‘Post-truth’ should not be the word of 2016
Technology has helped big lies breed and multiply. Grand-scale political lying can go hand in hand with violence, oppression and catastrophe
It is not this year or last that we discovered that human beings will quite sincerely believe any farrago of falsity and that unscrupulous leaders will both feed and manipulate those beliefs
According to Oxford Dictionaries the word for which 2016 will be remembered is “post-truth”. Even though the term was coined in 1992, in an essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich, its use increased by 2,000 per cent this year. And it has changed its meaning.
Before Tesich wrote his essay it referred to the sense of being in a time after a large truth had become known. Now it means living in societies where the concept of truth has become irrelevant. And as such it is both a tempting and a somewhat dangerous term.
It carries an implication we have to resist: that the past was a different country and that historical experiences of political lying are irrelevant to our radically different times.
The attractions of “post-truth” are obvious enough. In 2005 another word – “truthiness” – was coined (or rather resurrected) by the US satirist Stephen Colbert to pin down a political culture in which what matters is whether you feel something to be true, not whether there is any evidence for it.
In 2016 reality caught up with and then outran satire. Here, for example, is Vice President-elect Mike Pence defending Donald Trump’s evidence-free claim that “millions of people voted illegally” in the presidential election: “It’s his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States . . . He’s going to say what he believes to be true, and I know that he’s always going to speak in that way as president.”
It is hard to argue with the usefulness of post-truth when we have such an open embrace of the right to insist on – and presumably to act on – whatever you choose to believe, regardless of evidence.
The mendacity of politics in 2016 has indeed been astonishing both in its brazenness and in its effectiveness. The claim by the leave side in the Brexit referendum that £350 million a week would be taken from the United Kingdom’s contribution to the European Union budget and put into the National Health Service was quickly and comprehensively demolished.
Being caught out in a lie did not matter; if anything it was proof of a weird kind of authenticity. Flagrant lies showed that you were not one of the experts that the leading Brexiteer Michael Gove invited UK voters to despise and ignore – and therefore not part of the elite.
Equally, Google and Facebook and their unaccountable algorithms now direct users towards fake news stories and sickening neo-Nazi propaganda with barely a shrug of the shoulders. The companies evoke in their defence a notion of the “diversity of perspectives”, an Orwellian euphemism in which the belief that the Holocaust never happened is as valid as the knowledge that it did.
The dissemination of lies on an enormous scale is turned by these hip corporations into a happy-clappy kind of inclusiveness in which established fact and toxic fiction can all just get along in the big community of social media.
So lying is certainly in its bare-faced ascendancy. It floats freely, with no pretence to being anchored in evidence. Oscar Wilde, in his dialogue The Decay of Lying, claimed that the Victorian politicians of his time were not good liars: they merely misrepresented the truth, whereas the true liar is marked by “his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy natural disdain of proof of any kind!”
By these standards true lying has returned to the political mainstream: frank, fearless and superbly irresponsible.
The problem with the post-truth concept, however, is that it suggests we are on one side of a historic gulf. Once there was a world in which truth mattered, and now there is a world in which it doesn’t. But political mendacity has a very long history. And it is a history we need to learn from.
Technology may create new conditions in which the big lies can breed and multiply, but mass deceit is a virus that is always present, waiting for the times when it can break out from its usual carriers and go pandemic.
The feeling of living in an atmosphere of preposterous political falsehood is not at all new. Jonathan Swift’s The Art of Political Lying seems entirely apt in the 21st century: “I have been sometimes thinking, if a man had the art of second sight for seeing lies . . . how admirably he might entertain himself in this town, by observing the different shapes, sizes, and colours of those swarms of lies which buzz about the heads of some people like flies about a horse’s ears in summer.”
But Swift was writing not in sight of Trump Tower but in early 18th-century London. Swift warned in that essay that the political liar must have a short memory – good advice for the Brexiteers who dumped their £350-million-for-the-NHS promise immediately after the vote, and for Trump, whose Mexican border wall transmogrified into a fence within hours of his election.
They might have been modelling themselves on Swift’s evocation of the consummate politician: “The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half-hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it . . . The only remedy is to suppose that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all.”
It is not this year or last that we discovered that human beings will quite sincerely believe any farrago of falsity and that unscrupulous leaders will both feed and manipulate those beliefs. To take one notorious example, millions and millions of people genuinely believed, throughout much of the medieval and modern history of Europe, that Jews ritually murdered Christian children.
