Future Post-Truth: What happens when lying is just practical politics?
As a tumultuous 2016 draws toward a welcome end and weeks have passed since the extraordinary electoral events in the United States, it is still too early to view everything that has happened dispassionately or with much perspective. The amount of light shed on several extraordinary developments this year is in inverse proportion to the amount of ink, real or virtual, spilled in attempted explanation.
Allowing for the trans-Atlantic time-difference, the early morning of the day after the Trump election felt practically identical to the morning after the Brexit vote—with only some of the names and places altered, although the innocent were not protected. It felt eerie, even scary.
In each instance, somehow sensing a major upset, your correspondent tried to stay up all night to watch the results come in; in each case, tiredness or dread took over. The spirit wasn’t particularly willing and the flesh was pretty weak.
Reawakening in the quiet of the early morning and going straight to both old and new media, the similarity between the two electoral endgames was uncanny, destabilizing. In each moment, I’d somehow awoken about half an hour before the result was officially called. The language and expression of the media anchors, and the predictions on social media, dealt the news that I, for one, had dreaded.
As the Brexit vote closed, I wondered, would there be a district somewhere in Britain that would return an 11th hour surprise vote (or, in this case, about the fifth hour in the morning) that would reverse what looked inevitable?
Would one of those remaining U.S. swing states do likewise and halt Mr. Trump’s momentum? Before I had even managed to down the day’s first espresso, I had to admit that neither vote had gone the way I wanted it to. That is democracy in action, I tried to tell myself. Not everyone holds the views that I do. And I failed entirely to convince myself.
Quite a lot of the commentary since the Brexit vote and U.S. elections suggests that the victors did not expect to win. Part of the evidence advanced for this thesis is that in neither case did the winner appear to know what to do next.
In Britain, the governing Conservative party has been widely roasted for not having a plan, or as one version goes, echoing the popular Britcom series of a few years ago, Blackadder, the cunning plan is to have no plan (“That’ll confuse those foreigners, eh, Baldrick?”). “Leave” campaign winners were anything but gleeful on their morning after. Reports of the first weeks of the Trump transition effort suggest something similar. Policy is being made either on the hoof or by means of undoing campaign commitments or just forgetting them.
It is another venerable British institution that has just led us to uncover a deeper reality that underscores everything that has happened this year. The Oxford English Dictionary announced that its International Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth. O.E.D. editors found that the compound word’s usage increased by over 2,000 percent over 2015. Post-truth beat out such doughty competitors as “alt-right,” a synonym for white nationalist—or worse; “Brexiteer,” which is obvious; and “coulrophobia,”the extreme or irrational fear of clowns.
The O.E.D. editors explain 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.” Thought to have been first coined in 1992, the term might have already undergone a significant shift in meaning; from describing a situation that obtains after the truth has become known, to a new situation, which you can see plainly this year, in which the objective, empirical truth just is not relevant.
Since the O.E.D. began the custom of selecting a Word of the Year, there have been separate winners on either side of the Atlantic. Famously, in 2009, the United Kingdom selected simples and the United States chose unfriend. Significantly, this year, both British and American editors agreed on post-truth. That chilling sense of deja-vu between the Brexit referendum result and the Trump election win got a lot scarier.
Post-truth’s ascendancy starts to explain what happened on both sides of the Atlantic this year, focusing on a disturbing feature common to each of these momentous campaigns. In a word, untruths. Now add that descriptive “intentional.” Suddenly, we have found ourselves living in the post-truth era in which it has become acceptable to knowingly lie to the public.
The O.E.D. word of the year choice aims to do more than acknowledge frequency of usage. The editors hope to capture the moment, the zeitgeist. We could say it is just a fancy synonym for lying, but that won’t cover all its nuance. People in the United States voted (although not a majority of them—another oddity) for a candidate known to have lied over 500 times, according to a fact-checking Canadian journalist, but it did not seem to matter.
People in Britain voted for a campaign that foregrounded a significant lie, that £350m each week would be spent, post-Brexit, on the National Health Service rather than handed over to Brussels. That lie was admitted the very next morning, but it didn’t seem to matter. Each campaign focused on the appalling lie that immigrants are to blame for all problems. When actual facts—you know, those details that you can check and verify—were adduced, they were dismissed by the likes of Mr. Trump and Mr. Farage as the special-interest propaganda of the mainstream media.
What is to be done? The world is full of anger. The appeal to emotion rather than fact engages that anger, but this does not look promising as the basis of a new politics, a new way of doing things. Post-truth is a close cousin of relativism, where my truth and your truth might well collide, but we’re not going to get into any informed arguments or debate, out of which truth might emerge; I’ll stick my fingers in my ears while you face-palm. Yet we do follow one who was heard to say, at least once, that the truth would set us free; one who was executed with the consent of a weakling who shrugged his shoulders as he asked, “Truth? What is that?”
Dorothy Day reminds us that “no-one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” At the end of this extraordinary year, much of that work might be to rediscover the power of the search for truth. Could 2017 be the year of post post-truth?
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.