Kindness, compassion, and post-truth

My philosophy discussion group is “studying” Post-Truth this term. More often than not we’re exploring a philosophical topic where the ideas are so challenging (along with the writing) that we spend ages trying to make heads or tails of what the philosopher is saying. (It’s really way more fun than it sounds!) In this case, however, it is painfully clear. There’s nothing difficult to understand about what post-truth is; the difficult thing is figuring out just how we can get past it.

Post-Truth?! What is that, anyway, yet another catch phrase of our times, like fake news and hoaxes? When are we going to get past this strange world of alternate universes? Well, it turns out that Post-Truth really is an accepted and accurate term to describe the world we now find ourselves in. The mainstream news sources that people used to count on for thorough investigative reporting (the most reputable newspapers of old and the pre-historic 30-minute-per-night news telecast of a respected journalist on the few TV stations we had available in the ‘olden days”) are relics of the past. Your truth can now be whatever you want it to be, or more realistically what someone else wants you to believe. We all – or at least far too many of us – now follow our own version of the truth – the one we like best – and we never have to bother ourselves with another point of view, and certainly not the factual truth. How we feel about something is, apparently, more important to us than whether what we like is based on fact. Welcome to our divisive post-truth world.

Sigh. What a world, eh? The same amazing Internet that allows us to connect in so many positive ways also allows targeted news outlets to isolate us from one another with their versions of the news – and make gobs of money at the same time. Don’t forget that part of it. The phrase from Watergate – “follow the money” – applies to just about everything.

Reading about what philosophers have to say on the subject is thoroughly depressing. I have to say that I think this topic is more about psychology than philosophy, and mostly about the psychology of advertising and related forms of propaganda. [If you want to be (even more) depressed about the state of the world and how we got here, you can try Lee McIntyre’s book helpfully titled Post-Truth; if you really want to be depressed you can try Michiko Kakutani’s disturbing book on the subject, The Death of Truth.] My negative reactions to discussing the reality of living in a – gasp – post-truth world led me to think about how we can ensure that critical aspects of healthy societies, like kindness and compassion, can survive and grow in this disturbing world.

If we’re applying post-truth (aka misleading or worse) messaging to our intended audience to attract money, customers, or votes for more or less value-neutral reasons, then is there any problem with that? It’s still dishonest in some (or all) respects, but maybe in many cases that is so well understood that it doesn’t cross an ethical line. People aren’t going to get their knickers in a knot about slightly over-exaggerated (false) advertising. After all, we’re all used to expecting some exaggeration in advertising (although humour in advertising works better for me).

But what about the main focus of our post-truth world: politics. According to most dictionaries, post-truth denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. One example is climate change. I get that many people – too many – are relieved to be told that man-made climate change is a hoax. It’s something people want to believe. Having to deal with the extreme kinds of changes we need to make in the way we lead our lives and run our businesses is scary. It’s hard, very hard. It’s not going to get easier, in fact it’s going to get a lot harder, but I get why people would want to hold onto the notion that it’s just not true, so we don’t need to do anything about it. If we can believe it’s all a hoax then we don’t need to stop opening new oil sands mines in Alberta, we don’t need to protect Arctic seas and public lands from new drilling, and we don’t need to worry about how to transition the enormously large important automobile and auto service industry to electric servicing and infrastructure. The scientific facts are there, the warming planet and resulting catastrophic weather events are there, but I do understand why the alternative fact of a hoax appeals to people’s emotions and personal beliefs. I really do. It upsets me, but I get it.

Those people whose emotions and personal beliefs are reassured by the alternative facts of a climate change hoax aren’t mean people. They’re not people who lack compassion for others or who are unkind in their everyday words and deeds. They just want to believe something that allows them to keep driving their vehicles without remorse or paying more money for an EV, or who have a job in an auto parts factory and are rightly worried about what the transition to electric vehicles will mean. Meanwhile, the people pushing the hoax theory are the ones with the money to influence the politicians and voters to protect their fossil fuel investments, knowing full well that the hoax theory is not true but so far it’s been working for them. Our planet suffers, we suffer, and eventually we pay far more money to recover (as best as we can) than if we’d had leaders who had taken decisive action in the first place (like Norway), but not because of lack of kindness on the part of the post-truth audience.

But post-truth is also being used to foment distrust towards others. Nothing good can come from this, except for misleading voters to come to your side by playing on their fears, but lots of human tragedy can come from this. Saying that crime is up when it’s not is an example of post-truth. Saying that immigrants are committing more crimes than citizens when those pesky facts show the opposite, or that they’re taking jobs away when in fact they’re doing jobs that others won’t do (low paying agricultural jobs, etc.) or that are in short supply (experienced doctors, nurses, and IT workers, for example) is post-truth. It’s appealing to emotion and ignoring the facts; it’s fear-mongering. It’s causing people to distrust those they don’t know for inaccurate reasons. It’s causing hardships for people who have become targets through such disinformation. It’s upending people’s lives. And it’s creating a more stressful environment for everyone, on all sides of the various divides. This kind of post-truth is morally indefensible.

