Post-truth has been declared word of the year, by the Oxford Dictionary.
I have to confess, I can’t recall ever hearing of the word prior to the announcement, but rarely have I been confused with owning hip, cool, and trendy oratory. I have no doubt though, our cultural frontline linguists know what they are talking about!
The Dons of the Oxford Dictionary define post-truth as, ‘an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.’
There is a drop of irony here, post-truth’s rise to the top coincided with Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential election. Apparently, the Presidential campaigns were responsible for a spike in world-wide usage of post-truth, as was the Brexit campaign earlier in the year.
According to the official website, post-truth first appeared in 1992, in an essay written by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In 2016 there has been an observed 2000% increase in its usage, thus warranting the title of Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.
The word may be new, but the concept has had a long run through history.
In the 4th Century BC Aristotle pre-empted post-truth when he spoke of the tripartite art of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.
Jesus Christ spoke of post-truth. In the parable Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus makes the point, that should a man rise from dead, people will not believe the evidence if they are not also prepared to believe God at his word. In other words, empirical demonstration is important but it is not suffice to persuade a person of what is true and good.
Accordingly, the Bible adds a fourth category to Aristotle’s tripartite art of persuasion: pnevmatikós (or spiritual). Ardent rationalists may scoff at this notion, but perhaps it is the case that their post-truth commitment to naturalism denies them the reasonable conclusion of accepting the reality of Christ, including the overwhelming evidence of his resurrection from the dead.
Post-truth is a word that carries with it an air of elitism and superiority. It is used to denigrate those whom we deem are less rational and intelligent.
In a documentary series marking a trip across the United States, Stephen Fry visited Los Alamos, the place where the first hydrogen bomb was developed. While exploring this once secret location, Fry made this remark,
“some people would think this is a grizzly place, a place of death, but to me I see nothing but optimism, and that’s because I believe in science. Many people today don’t.”
Stephen Fry is an example of a generation who credit science and rationalism as being security for human progress. Indeed, in the recent election a wave political experts and pollsters proclaimed the moral high ground on the basis of their education and they decried the uneducated who followed Donald Trump.
Whether we believe ourselves intelligent or not, and whether we have letters running after our name or not, we have always been post-truth, at least part-time.
The reality is we all need facts and truth to live well, and we adhere to these when these thing conform to our likes and wants. But rarely, are our ethical positions and personal decisions determined solely or even primarily because of what is true.
Today I was reminded of a classic post-truth moment in Victoria this year. Roz Ward has found herself in the media’s eye once again, with a photograph capturing the Safe Schools architect bullying a bystander during an anti-Trump demonstration in Melbourne yesterday. As I saw the photograph I was reminded of Roz Ward’s now infamous declaration, that the Safe Schools program is not primarily about creating Safe Schools but is designed to teach children Marxist values. Despite the repeated admission by this key designer of the curriculum, many politicians and social commentators have glued blue tac to their ears, and pretended the truth had never been leaked. Why? Political and social ideology trumps a confession.
Post-truth is not a 2016 problem, it is a human problem. Our word of the year communicates something about the proclivity of the human heart. Searching for truth is a noble task; as Jesus himself said, ‘the truth will set you free’. But knowing what is true and listening to it requires more than simple assent to objective facts. It requires a posture of humility, whereby we allow truth, especially God’s truth, to penetrate and challenge and restore.