Post-Truth Society

by George Hatjoullis

I have discovered a new word; post-truth. On reading the definition I felt like the man who suddenly realised he had been writing prose his whole life. Post-truth society has been a constant theme of my blogs. I had just never realised someone had given the concept a name. This shows how little I read I guess as this word is the Oxford Living Dictionary ‘word of the year‘. It is defined in the OLD 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

Those of you that read my The Decline in the Authoritative Voice might recognise this excerpt;

The voices we seek are not so trained or motivated. They seek to exploit our fears for their own gain. They merely echo our fears. In the process they validate these anxieties and eliminate the guilt that we feel in having them. They tell us that what we feel about ourselves is not our fault. It is someone else’s fault and if we eliminate this ‘other’ from our lives all will be well. It will not but by the time we find this out it is usually too late.

Post-truth society is one that I characterised as reflecting the decline in the authoritative voice. It is a society in which the book burners take power. Experts are denigrated. Truth is rendered wholly subjective. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and everyone’s opinion is equally weighted. Truth and legitimacy are determined by the ‘popular’ view. We see this post-truth society in The Shifting Moral Compass that makes once illegitimate views legitimate and requires we give them air time in the interest of ‘balance’. In the most extreme form everything becomes unanchored and ‘anything goes’ provided enough people support the idea. It is a very dangerous world.

The irony is that this society has emerged from the transition from philosophical realism to philosophical relativism. This transition was set in motion by the very people who are now looking at this post-truth society with horror. They can be found in Social Psychology and Sociology Departments across the world. A move away from strict realism was used to change entrenched views on gender, sexuality, and race. It worked but once the notion of a fixed universal truth was unanchored the danger inherent in the process was quickly apparent. If truth is relative (to context) and not universal then there is potentially an infinite set of truths. It becomes pick and mix and a populist’s paradise.

The idea that truth is not universal and that meaning is fluid in human society has been very constructive in introducing the possibility of important social change. Strict realism tended to fix truths at an arbitrary point in human history and saddle societies with values and norms that were at best anachronistic and at worst oppressive. Religion is the obvious example of this problem. How does one shift such established norms without questioning the universality of truth across time and context? In effect truths, like TVs, need to be updated to be in keeping with the broadcast technology. New knowledge and new understanding requires new norms.

The relativist position is not that anything goes. It is that new knowledge and new understanding requires that we shift the truths and norms by which we live. We do not de-anchor but rather relocate the anchor in line with our new understanding. Social change is thus still rooted in evidence and logic. The distinction between relativism and realism is more about what we look for in our (re)search than in the absoluteness of what we find. Realists believe there is something absolute to be found, a bedrock of truth. Relativists are unconvinced and see pragmatic virtue in treating all knowledge as contingent. Both philosophical positions seek new knowledge and understanding. One believes it is converging on the bedrock, the other that there may not be anywhere on which to converge. Both accept that what we treat as truth at any point in time should be evidence based and rooted in logical consistency. Post-truth society is thus not rooted in the two philosophical positions.It is a corruption of these positions.

In the FT there is an article about a survey that says Britons want both immigration curbs and to remain in the single market. It is an extraordinary survey outcome as even the least informed must by now be aware these are mutually exclusive. This is an expression of emotion. This is what would make us happy. Never mind that the other members of the EU would not be happy and certainly not agree. The EU should change to accommodate us. What is even worse is that it fails to understand the nature of the single market. If there is no free movement of (at least) workers, it is not a single market. It does not function as it did before. It ignores the economic benefits from free movement. It denies they exist. None of this is argued with evidence. It flies in the face of all the evidence. It reflects a cake and eat it mentality, an emotional demand. In the post-truth society we shall see many more surveys such as this.