The commentariat is up in arms about our supposed devolution into a post-truth world. But the truth is that we have always lived in a post-truth world; Donald Trump just made it easier to recognize. Just last week CNN made itself part of the news when its anchor Alisyn Camerota was visibly stunned by the continued belief in thoroughly debunked claims by some Trump supporters. This was on the same day that a different CNN commentator proclaimed that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”
In November Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed “post-truth” as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Make no mistake, “post-truth” accurately describes the world we live in today. But it also accurately describes the world as it has always been.
To his credit, Glenn Kessler, of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog also believes that “people have always been swayed by emotions and personal beliefs.” But the problem runs deeper than public opinion being shaped by emotion and personal beliefs. Both the Oxford Dictionaries and Kessler still believe that truth can be known objectively. Oxford defines “post-truth” as a scenario in which “objective facts are less influential” than other factors. Kessler sees his job as a simple one: “As fact checkers, we give people the factual information and context for statements made by politicians. What people do with those facts is up to them.” For both Oxford and Kessler, the implication is that there are objective facts, that they can be apprehended objectively and apart from any mediation, and that these should be more influential than emotions and beliefs.
What they and others fail to realize is just how emotions and personal beliefs determine what counts as objective fact in the first place. In this sense, Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” — which was Oxford’s word of the year in 2006, by the way — may be a more apt descriptor of how truth is constructed. “We are divided,” Colbert opined, “between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.” But we are not as divided as Colbert suggested a decade ago, for we all believe what feels true. Indeed, something can only feel true if it fits neatly into our understanding of the world, which has been constructed by our culture, experiences, language, etc.
As a historian I know that while much is different about our time, we are rarely as unique as we would like to believe. My area of research is heresy and orthodoxy in ancient Christianity, particularly the claims of such that groups and individuals make about themselves and their opponents. In these rhetorical battles (that often had very real economic and political consequences) truth did not matter. To offer just one example, the 4th century bishop Epiphanius famously accused a group — that may or may not have even existed — of engaging in illicit sexual intercourse, practicing coitus interruptus, ingesting the male’s ejaculate, and then proclaiming this to be the eucharistic body of Christ. Whether this group actually existed and actually partook of such activities did not matter. To be sure, Epiphanius (likely) believed that they did, but he was not looking to be persuaded by objective truth as much as he was looking to delegitimize his (real and perceived) opponents and to police the theological beliefs and physical activities of “orthodox” Christians, as I’ve written about before.
That so many are now recognizing that we live in a world in which truth is contested and mediated is a good thing. Unfortunately, we have Donald Trump to thank for that. Donald Trump’s seemingly pathological need to lie has left many newsrooms unsure of how to cover him, and it arguably left Hillary Clinton unsure of how best to run against him. What it should teach them now is that facts are not neutral. Fact checking can only be effective when the nature of facts are agreed upon. Too many, especially on the left, believe that they will eventually win the arguments they care about because the “facts” are on their side. No matter what we would like to believe, the struggles that matter, the struggles that have the power to destroy lives and bring down nations, have never hinged on how influential objective facts are. The fight for the real power is over what gets to count as a fact in the first place. Truth only matters insofar as you have the power to determine what is truth.
Yes, we live in a post-truth world, just as we always have.
Image via Gage Skidmore