Post-truth has two sides that too often are run together, a personal side and a political or socio-political side. In September of 2016, The Economist captured the personal side of post-truth, saying that post-truth is “assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.” The same article also captured the political side of post-truth, saying that “lies of men like Mr. Trump … are not intended to convince … but to reinforce prejudices.” This description of the political side was echoed by the Oxford English Dictionary committee responsible for choosing “post-truth” as the Word of the Year for 2016. The committee described post-truth as characterising situations where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
There are various current definitions of post-truth, most of which focus on the political side. One of the better ones is on the Wikipedia website. It defines post-truth as a political culture “in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion … and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” One factor this definition notes, and others usually overlook or discount, is the importance of repetition in the political use of post-truth. Repetition of post-truth assertions maintains the content of the assertions present to people’s minds and in effect legitimises that content by making it familiar.
The personal side of post-truth is not of immediate concern because the making of assertions that feel true to those making them, regardless of the facts, is a practice as old as linguistic interaction itself and nothing is likely to change it. Where the personal side does pose pressing problems is precisely at the point it morphs into the political, and this happens when post-truth assertions are made by individuals with political status and authority, and those assertions are taken by members of the electorate as reflecting or initiating policy.
The use of post-truth in political contexts is usually not the genuine expression of what users actually feel and believe. Instead, as The Economist article suggests, use of post-truth in political contexts is typically intended to sway voters as well as to distract or deceive the media and political critics and opponents.
One complication is that the use of post-truth in political addresses or remarks is not always premeditated. It commonly is what I call “rhetorical exuberance”. Some politicians are as influenced by their audiences as those audiences are by them. These politicians respond to live audience’s positive and negative responses by consciously or unconsciously embroidering certain points, diminishing others, and simply making things up. They also respond to electronic audience’s projected or imagined responses in the same way. Rhetorical exuberance is evident in the sweeping and temporally inconsistent assertions Donald Trump makes in his speeches. Trump’s rhetorical exuberance should not be confused with his infamous tweets, though. The tweets are deliberately outrageous to distract the media from his weaknesses and failures as president.
As is also evident in Trump’s speeches, actual bases for assertions prompted by rhetorical exuberance are simply irrelevant. Rhetorical exuberance is prompted by audience responses, not facts. If rhetorically exuberant assertions are challenged, the challenges are exasperatingly ignored. This is why the bulk of the media’s coverage of Trump’s speeches focuses on his rhetorically exuberant assertions, as opposed to broader policy matters, and why, like his tweets, those assertions are the prime subjects of interminable televised “talking head” analyses.
What is frightening about rhetorical exuberance and the acceptance of is that these are defining characteristics of relations between dictators and their benighted supporters. The originator of the term, “post-truth”, one Steve Tesich, first used the term in an article titled “A Government of Lies”, published in The Nation in 1992. Tesich criticised the Nixon and Reagan administrations for deceptiveness by omission and outright falsehoods, but much of the thrust of his article was that Americans preferred hearing pleasing fabrications from their elected officials than harsh realities. More recently, Lawrence Martin maintained, in a June 2017, issue of The Globe and Mail that “In America, the less you know, the cooler you are”, pointing out that when The New York Times catalogued a dozen lies Trump told in his Iowa rally in June, 2017, “Nobody cared”. This is what is frightening about post-truth. Its acceptance is the key factor in how tyrants maintain control over their subjects. Despots tell their subjects what they want to hear, reinforcing their prejudices as The Economist put it, and then do as they see fit.
Spontaneous embellishments, exaggerations, and outright fabrications in political speeches are only part of post-truth. Another part is the deceptive verbal gyrations of press-secretaries and others who try to rationalise their political chiefs’ rhetorically exuberant claims. These efforts to validate a political leader’s extravagances is what effectively turns the otherwise isolable products of rhetorical exuberance into post-truth or what takes on the appearance of a distinct, delineable phenomenon. Politicians’ embellishments, exaggerations, and fabrications, when taken together with their retinues’ supportive elaborations, look like a whole greater than its parts, a phenomenon separable from mere prevarications, and one calling for theoretical study. This is the direction the discussion of post-truth has taken. Journalists have augmented their media coverage of post-truth with magazine articles and books on the topic. Post-truth is dealt with as a phenomenon especially characteristic of Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency, but with a complex history. One example of this approach is Russell Smith’s April 2017 article in The Globe and Mail, titled “How postmodernism is infiltrating public life and policy”. Another example is Casey Williams’ “Has Trump stolen philosophy’s critical tools?” Published by The New York Times in April, 2017, the article argues that “alternative facts” may “reflect the view that language itself distorts reality” and thereby relativises what is expressed. Both articles exemplify how post-truth is taken to be a development of postmodernism, especially of the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who most comprehensively relativised truth and precluded valid references to objective reality and moral universality.
Readers of this magazine may initially welcome treatment of post-truth as a product of postmodernism, expecting sound analyses of an intellectual sequel to the rejection of objective truth and facticity. But this is a mistake. Post-truth is not a philosophical position or comprehensive intellectual development. Admittedly, postmoderns unequivocally influenced our presuppositions and assumptions about referential and descriptive language. They took a different direction on the conception of truth than did “modern” philosophers like René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, hence the tag “postmodern”. The direction postmoderns took is clearest in Foucault’s description, in Power/Knowledge, of truth as the malleable product of “regimes of truth”, regimes that provide the rules for what is taken as true and for how truth and falsity are differentiated, and that determine who is “charged with saying what counts as true”.