The big question is how we get past this. The world is more fraught now than it’s been since World War II, and certainly since the end of the Cold War. Those of us who naïvely thought that the world was slowly getting to be a kinder, more welcoming, more egalitarian place have certainly learned otherwise, to our continuing sorrow. But how do we get ourselves back on a compassionate path in this post-truth world? How do we start listening to each other again? How do we bring phrases like ‘compromise’ and ‘mutual respect’ back to the table? How do we help each other de-stress?

It seems clear that we can’t look to our leaders to lead us in this direction. They will have to follow our lead. We all need to reach out to each other with compassion and to our leaders with concern. In kindness to each other and also in kindness to our planet. It’s up to us.

 

 

Image credits:

Climate change diagrams – https://www.foe.org.au/the_climate_change_hoax_the_greatest_hoax_of_all

Compassion – https://www.uccmanhasset.org/single-post/2018/06/24/Compassion-Over-Politics

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16 Responses to Kindness, compassion, and post-truth

  1. barryh says:

    Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    In this post Jane Fritz highlights one of the most disturbing trends of my lifetime – that to ‘post-truth’. To me, this is an evil in the world, in that it enables the manipulation of populations, to the disadvantage of all but a few.
    I would suggest that the world needs precisely the opposite – a dedication to understanding reality in order to effectively address it, which is the only way humanity can negotiate the potentially catastrophic world we have created. Post-truth is the precise negation of the true (outer) science and (inner) spirituality that is needed.

  2. barryh says:

    Thanks Jane. Your philosophy group sounds like fun! I will reblog this post, as it deserves wide consideration.

  3. Epi B says:

    Love, compassion and a bag full of science. I’m there.

  4. DM says:

    In 2013 we had a writer stay with us for the better part of a year. She was talking about the writers program @ the University of Iowa with me one day..and it came around to this very topic…the topic of truth and writing. It seemed it was now “brave” and “cutting edge” to knowingly and intentionally distort the “facts” when writing about an event. (forgive me that I can’t quote her verbatim)…I just shook my head…Here I am a simple farm boy and even I could see how asinine and foolish this trend was..and where it would naturally lead us to as a culture. I think this is one of the reasons I LOVE history. Especially local history and autobiographies from 150 years ago. It has a way of grounding me. Even though this is no longer fashionable, I do believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. Thoughtful post Jane. DM

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much, DM. I appreciate your response, especially as I thought more than once about not posting it for fear of offending some readers. I think what your writer friend was talking about was the movement in the humanities known as post-modernism. It included the notion that there is no absolute truth, so criticism of someone else’s ideas is seen to have merit regardless of facts or lack thereof. Coming from the sciences, I can’t quite get my head around that, although apparently (according to our reading this term) sociologists considered science to be fair game. I had no idea! Thanks for being there, my friend. 😊

  5. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    This should provide some grist for discussions.

  6. Thanks Jane for a very well written thoughtful article. On the Philosophy front I have been auditing courses at Acadia for several years and yes sometimes find it utterly complexing like this years course on the mind and consciousness.
    Post truth is a sad commentary on our current societal state and I find it very confusing that so many intelligent people fall for the lies and falsehoods. But it guess it goes to the Roots of our selves in that we better appreciate someone who shares our views rather than having to struggle to understand theirs.
    As we were taking the gotrain to union station this morning I was thinking along those lines as we passed so many look alike subdivisions and really wondering how evolution could have gone so wrong?
    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Wayne. Sounds like you’re slowly heading in an easterly direction! I actually prefer the mental challenges of topics like mind and consciousness to the mental anguish of post-truth. But I guess it is important to step back and consider what it is about us as humans that makes us susceptible to false information, so we can counter it.

  7. Amazing post. The scariest thing about this new world we all live in is the fact that everyone is afraid to speak to one another because they are being made to feel like they will be attack for what ever they believe or question. How are we to compare each others own truths and facts. This is how we all grow together and realize we are all the same human being and need to care for each other.
    As for climate change, you can see these changes, something is happening and even if you don’t want to see it what can it hurt to always treat this beautiful planet we live on with love. What can it hurt to just do some changes in our lives to help the planet instead of harm it. Maybe we can’t follow every rule out there when it comes to protecting our planet (in the beginning that is) but even little baby steps can start helping to heal a very sick environment.
    Once that kind of empathy starts growing within a person, then it grows for everything else as well. As soon as we start treating nature, people, and ourselves with love, kindness and respect, then we will know what real truth is.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for adding these insightful comments, Little Red House. You’re right, there are no easy answers, and the increasing lack of trust, communication, and understanding between siloed groups is both sad and frightening. It seems that the hope lies in more people understanding what’s happening and being willing to reach out to find common ground and respect … on the part of all “sides”. We need hope and we need action.

  8. Thank you for this….a “Philosophy study group” might have to put out the call myself to find others to help sort through what looks like tumultuous times ahead. A very thoughtful and thought provoking post.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much, West Coast Woman. These are indeed tumultuous times. Except for this particular topic, which brings a constant reminder of these times, our philosophy group is one of the highlights of my week. Lots of fun as we scratch our heads over one esoteric topic or another. Just stay away from post-truth; there’s no upside!

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