We are living in the “post-truth” age. It’s a line repeated so many times in recent years it’s become a cliché. Hasn’t the truth always been a nebulous, subjective concept? Haven’t humans always told lies? It seems a bit short-sighted, even arrogant, to think there’s something unique about our current era.
Yet there is something particular about our time that deserves mention. A combination of the philosophical ideas of “post-modernism” that value a multiplicity of perspectives over the notion of one objective “truth”; and technological changes that encourage a subjective, individualised way of viewing the world. These have certainly impacted our culture in a way that has changed our relationship to “the truth” as an idea. Commercial and political interests have both used and extended these changes to make them a prominent part of public life.
In a great example of self-fulfilling prophecy, “post-modernism” is a term that seems to be applied with complete subjectivity to anything the author sees fit. This echoes one of the most famous quotes of post-modern philosophy – Jacques Derrida’s “there is nothing outside of the text”. In Derrida’s thesis, there is no grand narrative or objective reality, just meaning relative to other meaning (which is also relative to other meaning). Derrida’s playful deconstruction had a serious side – a claim the supposed objective truths of modernist European rationality were in fact culturally formed by the norms and hierarchies of those societies. Feminist scientist Donna Haraway coined the term “situated knowledge” to describe the way even scientific findings are influenced by a set of cultural and personal assumptions.
Post-modern theorists have especially been interested in analysing mass media and how it affects our vision of reality. Which is a good segue into talking about what really brought the phrase “post-truth” into the mainstream – the way political figures, combined with media technology, have changed the way we talk about society and governance.
As Donald Trump’s term as US president drew to a close, with Trump spreading ever more outrageous lies and a large section of his supporters viewing every event from another plane of reality (social media each day since the election filled with the confident assertions of QAnon conspiracy adherents that this is all part of some grand plan), you couldn’t help but feel we had turned a definitive corner into a new relationship with truth.
The idea of politicians lying or using public relations “spin” is so common it is itself accepted as a truism – in the context of politics, mistruths are expected, they are their own “truth”. And as dubious as many election promises are, the age of democracy surely represented an improvement from most of history when the authority of many political leaders came from the assertion they were descended from or appointed by the gods. Even through the 20th century, totalitarian regimes across the world and the left/right political spectrum controlled the population’s conception of reality by a combination of centralised media, censorship, ideological brainwashing, and violent suppression of dissent.
Still, there seemed something novel about the shamelessness of Trump’s lying. The Washington Post famously began keeping count of times Trump made statements that were verifiably untrue. They have a backlog of a couple of months, but in the four years up to this October they had counted 25,653.
What was different about Trump is that his goal didn’t seem to be to convince anyone that what he said was in fact “true”, it was just to blatantly lie and trust the tribal allegiances of our society would continue to work in his favour. This is one of the things that seems to make our current time distinct from others – you get the suspicion many Trump supporters know what he is saying is untrue, but are happy to believe it anyway – ”post-truth”.
He is not the only world leader to have taken this approach either – Vladimir Putin used the bizarre media tactics of Vladislav Surkov to create an atmosphere where Russians were so surrounded by lies that it became pointless to seek out any kind of truth. Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election (using very Surkov-style tactics of mass disinformation) could be seen as an incursion across borders not quite so much in the old sense of one nation gaining power over another; as a battle for the forces of “post-truth” over old notions of fact-based worldviews.
Similarly, this year we can marvel at the immense reach of conspiracy theories – QAnon and the wide variety of COVID conspiracies being the most notable but far from the only ones. There have always been conspiracy theories (in fact QAnon functions less like a normal conspiracy than a religion – which of course are even older and more common); but there are specific things about our time that allow them to spread faster and seem more convincing – the “echo chamber” effect of internet algorithms directing our eyes to more content that confirms our beliefs and less that challenges them; the ease of making and distributing media means there is just more material we are forced to sift through to find the truth; and there is a strong cultural tide that distrusts “experts” and consensus and encourages the use of individual experience in constructing a worldview. Online algorithms, with their personalised selection of information, play into this – hence the disfigurement of traditional forms of knowledge-gathering into the conspiracy mantra “do your own research”, by which they really mean “I watched a youtube video, then lots of similar ones came up in my feed”.
The effect of algorithmic “information silos” in our culture is often talked about, and no doubt it has had an effect on the way we think and communicate. But there are other factors related to social media that contribute to our current intellectual climate. One is how information is consumed on there – we scroll through our feeds out of boredom, absorbing information in a semi-conscious way but rarely actively considering what we see. Another is the nature of the media itself. Short status posts, infographics and youtube videos do not often lend themselves to nuanced analysis from either the creator or the viewer. To some extent, social media even turns our selves into something not entirely authentic – our manicured social media avatars not necessarily reflecting the person we are when away from the screen.
But another element of social media that is less talked about is how it has contributed to our lives increasingly taking place in the disembodied realm of online interactions. In this sphere, theoretical ideas take up a significant proportion of our time and effort and thus take on a new level of importance. Yet there are less apparent repercussions that come from believing things that are false. When the majority of human effort revolved around the basic necessities of life, there were very obvious consequences that resulted from believing something untrue. But with most of our basic needs covered, and a general sense of political powerlessness, you can spend much of your life online arguing things that are demonstrably false – nothing is really at stake.
Of course that’s not quite true – the ongoing disaster of COVID-19 in the US is an example of the real life consequences of widespread disinformation. Over the coming decades, climate change is likely to become another (though in both those cases, really it is the decision by governments to do nothing in the face of the crises that has more effect than any individual’s beliefs). Ultimately (though the extent might differ) I think any untrue beliefs, and any hindrance to processes that allow us to work out what is true, are harmful.