The mistake in attributing post-truth’s origins to postmodernism, and especially to Foucault, is that postmodern conception of truth was of truth as communal. Unlike Descartes and Kant’s absolute, objective, mind-independent truth, the postmodern conception of truth is decidedly relative, but is relative to the beliefs and practices of groups, cultures, or societies. Contrary to this, and regardless of how post-truth is portrayed by journalists and would-be analysts, post-truth is not communal. Post-truth is individual fabrication, exaggeration, and distortion. The fact that many have embraced use of post-truth, and many others accept that use, does not make individuals’ distortions, exaggerations, and fabrications instances of a novel, cohesive intellectual development. Post-truth is simply rampant prevarication by some and others attempting to justify those prevarications. That is what we are witnessing with Trump and his post-truth assertions, his supporters’ acceptance of them, and his minions’ efforts to validate them. We are not witnessing another step in philosophical reconception of truth.
What we are seeing today, then, is not post-postmodern truth. It is not an evolutionary product of postmodernism. Post-truth is not a novel intellectual development that Donald Trump avails himself of. What Trump avails himself of is long-standing prejudices. It is prejudices that make his rhetorically exuberant assertions acceptable to many. It is those prejudices, too, that his staff-members indirectly appeal to when they attempt to validate his remarks. Prejudices also make Trump’s bizarre tweets acceptable to his supporters, because they see him as rejecting traditional politics, as standing up for himself, as not playing the Washington political game.
What, then, can be said about post-truth? Above all, and despite its currently growing use and acceptance, it needs to be acknowledged that post-truth is not a new or newly identified form of communicative interaction, much less the result of philosophical or other theoretical deliberation about the nature of truth. If it helps to describe post-truth in theoretical terms, what needs to be said is that post-truth exemplifies extreme subjectivism. The use of post-truth amounts to a rejection of any external, non-personal standards for the permissibility of assertions and other expressions. Neither contrary facts nor communal censure are allowed to qualify, inhibit, or prohibit post-truth users’ assertions and expressions. Post-truth, as a practice, is individuals voicing their beliefs or feelings with no regard to facticity or propriety. Truth is wholly subjective in that it is defined by personal feeling or belief. Where the use of post-truth assertions is not genuinely expressive of belief or feeling, when assertions are used to deceive, mislead, or distract, post-truth assertions nonetheless must be taken as genuinely expressive, because facticity is ruled out as a basis for rejoinders. All that responses can consist of are other post-truth assertions expressing different feelings or beliefs.
The scariest and unfortunately likeliest political consequence of use of post-truth by political figures, and of widespread acceptance of that use by members of an electorate, is the promotion of despotism. The initial step in that direction is discrediting the news media. It is a crucial step toward despotic rule that the media be discredited so that the government emerges as the sole source of supposedly trustworthy information. Discrediting the media is, in effect, the silencing of political opponents. As we are seeing with Trump’s charges of “fake news” during his campaign and now his presidency, the most effective ways of discrediting the media is to portray them as biased. Portraying the media as biased also is an effective way of reinforcing the prejudices of supporters. If the media is seen as biased, it makes those supporters feel justified in discounting whatever they read in newspapers or see on television that does not agree with what they believe and what they are getting from their favoured politicians. This is especially true when what they are getting revitalises and appears to legitimise two prejudices that have been muted for a time: racism and sexism. We have seen numerous instances of Trump’s tweets disparaging individual women, and implicitly women in general. These disparaging tweets play well, not only to misogynists, but to men who feel challenged by women’s new-found confidence. Trump’s staff has painted these tweets as his standing up for himself, as his fighting fire with fire, as one put it. Though shamefully partial, this tactic makes condemnation by the media look even more biased to Trump’s supporters because media coverage of his tweets then appears grossly unfair.
Sadly, though post-truth is not a theory-grounded development, being only familiar embellishment, self-serving hyperbole, and outright fabrication, its use and acceptance of that use have assumed serious proportions. Public acceptance of post-truth prompts the realisation that we all are partly responsible for the post-truth predicament in which we now find ourselves. We have unknowingly fostered post-truth through obsession with equal opportunity of expression, something that has translated into the widespread view that every expressed opinion is as good as any other. This fostering is most evident on social media. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and various others enable individuals to voice their opinions to literally millions of people. An alarmingly large amount of what is posted on social-media sites is thoughtless, opinionated, prejudiced, dogmatic, and misinformed, not to mention deplorably spelled. But social-media sites, committed as they are to equal opportunity of expression, censor only flagrantly racist and obscene postings. One result is achievement of a dangerously counterproductive impartiality achieved at the expense of veracity and authority. Another result of this misconceived impartiality is an apparent validation of individuals’ expressed opinions, whether or not those opinions merit being held. This pseudo-validation is nothing more than the continued presence and availability of postings on social-media sites, but the continued presence and availability of the postings have a significant effect on those who posted them. It makes them feel justified in holding the views expressed. After all, what they had to say is there, for anyone to see. Additionally, responses to the postings, whether positive or negative, confirm that they have been and continue to be seen.
None of this is going to change anytime soon. If anything, it will worsen. Post-truth will gain greater usage and broader acceptance. Trump and politicians like him can look forward to a future of devout support from those they cater to, and decreasingly effective opposition from those who continue to value facticity. What I see as the core of the trouble is succinctly captured by Thomas Nichols in his 2017 The Death of Expertise. Nichols wrote: “The United States with its intense focus on the liberties of the individual, enshrines the resistance to intellectual authority.” If post-truth is the final relativisation of truth to individual preference, then commitment to the liberties of the individual demands total impartiality regarding expression of individuals’ beliefs, inclinations, and even passing fancies. No opinion expressed by a given individual can be judged superior or inferior to any other. All of this is significantly worsened by how increasing use of the Internet and social media conditions people’s practices and expectations, and in doing so escalates subjectivism. Nichols makes this point effectively by pointing out that “the Internet [is] making many of us dumber.” This is because “alone behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen.”