Every era has its own concept and definition of “truth”. The Victorians had a reverence for it and believed that it emanated from God. When wars were fought, your side won because you had “truth” on your side. Belief in its existence went along with belief in institutions and moral and social certainties. It also implied faith that humanity would make moral progress in tandem with economic progress. This was the Era of the Gilded Age and its optimism.
These certainties were buried by the cataclysm that was World War I and the disillusion that ensued. The resulting Modernist movement, though usually associated principally with the arts, offered its own definition of Truth, moral and otherwise. The carnage of the “Great War” pulled the rug out from under religion, philosophy, and the arts. God was dead (a slogan that was and is, simplistically attributed to Nietzsche), humanity was proved to be brutal and inhumane, and conventional boundaries in the arts and in life, were now to be broken. Nihilism supplanted the certainties of the Gilded Age. The consequence was a “carpe diem” mentality that gave birth to the age of the Bohemian lifestyle, and the disenchantment of the “Lost Generation” portrayed in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
World War II only deepened the nihilistic mood and gave rise to atheistic Existentialism, a philosophy that was mostly reviled and misunderstood by the public, but whose condemnation of any faith was understandable in the wake of the second World War that had just ended. The first one had been hailed as “the war to end all wars,” yet the second that had followed on its heels had been even more devastating and demoralizing. Existentialism explicitly challenged the possibility of objective truth, its popularizer, Jean-Paul Sartre asking, “does objective truth exist?” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Over the decades the erosion in private and public faith has been constant. The cynicism of the Vietnam era for example, also did its share to undermine the authority and credibility of Government, its institutions, and the notion of “truth”.
Politics, the economy, cultural movements, these are all intertwined and comprehensively they shape and constitute an “era” or, to use an old-fashioned word, a “zeitgeist”. The end of World War II ushered in the age of Postmodernism. So, what is Postmodernism and how does it illuminate the current definition of “truth”? According to one source that aims to define philosophies, “Postmodernists do not attempt to refine their thoughts about what is right or wrong, true or false, good or evil. They believe that there isn’t such a thing as absolute truth. A postmodernist views the world outside of themselves as being in error, that is, other people’s truth becomes indistinguishable from error. Therefore, no one has the authority to define truth or impose upon others his idea of moral right and wrong” (Postmodern Openings). Another source informs us that, “[Post-modernists] believe that truth is relative and ‘truth’ is up to each individual to determine for himself” (AllPhilosophy). In short, what we have here is a definition of “fake news” and “post-truth” before Donald Trump popularized them.
While “post-truth” is a word that was first used in an essay in The Nation in 1992, it has become ubiquitous in the post 2016 election era. The Oxford Dictionary declared it to be the word of the year for 2016 and defined 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.” Thus the fact that both the FBI and the CIA, along with 17 other intelligence organizations whose responsibility is to investigate suspicious events, affirmed that “Russia intervened in the 2016 election in part to help Donald Trump win the White House” is meaningless to Donald Trump and his supporters since they themselves have other convictions.
Yet Trump and his supporters are not alone in their total disdain for “facts”. “Post-truth” was used pervasively to describe not only the Donald Trump presidential campaign but also the Brexit movement, both of whose success was ascribed by many to the systematic misrepresentation of truth. Increasingly we note that people on both sides of the political spectrum prefer to speak from a postmodernist position of subjectivity–in other words, their own opinion, but without having recourse to “facts” because they don’t believe that “fact” or “truth” besides their own “facts” and “truths” exist. In short, for these people, their own “truth” is truer than anything previously reported as “fact” and the hackneyed postmodernist slogan of “perception IS reality” wins out.
Let’s look at another example. The Justice Department investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015 concluded that, “Physical and forensic evidence in fact contradict claims by witnesses who have maintained that Brown had his hands up, above his waist when Wilson shot him”. Despite the categorical nature of this declaration, it failed absolutely to convince Brown’s supporters that this was a truthful finding. Indeed, despite this judgement a “Hands Up-Don’t Shoot” movement emerged and continues to be a by-word for police corruption and abuse.
“Facts” have no sway when emotions run strong. Subjectivity consistently “trumps” objectivity. It is perhaps significant that one of the most recent interpretive approaches to the arts is “Affect theory.” In one essay we read that, “After long neglect, in recent decades, emotion—or, more generally, affect—has become a major concern in literary study, as well as philosophy, psychology, and elsewhere.” We could add that this seems to have become the predominant approach to interpreting “reality”, political events, and in general, the “news” as well.
In my personal experience as a professor teaching seminars in which social and political issues are discussed, it never ceases to astonish me how a student will argue for a personal opinion from a position of ignorance. In the seminar room, which arguably serves as a microcosm of what ought to be the informed public, it is not uncommon in these days of incivility to see tempers flare when one person disagrees with another, yet patently neither one seems to have accurate information about the issues being debated. Here we do not refer to information that can be “interpreted” but rather indisputable information such as, “what is the First Amendment and what does it actually state?” Much like the daily spectacle we witness on television in the political talk shows, these students will argue to the death that theirs is the only truth despite the incontrovertible evidence that their argument is built on a faulty premise.
If truth is now an illusion, or at least so relative as to be stretched beyond any boundaries of reality, then what are lies? The Orwellian euphemisms abound. A person may be guilty of having spoken an “untruth” or an “alternative fact,” or of having “misspoken” or “misremembered”. Anything that you do not agree with is, thanks to Donald Trump’s ingenious trickery, “fake news”. Reputable sources have been replaced by vague reports made by “anonymous”, or justified by empty shells such as “everyone knows”, “they say”, or “I have a friend who said…”. This last one is one of Donald Trump’s favorites, as in one fell swoop he successfully manages to abrogate both accountability of sources and credibility of expertise.
We may very well agree with Quartz media which succinctly suggests, “post-truth could also be defined by a simple one-word synonym: propaganda”. The author explains that in today’s world of political speak, “advertising, sponsored content, public diplomacy, fake news, and post-truth content…”are all variations on what used to be called propaganda.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about “The New Sincerity”, defined as “a combination of irony and sincerity to form a new movement of astonishing power”. Notoriously hazy to grasp for various reasons, it has been popularized by Jesse Thorn, the host of PRI’s The Sound of Young America. To those who find it a difficult theory to pin down, Thorn suggests, “just think of Evel Knievel. Let’s be frank. There’s no way to appreciate Evel Knievel literally. Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. …Simply put, Evel Knievel boggles the mind. But by the same token, he isn’t to be taken ironically, either” (Wikipedia—The New Sincerity). Evel Knievel or Donald Trump? Thorn could just as easily be describing Donald Trump.
According to many pundits we are headed towards a new Nihilism. Daily we are barraged with news of ongoing wars fought over flagrantly false pretexts and escalating nuclear threats on the global scale, racial discord and bitter polarization at home, an embattled presidency that instigates fear and insecurity, a President whose aim seems to be to undermine rather than bolster confidence in the institutions, a media whose credibility seems to have collapsed under the weight of its own partisanship and bias. When truth is so painful, is it little wonder that we take refuge in the age of “post-truth”?
Grace Russo Bullaro, was born in Italy and immigrated to the USA at a young age. For the last twenty years she has been teaching at City University of New York. Her research and publications focus on socio-political and cultural issues that drive changes in society.