In the recent months leading up to, and after, the American presidency elections, the phrase “post-truth discourse” has become the latest buzzword in our shared language, especially in politics. The word “post-truth” has come to mean a situation where objective facts are side-lined for narratives with the most emotional appeal. With the success of each new politician who dispenses with factual accuracy, this term is gaining further traction. Political rhetoric nowadays may include blatantly untrue statements, designed to stir up the emotions of the electorate to secure more votes.
Yet, interestingly, while the word “post-truth” signifies how truth is becoming increasingly passé, its use actually implies that many people believe recovering objective truth is important for political debate and conversation. As it stands, concern for factual accuracy has often been paired with moral integrity. As such, the increasing disregard for objective facts is worrying, given that it erodes the standards that we used to set for our leaders. The problem behind this phenomenon has been explored by Isaac Neo in his article, “The Cult of Ignorance”, which highlights how equality of rights has been confused with equality of knowledge. While everyone has an equal right to voice his opinion, not all opinions are equally valid. Opinions must be measured along appropriate benchmarks of value, such as factual integrity, or the notion of ‘value’ in itself will become redundant. Suffice to say, if the facts behind an issue are no longer important, and can be re-written or repurposed to suit a politician’s fancy, there would be a gap in political accountability. Whatever said becomes ‘right’ so long as the politician has the discursive power to make others believe in his distortion of the truth.
Unfortunately, however, the label of “post-truth discourse” has been also used as a blanket term to generalise all voters of Trump or Brexit as citizens who care nothing for the truth. While facts can certainly be misappropriated (and has already been, multiple times, in 2016), the label of “post-truth discourse” could also easily fall prey to misuse.
“Post-Truth” is Inherently Political
In the political arena, and indeed anywhere else, language is often inherently political. In the marketplace of ideas, language – words and phrases, images and ideas – are subtly nuanced, designed to assert a certain meaning that would ideally persuade others to subscribe to the same idea. Using the term “post-truth” in political discourse, especially when targeted at other members of the electorate, is no different; it cannot escape its politicised nature. When we parse through information and ideas, we cannot help but see these things through our unique worldview. As such, when we use a term like “post-truth” to make a point, we are similarly trying to influence another person through discourse. Some element of subjectivity, ultimately, is unavoidable.
What, then, does the label of “post-truth” imply? The user of the label is positioned as a person who cares about objective truth. And objective truth has always come with specific kinds of associations. When we talk about objectivity, we are primed to picture a rational individual, who resists the power of emotion and personal belief. On the contrary, the recipient of the label is saddled with an opposite set of associations. These “post-truth” voters are painted as followers of the herd, who cling on to personal beliefs and feelings even when they fly in the face of objective facts. These images are clearly subjective. Yet, because the user of the label is associated with objectivity, the label itself begins to sound as objective as a verifiable fact. Naturally, one can easily marshal the label of “post-truth” to create a discourse that straightaway presumes irrationality on the other side.
And certainly, this irrationality is an assumption. While the above description of “post-truth” voters could be true for some, it may not necessarily apply to all. For example, it is certainly possible that the electorate may have voted for Trump not because of his untruths, but in spite of them. Also, one cannot make the sweeping statement that every single thing that Trump says is untrue. That would just be falling into the trap of factual inaccuracy ourselves. Besides these considerations, there are other push and pull factors, such as the viability of the other candidates vis-à-vis Trump, that could have been factored into their decision-making process.
Labelling particular voters as unqualifiedly “post-truth” risks invalidating the entirety of the opposite side’s discourse right at the beginning. By decrying them as “post-truth”, and enjoying the resultant shroud of ‘objectivity’ that the label gives us, we neglect the fact that some may have reasonable arguments as to why they would support Trump. The often surly and inappropriate Facebook comments on the American presidency debate are surely not the full reflection of the electorate. In that case, we not only risk alienating the opposite side with broad-brush strokes, but we jeopardise the very same open discourse that we were hoping to create.
Yet, even though “post-truth” is an inherently subjective label, it does not mean that there is no longer any place for objective facts, nor does it mean that we should give up on the prospect of reasoning well. We can and should still try to decipher the meaning and value of politicians’ and voters’ claims. Being selective in how we use the label “post-truth” would mean understanding the difference between objective facts and reasoned opinion. For example, the realm of objectivity (or transgression of it) is invoked when Donald Trump declares on his Twitter that he would have won the popular vote if one were to discount the “millions of people who voted illegally”, or when climate change scepticism is rife in the new British cabinet. These bold political statements are patently false.
However, political and ethical stances on controversial issues, like state policy on the Syrian War or terrorism, are deeply complex and layered. Even specialists and experts remain divided on what action should be taken. With such incomplete information and uncertainty, how could anyone ever provide a perfect take on the situation? So, no matter how reasoned any opinion may be in these debates, they can never reach full objectivity. Recognising what is off-limits for contestation, and what is open for debate, could help mitigate the possibility of casually dismissing the opposite side as “post-truth”.
Our Assumption of the ‘Human Being’
Fundamentally, this label of “post-truth” exposes how we view ourselves. The label goes deeper than the surface level of politics, to the question of human nature. So far, we have mentioned the twin ideas of objectivity and subjectivity, and how they correspond to the two contrasting subjects of the rational individual and emotional individual. The label of “post-truth” ranks the rational individual as superior, which actually highlights a specific way in which we understand human nature. We privilege the conception of human beings as primarily thinking individuals. The “post-truth” label further implies that we act – or should act – according to these intellectual priorities.
These characterisations are not new. Since the time of the classical Greeks, we have had Aristotle, who famously declared that humans are political animals, set apart from other animals based on our ability for reasoned speech and deliberation. With the onset of rationalism during the Enlightenment, we have seen the likes of philosophers like Descartes, who famously concluded, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), emphasising the intellect as the foundational element to a human being.
Not many would dispute the idea that we are thinking individuals. However, we should not overplay the role of reason either. The fact of the matter is that we often go about our lives without consciously thinking about every single decision we make. Often, we are habituated towards certain predispositions from the get-go. We end up relying on these instinctual habits to get through the day. Our worldview, which has been shaped both by nature and nurture, influences the way we live our lives, as well as the way we understand politics. We all live by emotion and instinct, as much as we operate based on reason. Thus, to indiscriminately label certain voters as “post-truth” could actually deny the truth that we ourselves are subjective individuals. Not only that, we are both thinking and feeling individuals, who often have both logical and emotionally charged reasons for standing by our opinions. The distinctions between reason and emotion cannot be so easily sustained. After all, aren’t political convictions often deeply personal?
While one should not be carried away simply by emotion alone, reason that is tempered by emotion is powerful in the political sphere, because they imbue our reasoned views with conviction and passion. For example, without emotion, there would be little push to champion social issues – a task that a purely rational and detached person would feel nothing for. A holistic individual would integrate reason and emotion in a coherent whole, without feeling the need to castigate one or the other.
When all is said and done, the term “post-truth” is a thorny one. It certainly carries a powerful and legitimate criticism against politicians who refuse to distinguish between fact and fiction. However, if we are committed to the idea of discourse, then we should be appropriately open to other reasoned opinions even if they differ from ours, without reflexively accusing them of being “post-truth”.
Featured image from http://susanthebruce.blogspot.sg/2015/11/the-post-truth-era.html
About the Author
A Year 3 Political Science major, Denise accidentally stumbled onto her inner traveler while living through the beautiful Danish summer. In her free time, she writes fiction for her own amusement, takes naps, and thinks about the world at large.