It is often Trump, Brexit, and right-wing conspiracy theories that get focussed on when people talk about online mistruths. It does seem this phenomenon lends itself to social and political conservatism – given the trend of reinforcing an individual’s pre-existing ideology can lead to a lack of considering the experiences of others (making us more suspicious of others and more protective of ourselves and our private assets) and a general individualised worldview (which makes us less inclined to support broad social policies that seek to address structural inequalities).
But problems in online discourse are definitely not limited to those on the political right – as the debate this year over “cancel culture” has shown. “Critical theory” – a mode of intellectual thought that began as a post-modern effort to investigate the true power dynamics hidden behind the apparent equality of our society – is now often used online to make extreme generalisations and abstractions. These assertions being linked to real-life oppressions means many claim any critique of theories is viewed as an attack on individuals (racist/transphobic/fatphobic/anti-sex work etc) and needs to be shut down. While an understandable attempt to redress power dynamics that have maintained inequalities and illusions for a long time, this new set of dogma and taboos hardly seem an atmosphere very conducive to investigating the truth – in individual circumstances or across society.
Of course, restrictions on truth are not limited to the online sphere. All the old ways of repressing truth are still visible – the criminalising of whistleblowers and academics across the world, the monopolisation of mass (and social) media, big business sponsoring research papers and media campaigns that promote their interests, and old-fashioned violent repression of anyone offering dissent. The rise to global superpower status of a dictatorship that makes extensive use of censorship and surveillance is not likely to do us any favours in our quest for the truth.
Most people would at least say they believe truth is a virtue (though let’s face it, few of us can claim never to intentionally lie for our own self-interest, let alone to be totally dedicated to pursuing objective truths). But the question remains – if we want a world that is more truthful, on a personal and social level, how do we get there?
For one, finding the truth requires hard work. Many of us are critical of “experts” and a system of specialised fields, but it is a fact that discovering the nature of reality generally involves dedicating a lot of time and resources to the pursuit. And as much as they cop a lot of the blame for leading us into our “post-truth” present, the post-modernists are right – the simple fact of an idea correlating with our own experience, or pre-existing beliefs, or the dominant ideology of society; does not make it universally true. Finding the truth requires critique, interrogation, and synthesis of different viewpoints.
It also requires humility, to acknowledge that most of us don’t know the whole truth. Our knowledge is not all-encompassing, our experience not universal. Finding the truth has to be a collaborative process, because none of us going alone are likely to transcend our own individual bias.
For the truth to thrive, we need space to investigate ideas. Individually, we need to set aside time and space for research and analysis. In relationships, we need to allow others to express ideas different from our own without shutting them down. Even if ideas are faulty, considering them and discovering their falsehood leads us closer to truth. At a society wide level, it means supporting the pursuit of understanding. The recent government funding cuts to arts degrees in Australia are part of an attack on the idea of the university as a space dedicated to the abstract quest for knowledge. Governments like ours (and indeed, the hierarchies of many universities) see tertiary education as valuable only in as much as it supports economic acquisition. But if we want a society that values the truth, we need to support the pursuit of understanding for its own sake.
Everyone likes to believe we speak the truth, but we are less likely to encourage others to speak uncomfortable truths to us. Telling the truth can be extremely difficult, and so to nurture it – by listening to people and considering what they have to say – is vital to understanding things. At a personal level, this means giving those we know permission to speak honestly about how they feel – without getting defensive or condescending with our own views. At a society-wide level, we could start by not threatening whistleblowers with prison. Among many others, in Australia people like David McBride and Bernard Collaery are currently facing serious charges simply for telling the truth on matters that most would agree are in the public interest; while of course Julian Assange is still facing espionage charges in the US for his release of classified documents.
Telling the truth is often a dangerous act, as those I have just mentioned will testify. Often people don’t like to hear truths, and occasionally the truth you may have to tell threatens the power of those keen to hold onto it. It takes courage to speak the truth to our friends sometimes, let alone the powers that be in society. In fact it takes courage to speak the truth to ourselves sometimes, easier to maintain illusions about who we are and what we believe. But even courage can be easier than vulnerability – the willingness to share truths that depict ourselves in an unfavourable light. To allow truth means an openness to being vulnerable with others, and allowing others to be vulnerable with us.
Truthfulness may be a virtue, but it’s not the only one. To be effective in transforming lies and untruths; it is often necessary to couple the truth with compassion and empathy, forgiveness and repentance. A fact, in and of itself, can be useful. But it is when truth is combined with the human ability to love one another that the truth becomes a force for transformation.
And that’s what it’s really about. For all kinds of reasons, we can justify lies and misrepresentations – is the truth really that important? I think the truth, as best as we can understand it, is vital to making a better world. For one, any effort expended on the basis of untruths is just a waste of human ability – a loss individually, a tragedy on a society wide scale. Uncovering the truth is necessary for justice and healing, but also for the full blossoming of human potential. A lie or a cover-up usually works to preserve the well-being of one person or group who are served by the maintaining of untruths. But the truth, told with courage and compassion, opens our eyes to new possibilities – new understandings of ourselves, new relationships with others, new ways to arrange our society.
These aren’t easy times for the truth. Populist politicians and authoritarian governments; the monopolies of old media and the chaotic free-for-all of social media; plus old classics like advertising and PR, religious and ideological dogma, self-interest and self-righteousness; all combine to make an environment of widespread deception and confusion.
But we know the sayings – “the truth shall set you free”; “in a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. I happen to believe them too, while acknowledging the truth can be hard to find and difficult to tell. But I think our path to becoming better people, to maintaining better relationships, to building a better world, maybe even the survival of life and society as we know it; depends on us uncovering and understanding the truth in all its complexity and challenges. Maybe we can begin “the post-post-truth age”.