Martin Luther, to take just one immensely influential European leader, insisted on its truth. It was common knowledge. As the Nazi paper Der Stürmer declared in a special issue on the subject in 1934: “The knowledge of Jewish ritual murder is thousands of years old. It is as old as the Jews themselves. The Gentiles have passed the knowledge of it from generation to generation. Knowledge of ritual murder can be found even in the most secluded rural villages.”
It was both an obscene lie and a known truth.
The Soviet Union gave us another word: dezinformatsiya. But the Soviets were not alone: disinformation has long been standard practice, and “fake news” is just another term for it.
There is scarcely a war or an invasion or a naked land grab that has not been justified by an “incident” or “provocation” – more often than not concocted or invented – that unfortunately forced our boys to punish the miscreants or defend us from immediate and appalling threat.
The British, in the first World War, gave detailed and widely credited accounts of the Corpse Exploitation Establishment being run by the Germans at Everynicourt, where they turned the battlefield dead into lubricating oils and pig feed. Only in 1925 was it admitted that it was pure invention.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident that created the legal authorisation for US involvement in Vietnam was largely fabricated.
The first Gulf War was boosted by the dramatic testimony in Congress in 1990 of a girl who claimed to have witnessed Iraqi soldiers taking babies from hospital incubators, stealing the incubators and leaving the babies to die. The story was crafted by the Hill+Knowlton PR agency, and the girl was later revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US.
The “dodgy dossier” that the British government pawned off on a gullible media, and the separate claim that Saddam Hussein could launch a biological attack in 45 minutes, were used to make the case for the second Gulf War.
Will the Trump administration be more mendacious than the Nixon administration in relation to the Vietnam War and Watergate, or the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s?
President Nixon managed to conceal from Congress such enormities as the mass bombing of Cambodia and the invasion of Laos. President Reagan did the same thing with the convoluted covert operations to defy Congress and the law in arming the Nicaraguan Contras. When he gave evidence to a congressional hearing the star of Iran-Contra, Col Oliver North, seemed genuinely puzzled that he was expected to tell the truth: “By their very nature, covert operations . . . are a lie.”
Toxic lies may now be most efficiently spread online, but print is a pretty effective medium too.
The most pernicious of forgeries, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purporting to be the minutes of a meeting at which the secret plan for Jewish world domination was laid out, was concocted by the tsarist secret police in Russia around 1903. But the book has circulated in vast numbers ever since: Henry Ford sponsored a print run of 500,000 copies in the US in the early 1920s. The Nazis used the protocols as justification for the extermination of the Jews. It remains gospel truth in much of the Arab world.
Newspapers, too, have a long history of propaganda. Has the Tory press in Britain suddenly become post-truth, having previously been a bastion of objective journalism? One of the few amusing aspects of the Brexit campaign was the shock felt by David Cameron and his circle at being subjected to the mendacity of the Daily Mail and the Sun – the same kind of propagandist distortion they had gloried in when it was directed at their enemies in the Labour Party.
In his diary of the referendum campaign, Unleashing Demons, Cameron’s spin doctor Craig Oliver constantly complains of the tendentious and hysterical reporting of the pro-Brexit Tory papers but is sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge (albeit briefly) that he was very glad of the same weapons when they were being wielded on Cameron’s side: “The very same papers that would have been cheering us to the rafters . . . in the general election are making life uncomfortable . . . I fully accept that we took what we could get in the general election – with the Sun and the Telegraph knocking lumps out of Labour.”
Tactics that are post-truth when being deployed against the Establishment are fair game when being used in favour of the Establishment.
None of this is to suggest that egregious distortion of, and disregard for, the truth is not a current and very concerning reality. But we do need to keep in mind that there was never a pre-post-truth idyll. And that this is not a comforting thought.
It is not a case of saying “the liars you have always with you”. On the contrary it is a reminder that political lying on a grand scale is strongly associated with violence, oppression and catastrophe. Lies are told for a reason: to cover up outrages, to vilify scapegoat groups, to get people to vote for politicians who will do them harm, to launch wars.
History tells us that when respect for evidence is leached out of political discourse, there are consequences. At best the consequence is bad policy – by definition, evidence-free assertions have not been subjected to the scrutiny that makes for good decision-making. At worst political lies are the harbingers and tools of mass murder.
And the big lies that are currently polluting the groundwater of civility are not some new postmodern, post-truth phenomenon. They’re recycled versions of the same old lie that is always written on the signpost to the abyss: if it was not for Them, everything would be okay.
They need to be seen for what they are: not novelties of our age but blood-soaked revenants from an ugly past.