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