Post-Truth: Thoughts on the 2016 Word of the Year

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Although the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year wasn’t coined in the last 12 months, the term “post-truth” saw high circulation in regards to politics, and became less of an obscure term and more of a common label, especially as the year closed. 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,” “post-truth” gets at the idea that people see stated facts as less reliable than previous generations.

As a newer phenomenon, the concept of “post-truth” in its current understanding has been around for decades, if not centuries. The novel, 1984, by George Orwell, featured government bureaus such as the “Ministry of Truth” which existed to maintain lines of propaganda concerning war, the economy, and the ruling party. When it was often necessary, the ministry contradicted itself to create a new narrative, destroying evidence along the way.

But perhaps in the last several decades, the perceived champions of accuracy have lost much credibility: the media and higher education.

But such dystopian worlds seem relegated to fiction, and the public’s confidence went relatively unharmed in the health of independent studies, free access to information, and guaranteed removal of those who allowed error to mix with truth.

But perhaps in the last several decades, the perceived champions of accuracy have lost much credibility: the media and higher education.

Concerning the media, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently lamented how publishers like the NYT and broadcasting agencies covered Donald Trump incessantly, not journalistically (e.g. there was hardly any thorough investigation into Trump’s proposed policies and stances), but in a more reactionary way (“What did Trump tweet today?”).

According to Kristof, “In 2008, the three broadcast networks, in their nightly news programs, devoted the entire year to a total of three hours and 40 minutes to issues reporting (defined as independent coverage of election issues, not arising from candidate statements or debates). In 2016, that plummeted to a grand total of just 36 minutes.”

 And the public has definitely grown its appetite for the sensational and immediate.

This shallow, public-driven coverage, according to Kristoff, was motivated by the modern journalism business model: publish whatever stories get the most clicks. And the public has definitely grown its appetite for the sensational and immediate. Look at the front pages of the New York Times since its start in 1851 and notice that pictures dominate more and more of the front page real estate. Kristof notes that “[f]or too much of 2016, we in the news media — with many stellar exceptions — sometimes were mindless mutts that barked at everything.”

Coinciding with this trend, the term “fake news” has taken on new life. Where typically the news was suspect only if it leaned heavily liberal or conservative (depending on one’s politics), 2016 saw many denouncing any news source that was considered mainstream. Today, news sites like Buzzfeed.com and Breitbart.com are considered as reliable as (or at least not more biased than) established news agencies like CNN or the LA Times.

The media might be the most apparent “post-truth” institution, but its been argued that higher education was the among the first.

For every watchdog or fact checker site or blog, another dozen exist to ostensibly “counter” fact check these sites. This, in turn, has contributed to what some have called the “echo chamber effect”, the counter-intuitive idea that despite so many voices and sources available on mediums like the Internet and television, more and more people only expose themselves to websites, television channels, and social media accounts espousing views with which they already agree.

The media might be the most apparent “post-truth” institution, but its been argued that higher education was the among the first. Many prominent universities have been accused of censoring opinions and views which dissent from the status quo, and accommodating those who are emotionally upset by ideas they disagree with, by creating “safe spaces” and offering counseling.

But these are recent phenomenon. Many colleges and universities have long permitted faculty to teach subjects from a postmodern worldview, in which claims of absolute truth are considered power plays used to oppress and demean others. Postmodernism holds that truth is socially constructed, and that no meaning exists unless there is a person or community to give something meaning in the first place. An author, for example, does not give her own book meaning, but rather the book’s meaning is determined by its reader. From a postmodern viewpoint, all of reality is meaningless apart from someone present to synthesize meaning.

In Spanish class, you speak and think in Spanish. In Women’s Studies, you speak and think in feminist paradigms

Rosaria Butterfield

Rosaria Butterfield, a former professor of Women’s Studies at Syracuse University in New York regularly taught her students, “There were no truths, only truth claims,” and that attempting to acquire objective fact was impossible without bringing personal biases and perspectives into one’s understanding. This concept is associated with critical perspective, which holds that meaning is not discovered, but created by and through personal experience. Hence, the syllabi used in her classroom stated: “Students are expected to write all papers and examination essay questions from a feminist worldview or critical perspective. In Spanish class, you speak and think in Spanish. In Women’s Studies, you speak and think in feminist paradigms.”  Once, when asked by a student to verify something as true, Butterfield chided that they didn’t believe in truth, since, from a postmodern and critical perspective view, it was intellectually irresponsible to believe something as objectively true.
Yet many have seen that this “post-truth” view is self-defeating. To claim that the statement “all truth claims are power plays” is true is itself a truth-claim, not to be believed since those who say it must be attempting to oppress others.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton famously captured this approach to knowledge in his book Orthodoxy and argued that such extreme skepticism of absolute truth destroyed one’s ability to denounce anything, including oppression: “…all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it…. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself…. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Philosophers have long realized that if all truth claims are power grabs meant to oppress and restrict, then postmodernism itself is a power play to undermine and oppress, and fails by its own criteria.

Yet universities, at least within their liberal art departments, still maintain this postmodern understanding of truth.

As a participant of the university system while still in its relative infancy, Aristotle famously held that three modes of rhetoric were necessary to convince others what was true: ethos, logos, and pathos (ethical, logical, and emotional). In other words, any persuasion that only took into account logic and reasoning was unlikely to succeed if a person’s ethical or emotional sensibilities were trampled in the process.

The Enlightenment, however, soon gave birth to the idea that logic and objective fact could be ascertained without personal biases clouding one’s judgement. This became Modernism, or the movement shaped by the idea that true knowledge can only start within man (as opposed to needing God or tradition to serve as a legitimate source of data). Optimism of man’s rationality led to incredible discoveries and inventions, yet failed to account for humanity’s selfishness.

The Christian worldview, however, challenges both the modernism’s utter confidence in autonomous Human reason, yet also rejects postmodernism’s denial that absolute truth exists.

H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, demonstrated the grand faith in the human progress at the time of modernism’s peak. Compare his confident words in 1937: “Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement?”

Yet in a matter of months, one of the most enlightened, scientifically-advanced countries in its time would engulf the world in war and atrocity. Well’s take in 1947 on human goodness and progress after World War II? “The cold-blooded massacres of the defenseless, the return of deliberate and organized torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which such things had seemed well nigh banished— has come near to breaking my spirit altogether… ‘Homo sapiens,’ as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out.” Or as the late David Bowie once sang, “Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use/You gotta make way for the Homo Superior.”

The Christian worldview, however, challenges both the modernism’s utter confidence in  autonomous human reason, yet also rejects postmodernism’s denial that absolute truth exists. It agrees with modernism in that truth exists regardless of how we feel about it, and that truth can be known with certainty, but our certainty comes from a God who created an orderly, knowable world and gave humanity reliable senses to accurately perceive that world.

Christianity goes even further and claims that truth isn’t just able to be known by a person, but that truth is a Person

And the biblical worldview agrees with postmodernism that truth does have a personal aspect to it, that “truth” doesn’t just exist in the abstract but requires personality: the known requires a knower. With sin entering the world, truth claims often have been a tool for oppression, even within Christian circles. But the way to fight oppression isn’t by fleeing from truth, but to hold to a truth that undermines grabs for power.

So yes, truth has a personal aspect to it. In fact, Christianity goes even further and claims that truth isn’t just able to be known by a person, but that truth is a Person (John 14:6). Therefore, the fact that truth is personal doesn’t rob us of objectivity, but instead puts that objectivity in the context of a relationship with the One who gives and upholds our power to reason and to know.

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