Beyond Post-Truth

The phrase ‘post-truth’, a word of the year in 2016 (dearly departed and much missed), is already looking a bit clapped out. It’s a little on the nose, even obvious; it’s not all that insightful; and the thing is already entirely ubiquitous, on the lips of every lazy pundit and within easy reach of every angry guy on the internet. They all want to use it, as it conveys a kind of easily attained semi-intellectualism, just about enough for TV and Twitter.

They don’t use it entirely properly, of course: for many it is not a descriptive term, but rather another way to characterise their opponents, who can be portrayed as ignorant, but not just ignorant – actively in denial, actively walled up in an echo chamber, constructing bizarre opinions out of the left-over voices in their heads. In short, ‘post-truth’ has completely outlived its usefulness.

How then, is it best to refer to the phenomena which gave rise to the term in the first place? Is there such a thing as ‘post-truth’, in the abstract or the real?

Few people or organisations are opposed to facts; few people are sufficiently stupid to denounce facts in their entirety, as a concept. And though some ideologies relish a rejection of facts – suggesting that the nature of knowledge as it is collected and deployed is flawed in some way – they still make use of information, at a basic, essential level, in forming their beliefs and, when necessary, to convince others to join in with similar sentiments.

People, even the most ‘post-truth’, even those with the least respect for the idea of knowledge, are not opposed to truth, per se. They are not even entirely indifferent to it. Donald Trump brands news he does not like ‘fake news’, and he does not do this just because he believes it – though I expect he does – but also because his supporters, even the most ardent, the most quixotic, the most devoted, still want to have some factual (or pseudo-factual) framework on which they can hang their beliefs.

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Even the most dogged need some structure; and whether this is provided by mainstream media sources or alternative media, there is always some pretence at getting to or uncovering the truth, no matter how much it has been distorted by the wreckers and saboteurs or shills and propagandists.

Thus it is not accurate to say that any individual or ideology is truly ‘post-truth’. Ideas of what the truth is may vary – and they do, wildly – but there is always some sense that, to annex a phrase from popular, though not contemporary, culture, the truth is out there: it is out there somewhere, waiting to be brought to the attention of the needful public.

What this truth is remains anyone’s guess.

Is it the truth that the DNC was running a paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant? Is it the truth that Hillary Clinton is a walking corpse? Is it the truth that CNN lies and ‘is Hitler’? Well, in all of those cases, the answer happens to be no. Those are the wrong questions. But even though this excuse – the pretence of ‘just asking questions’ is a common one among the conspiracy-minded, and one which has served to exculpate those who are either liars or deranged from serious consequences – the impulse is an understandable and even slightly noble one.

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After all, when Hillary Clinton thought she was going to win the election, she attempted to pander to the ‘just asking questions’ crowd. Clinton apparently seriously promised to release federal government information on whether there is evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

When I wrote in the past about the appeal of conspiracy theories I did so with some flippancy. In a way, I underestimated exactly how important it seems not only to feel as if one knows exactly what’s going on, but also to know more than other people know, or at least more than enough to make one feel confident of not being left, alone, in the dark.

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This is one of the reasons why the rumours about Clinton’s health were widespread. After all, when she stumbled and fell into her car, she sure looked ill. And her campaign, both prudently and ever so stupidly, decided not to say anything, allowing the few seconds of footage to loop endlessly, not only on cable TV and on the internet but in the heads of more than a few people – some of them not even entirely nuts.

It’s not a surprise that some of them, the media savvy and the true believers, ran with that story as if it were Watergate. For them, after all, it was. They knew she was ill, really knew it, and then she went and did something like collapsing in a public place.

Why not, in the face of a cagey campaign, suggest that she cannot stay upright for more than a few minutes without being propped up on a pillow or something? Why not suggest that she can’t travel anywhere without a personal hypnotist, or that she has to take powerful drugs which caused her to cough constantly?

After all, it may be true. And no one, at that early stage, was saying anything, let alone that these things were incorrect.

Despite the absence of any real information – or a grand factual structure, as it were, upon which to hang all of these pointed (and pointless) rhetorical questions and assertions – one fact, something which was indisputable, certainly took place: Clinton did fall and she did stumble and she did look beaten down and tired and out of it. There is no other way to interpret that footage. But how one spun it after that – recovering from a stroke, perhaps, or suffering from Parkinson’s disease, or incapable of unsupported movement – did not really matter.

This was not post-truth, or not exactly; it was on video. One salient truth remained, a single speck of information amid an ocean of obscurity. So why not roll the dice a little? Why not suggest something outrageous?

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To return, then, as we all must, to the subject of the next president. When Donald Trump rubbishes CNN and BuzzFeed and the New York Times and Vanity Fair and so many others – and when he praises LifeZette, a publication run by one of his prospective appointees, Laura Ingraham, and when he uses a story from the defiantly partisan One America News Network to counter some of the recent furore over his relations, or not, with Vladimir Putin and Russia more generally – he may not be doing it deliberately. He may not be rejecting truth in any way – at least not by his own standards. Certain outlets and certain people hate him and will lie about him in the process of demonstrating that hatred (and adumbrating examples of hatred to come, because this is going to be a long four years). The only truth he sees is contained within what he feels. He’s a creature of instinct, one to whom extensive premeditation and calculation appear alien. He says what he likes and does what he likes and the only thing he knows about his own identity – the one thing he is sure about – is that he’s a builder. He makes things. He makes things out of nothing. He makes things up. It cannot be a surprise, therefore, that he opts to believe and channel a species of truth of his own creation.

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