Truth, post-truth and nothing like the whole truth

The term post-truth has been around for a couple of decades, during which time it has had several meanings. However, it exploded into common parlance following the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to name it the 2016 word of the year.

The OED defines post-truth 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”. The reference to objective facts is in itself a telling phrase in that it suggests that there is such an entity as “subjective facts”.

The new common acceptance of the OED’s definition of post-truth represents a victory by the Left in the contest to determine language. Post-truth is used by the Left to explain the decision by most Brits to back Brexit.

Following Donald Trump’s victory, post-truth also is being used to explain why Americans in the swing states voted for the Republican candidate against what the Left regards as their objective interests.

In both instances, the term brings reassurance to the Left. Why did the people of Britain overlook the (alleged) benefits of the EU? Well, they neglected objective facts. And why did Americans elect Trump, rejecting Hillary Clinton in the process? Well, they embraced emotional appeals and personal prejudices.

It comes as no surprise that this kind of thought is evident in Australia. Last Wednesday on the ABC’s Radio National Breakfast program, Fran Kelly interviewed Josef Janning, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The discussion followed German chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent re-election as leader of the Christian Democratic Union.

It was soon evident that Kelly and Janning were barracking for Merkel to win next year’s German election and were united in their opposition to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, which is hostile to immigration. Kelly commented that it “was notable that some of the ministers speaking at the Christian Democrat conference … addressed the rise of the post-truth world directly” and “the rise of Donald Trump more indirectly”.

Kelly identified herself with a senior CDU politician who distinguished himself from “the troublemakers, the extremists and those who think you can explain the world in 140 characters”. The latter was an obvious reference to Trump. Janning agreed and expressed concern that, because of social media, it was becoming increasingly difficult for governments to “wake-up the people and say: look, there’s something serious happening (and) we have to act against it to stay with our head above the water”.

Those who run the post-truth line imply not only that there is such an entity as truth but, more seriously, that they alone express it. This reflects one meaning of truth that is traditionally theological in nature. For example, when Christians, Jews or Muslims refer to “the truth” they are invariably stating a faith; that is, a commitment to a theological belief, the facts concerning which cannot be established on this earth.

Sure, there are certain secular truths; for example, that Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. However, there is rarely an accepted truth in contemporary times. Rather, there are what are claimed to be facts that are contested. Agree with the AFD in Germany or not, its view on immigration may turn out to be correct. Or may not. Or the matter may remain contentious for eons. We just do not know.

Right now, it is intellectually fashionable to depict the US president-elect as post-truth. However, as Trump campaign director Kelly­anne Conway said recently, the one constant untruth of the presidential campaign was the claim made widely by journalists and commentators that Trump could not win. Yet those who were so wrong about the outcome of the Clinton v Trump contest continue to put themselves in the truth, not the post-truth, camp.

In her Fairfax Media article last Saturday, Julia Baird supported the post-truth intellectual fashion and bemoaned what she referred to as an “insidious trend”: namely, “the demise of the expert; politicians and pundits ridiculing those who bring knowledge to bear on public debate by those who have none”. Baird went on to censure British Conservative politician Mich­ael Gove, whom, she wrote, “crowed in the lead-up to the Brexit vote: ‘People have had enough of experts’ — until, Baird opined, “they go to the doctor or fly in a plane”.

Sure, doctors and pilots have expertise. But they can make mistakes. But there is no comparison to Brexit. In 2016, it is far too early to say whether the British people’s decision to quit the EU was correct or not. This is not a matter of Baird’s “truth” against Gove’s “non-truth”. It’s just a political issue with good arguments on both sides of the debate.

If we really want to know what is happening in Western democracies, it makes sense to examine why Brexit and Trump prevailed. It’s simply an act of denial to claim that it was a matter of “liars” defeating “truth-tellers”.

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