The Oxford English Dictionary has announced that one of its words for 2016 will be ‘post-truth’, a word suggesting that this year has seen a decline in political discourse based on truth and rationality, replaced with pitches to base emotion and a lack of scrutiny of claims. But this term seems very inappropriate for one reason, it implies that we have just had an era of truth and openness in our politics.
Although the internet has in so many ways lowered the standard of political discourse, as in so many other aspects of society (at the risk of sounding an old fart), this idea that we have only now become a society where lies are a core part of politics is utterly false. Furthermore, the subjective nature of truth in politics and the underlying assumption that demographics more likely to have voted for Brexit are incapable of assessing a politicians’ claims make post-truth as a concept perhaps one of the greatest deceits of 2016. (I will not address the US election directly as I have a long-standing principle of apathy to US politics, but some of the arguments can be taken over there to some extent as well.)
To take a few examples since the turn of the century, let alone the countless examples before 2000, was the invasion of Iraq something which took place in a political culture that abhorred Groupthink theory and honoured rationality? Was the New Labour tendency to accept mass immigration without building the new houses, schools, roads, and hospitals needed for a population influx something carried out with honesty and transparency? Did the government and our financial institutions not try and pretend the financial crash wasn’t happening until it was too late, and then act mainly in the interests of everyone, rather than cronyism? When the Liberal Democrats went into coalition, did they uphold any of the principles they claimed to stand for? It is likely that you will agree the answer to all four of these questions, which cover major issues that have defined the previous decade, is a resounding ‘no’.
The issue is perhaps that ‘truth’ is remarkably subjective for something many of us have been brought up to see as an absolute. It is true that both around 70% and around 15% of our laws come from Brussels, because it really depends on what you consider a law to be. Is it true that Britain is a more prosperous and happier society than 10 years ago? Many people would say yes, but the answer may be different in quite a lot of the country. The polarisation of British society makes this worse, people are far less likely to read opposing opinions or even have close friends of strongly different views than ever before, and much of this is down to the internet and the way in which our media outlets put ad revenue, often by pitching to an overseas audience, over quality journalism and scrutiny of British politics and institutions, something we need more than ever. If not this, then outright using ‘clickbait’ headlines that contribute little to debate. We are all aware of the tabloid tendency towards any of this, but try looking for a non-sensationalist and well-written piece in the Independent or Telegraph today or take a look on the websites of the Guardian or BBC and see how much is pitched to an international audience rather than grappling with serious issues in our country. Truth has always been subjective and claiming that there is one absolute truth is deeply unhelpful in politics in general, but this perception is becoming worse as media coverage becomes more divisive, interested in ad revenue and fuelling flames of anger rather than coming up with genuine solutions or contributing to debate.
It is this increasingly stark division that has led to the idea that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ era. 2016 has seen the ‘truth’, as seen by those who have run our country for decades, challenged as it has not been before. The instinctive response has been to decry a campaign which targeted non-voters and those living in regions that our government and media have never cared much for effectively, making it seem almost immoral that those people were engaged by a campaign which reflected the widespread anger felt in so many ways, rather than just allowed to rot and remain apathetic. The answer so far from our government and media has not been to try and understand the events of the past year and reflect the concerns displayed by many people in Britain during the referendum campaign, but to accuse the people who voted for Leave as being fools, duped by snake-oil salesmen, people with no capacity for critical thinking at all, who lapped up ‘propaganda’ without question or even the traditional accusations of politicians being inherently dishonest.
It has reached the point where ‘post-truth’ has become a catch-all phrase for any of this, but this leads to the greatest lie of all, that before 2016 we lived in a world of truth and rationality. The only way this can be seen to be true is that the ‘narrative’ of the political establishment has been challenged as it has not been for some decades, and by defining this political backlash to the many failures of recent years as merely ‘post-truth’, the establishment are engaging in the greatest deceit of all.