Why we should resist the idea and practice of 'post-truth'


Picture of Emmi Itäranta
Emmi Itäranta

At its most dangerous, it can turn into Orwellian newspeak

Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish novelist and columnist. Her novels include the award-winning Memory of Water (2014) and The City of Woven Streets (2016). Author photo: © Heini Lehväslaiho

In November 2016, after what was by any measure a tumultuous year for Europe and the world, Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as its Word of the Year. Oxford Dictionaries define the word as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

In the immediate aftermath of a six-month period which saw the success of Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, it is certainly tempting to conclude that truth has ceased to matter.

In these two campaigns, facts and expert opinion seemed to count for nought, to be replaced by appeals to existing prejudices against immigrants, minorities and the political elite. As a result we have been forced to re-examine our conventional understanding of the relationship between facts and voting behaviour. It is not surprising that new terminology is needed to describe this situation.

There are reasons to be cautious about accepting the idea of ‘post-truth’ as the new normal. And there are perhaps even stronger reasons to resist the word itself.

The first fallacy of the idea of the world having entered a ‘post-truth’ era is the implication that an era of absolute truth existed at some earlier point in time. This view is ahistorical and in many ways unfounded.

Before ‘post-truth’, the practice of deliberately trying to shape public opinion was called propaganda

‘Truths’ have always been shaped by power struggles. Whether or not we accept that the phenomenon of absolute truth – such as an objectively verifiable event – exists, any attempt to communicate this truth is subjective to some extent. Communication is bound to language and cultural convention. It consists of choices made in an attempt to convey the message. Truth becomes an interpretation, rather than an absolute.

Communication and interpretation have been tied to power structures throughout history. These structures, in turn, aim to influence people as they communicate with each other. Before ‘post-truth’ there was a different word for the practice of deliberately trying to shape public opinion through appeals to emotion, personal belief and prejudice. It was ‘propaganda’.

Today, we see many of the major traits of propaganda at work in ‘post-truth’ practices such as fake news spreading on the internet and the endless repetition of unverifiable claims as ‘facts’. The mechanisms may have changed and evolved, but the goals remain largely the same.

The second fallacy about the notion of ‘post-truth’ is to do with the word itself and its potential impact. It would be a mistake to see ‘post-truth’ as a neutral label for an existing phenomenon. Words do not simply describe reality; they also actively help us perceive, understand and construct the reality we live in. Therefore, every time we repeat the notion of a ‘post-truth’ era, we give more power to the idea that truth has ceased to matter.

Rationality has been the basis of Western democracies since the Enlightenment. In many ways the technological, scientific and social progress made in Europe over the past 300 years is built on the notion that facts are relevant to the choices we make as individuals, as societies and as an international community.

If you remove the notion that truth – or at least, a sincere attempt to convey the truth with as little bias as possible – matters, the very foundation of our democracies crumbles under our feet. We are left susceptible to whichever way the next populist wind blows.

Simple and catchy words are rarely capable of capturing complex realities, and our reality is increasingly complex

So at its most dangerous, ‘post-truth’ has the potential to turn into Orwellian newspeak. It normalises the situation where facts no longer have any weight to them. It neutralises the sinister undertone of fake news and online hate speech. It paralyses us, leaving us feeling like there is nothing to be done since the blade of our best weapon, truth, has been made blunt and rendered useless.

This is precisely what fake news and other ‘post-truth’ practices seek to achieve. They are meant to leave us feeling confused and powerless. They are designed to divide and weaken. This confusion benefits those seeking to implement the simple-sounding solutions offered by authoritarian rule rather than solutions that actually work.

It is crucial to develop a new awareness of how ‘post-truth’ practices operate, to strip their mechanisms bare and place them under scrutiny. To do this, it may be necessary to launch an international discussion on a possible code of conduct for the ethics and responsibilities of spreading information online, where conventional ethics of journalism do not apply.

The notion of a ‘post-truth’ era may sound catchy, but perhaps this alone tells us something about the nature of the term. Simple and catchy words are rarely capable of capturing complex realities. And we live in an increasingly complex reality.

We may choose to look at it through a simplifying lens, or strive for a more nuanced understanding. History has shown that the latter is usually a more laborious way but less disastrous in the long run. We can let the notion of ‘post-truth’ politics numb us or we can resist it and turn this into an era of reclaiming the truth.

The choice, and the future built on that choice, is ours.

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