Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
‘Fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have become major preoccupations in a society that worries that Truth is under siege. Whereas in the past, certain truths were accepted as – in the words of the US Declaration of Independence – ‘self-evident’, now there appear to be many different ‘truths’ and few consider that they are self-evident.
In 2016, when the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘post-truth’ as its ‘Word of the Year’, it defined it as relating to situations where ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Many worry that a combination of demagoguery and populist myth-making has propelled the modern West into a ‘post-truth’ era. While accepting that propaganda, spin and downright lies have always been part of political discourse, it is argued that in the past we worried about whether political statements were true or not. Now, it seems, we don’t care and truth is not the gold standard we even aspire to.
But the problem goes well beyond the current debate about ‘post-truth’. For example, in public discussion, personal experience of a problem is often regarded as more important than expert knowledge of statistics or causes. Subjective experience becomes ‘truth’ in these situations rather than truth being the product of argument based on facts or analysis. Equally, many people accept that their sense of themselves in terms of cultural identity transcends any concept of universal or even national citizenship.
Some are pushing back against these trends and there is now an open campaign in support of truth, often appealing to ‘the facts’ and ‘the science’, for authority. The Economist has issued a rallying cry: ‘If, like this newspaper, you believe that politics should be based on evidence’, you should sign up to the pro-truth campaign. But when we resort to describing truths as evidence, empirical data and scientific truth, this often implies they are beyond contestation – and even that they are beyond the comprehension of the general public. Is there an element of elitism in this way of understanding the truth? While anybody concerned with deepening humanity’s understanding of itself will be committed to the deployment of reason, does it follow that if you challenge the empirical data or fail to defer to experts, you should be written off as irrational, superstitious or indifferent to truth? Many would argue that truths are not simply reducible to scientific reasoning, but have a moral element, too.
Current attempts to cleanse the public sphere of post-truth seem to run counter to the historical tradition of liberal thought, in which open debate, contested facts and moral judgement go far beyond statistics and fact-checking. Are those claiming we have entered a post-truth era really lamenting the end of an era when their version of the truth, their authority to dictate true values, was rarely challenged? Is the rejection of the values and outlook of the holders of cultural power in Western societies, as seen in the Brexit vote or the rejection of assumed US presidential shoo-in and fact checker, Hillary Clinton, a rejection of truth itself?
And in the context of new culture wars marked by a diminishing sense of a shared consensus, whether disputes over defining biological truths such as babies’ gender at birth to relativist rows over whose accounts of historical ‘facts’ are true, can the pursuit of truth mean anything beyond conflict and distrust? If this rejection of Western truths continues to unravel, can we expect ever more disputes over the truths claimed exclusively by competing identity and victim groups and more anti-establishment conspiracy theories disputing official truths? Will society ever be able to agree on self-evident truths ever again?