victor, which is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The impacts are worth unpacking.
By all accounts we appear to have entered an era that is unprecedented in modern political history. Perhaps that’s an impression shared by people in previous eras as well, yet this one has the hallmarks of going a quantum leap beyond business as usual. It isn’t just that we’re confronted with a creeping authoritarianism and an incompetent executive; after all, there were the Bush-Cheney years for that. It’s not so much that we have a politician spreading untruths for political gain; that’s just par for the course. And it’s not even that irresponsible rhetoric has mobilized a reactionary base -- wars are sold this way.
What’s different now seems to be the complete erosion of the capacity to fact-check, counter-argue, or otherwise contest any of these developments by either pointing out their obvious wrongness or presenting divergent evidence. In bygone times, when blatant lies were openly propagated there could still be political consequences conditioned by the eventual workings of an (albeit imperfect) system. Presidential fiats could be delimited, gross overreaches were scaled back, and polarities of power might shift. The truth could be bent, even mangled beyond recognition, but ultimately it would still hold up.
Today, however, we’ve gone way beyond that. Now, a supporter of our incoming Commander-in-Chief can openly assert that there are no such things as facts in polite company. This would be funny if it wasn’t, ironically, factual on some level. We find ourselves in a media ecosystem where a tweet caroms around the chamber more than a policy initiative, where even exposed falsities lead to a bounce in approval ratings, and where the concept of “speaking truth to power” thus appears quaint. While the idea that there is no objective “truth” may be worth debating as a philosophical concept, this isn’t some Nietzschean insight proffered to contest hegemonies of obedience through an existentialist worldview.
No, this is different. That which came before still presupposed that there could be a contest of perspectives, with evidence mounted on either side and decisions made accordingly. Now, no evidence is necessary, and even when all of it points the other way, an untruth can still operate with impunity. Indeed, our quasi-elected Midnight Tweeter has shown a remarkable ability to turn even directly contestational arguments into net gains for himself, verifying in plain view the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It makes him impervious to facts or reason as a counter-force, and offers a sendup of our celebrity/scandal-obsessed culture that even the team behind Black Mirror might envy.
The problem, then, is that all of the missives directed his way only seem to empower the man further. It’s like trying to stop a runaway train by applying friction against it, only to discover that it actually runs on friction. This is the evil genius in the entire operation, the quality that has perplexed the pundits and pollsters alike, who seemingly miscalculated as to the weight voters would attach to the veracity of campaign rhetoric. His voters likely knew much of it was untrue, yet didn’t seem to care anyway. This is beyond influencing the public through emotional appeals; it’s about doing it with their full participation.
What we can take from this, as it applies to our current politics, is that we’re not in an after-truth moment, but more so a truth-averse one. The “post-” designation isn’t about transcendence or evolution, but rather about ignorance and denial. It seeks to suppress knowledge and replace it with convenient falsities; to deny reality in the name of a dangerous illusion. We can choose to flout human-induced climate change and thus do nothing about it, but that doesn’t actually make the problem go away. One can believe in the inherent superiority of their own identity factors, but that won’t reverse demographic trends or undo the gains of social progress. Change happens irrespective of acceptance.
In this light, we need to consider the content of today’s appeals “to emotion and personal belief” in this context. We’re not talking here merely about persuading people to buy a new mouthwash or tune into a hit program. The emotions appealed to in the present political realm are mainly about fear -- fear of the “other” and fear of losing one’s livelihood. They’re about disdain, even hatred, for those branded as blocks on the path to being “great” again. The beliefs being cultivated are more about denigration than pride, and are designed to tap into deep-seated prejudices and patterns of dehumanization. While such ideas are evident in the annals of history, today we have millions of digital rooftops to tweet them from.
As such, in a final nod to the tenor of the times, it should be noted that the abnegation of facts isn’t only the province of one party or one public figure, but is instead a larger cultural phenomenon. What we’ve seen in this election cycle is someone capitalizing on that reality (literally) and extending it to its logical extreme. Perhaps this will give us all a chance to see it for what it is, and to examine its implications. The pervasive and hollow logic of “if you tweet, they will follow” has led us here, but we needn’t continue to let it do so. If we break the hold this algorithm has over us, we might even find ourselves going from a moment that is without precedent to a movement that upends a president. Why not? Truth is stranger than fiction, and fiction now trumps truth, so we’re free to construct a reality that is “post-” this one.