Lately, the phrase ‘post-truth’ has gained currency in describing the times we live in, much like post-modern or post-industrial might have been used previously. This phrase sticks in my crow.
- First, what does it mean?
- Second, is it true – although that question may be thought to be tautological?
- Third, what do we do about the assertion that it is true when we think it isn’t or shouldn’t be?
What does ‘post-truth’ – or for that matter ‘truth’ mean?
To answer the question of what ‘post-truth’ might mean, first we need to think about what we mean by truth. And whether we spell it with a lower case or capital ‘T’.
To me, truth can be two very different things:
- One is evidence-based fact. That should be a self-evident concept. Either something is or isn’t a fact. Either an incident happened or it didn’t. Either a thing exists or it doesn’t. But of course I know that philosophy, physics and other disciplines have ways of questioning these things. However, those questions go – in my understanding – more to the question of what a thing or an event is and less to whether it is exists.
- We know of course, that different people perceive events differently. To appreciate this, all we really need to do is to listen to or read witness statements relating to the same incident from several different people. And that is the other thing that truth is, in my view: the honestly held opinion that something is the way it is perceived by any given individual.
From the point of view of both understanding the world around us and assessing the truth of information we are given, both of these aspects of truth are important. There is nothing wrong with having our own perception of the world around us. It is normal and it is human. There is also nothing wrong with maintaining that our perception is true (for us); but it never is and never can be ‘The Truth’; because that suggests that other perceptions of the same event or thing are wrong or false.
This view of truth also leads to a clear understanding that anyone can change their perception of the world around them and find to a new/different ‘truth’ for themselves. A good example would be that once we had a photo of the planet earth taken from space our understanding of what the earth looks like and what it means to have a finite planet change irrevocably for just about everyone who saw that photo.
And then there is the thinking about and analysing of facts, things, and events. To what extent is that truth? Well, this is where things get a bit complicated. Because we all have a set of assumptions about how we see things and that influences how we analyse and interpret what goes on around us. And so, when others tell us things and give us their assessment or analysis of what they are discussing, then we need to understand what those assumptions and perceptions are, and indeed, what interest they may have in a particular view of the issues.
When people speak about ‘post-truth’ I can only assume that they suggest that we now live in an era when it’s ok (or at least common place) for people to assert facts and make up events that don’t exists and never happened and people believe it because they said it, or because it is on social media and millions of people have shared it or because it sound plausible.
Is it true?
There are elements of what I believe people mean by post-truth that are happening.
So-called opinion-formers, people we tend to listen to, for example politicians or journalists, or celebrities or people we admire, say things and they are taken as true because of who said it. Or because of how often they get shared in social and other media.
There is another kind of ‘post-truth’; the media create headlines which sound as if they mean one thing when in fact they don’t and if one reads the article in full it is made clear that the headline is not the whole story or even not the story at all. But of course, our busy lives mean we often don’t read beyond the headlines.
But does that mean we can call our current era a ‘post-truth’ era? This would be reasonable if this kind of media behaviour were more prevalent now than it had been in the past.
I haven’t seen any research on the question of whether this is so, but I rather suspect people have always said things to aid their viewpoint without too much regard for the truth of what they said. The difference today is that we hear a lot more of the stuff in more and more abbreviated form and with less and less access to contextual information about why people are saying what they are saying.
So there is a lot of lying going on. But does that make our era a ‘post-truth’ era?
I would say (and granted, this is my opinion) that we have a choice about whether we live in a ‘post-truth’ era or not.
We know people lie; we know people lie for different reasons; we know people say things that aren’t true, sometimes without malice. So we have a choice. And the only way we would actually be living in a ‘post-truth’ era would be if we accepted everything we’re told and didn’t check it out. But we don’t need to do that. We shouldn’t do that.
So what do we do about it?
Many years ago when I started a new job in a local authority in the North of England, we had an induction week for new management staff, which included a session with the Chief Legal Officer. He started his presentation with the following statement: ‘Assume nothing, check everything, trust nobody’. At the time, I thought that this was a dreadfully negative view of the world. But all these years later I’d say: wise words.
It is tedious, I know; because it’s more comfortable and less time consuming to just get news from sources we trust (usually because they share our view of the world). But if we want to maintain a society where truth matters, where we stand up for truth, which respects everyone (because very nearly always lies are told for the benefit of some and the dis-benefit of others) then we have to live by that maxim.
When I read or hear something I ask these questions:
- Does it make sense?
- Is there any reference to sources of background and factual information?
- Who is telling the story? Do they have vested interests? Are they likely to be well informed about the matter?
- If most of the information is capture in a picture – what might be wrong with the picture? Pictures can be staged. And infographics aren’t there to tell the ‘truth’, they’re there to tell a story from a particular view point.
- Is it the full story?
- What are the consequences of believing what is said?
It makes life very difficult sometimes. Because just one item on the news, just one story in the press, one tweet, one Facebook post could take time to check and may lead nowhere. But I am getting more and more careful about simply re-tweeting and sharing. I use fact-check website. I look on the websites originating the stories to find out: Who is writing? Who is paying? Who is advertising? All these things matter.
And one final thing: when people shout assertions in massive halls crowded with people prepared to shout back slogans (be they from the right, the left, the middle or from Mars) be very afraid and don’t trust what they say.