Post-truth — Word of the Year 2016

Ralph Keyes writes in his book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life: At one time we had truth and lies. Now we have truth, lies, and statements that may not be true but we consider too benign to call false. Euphemisms abound. We’re “economical with the truth,” we “sweeten it,” or tell “the truth improved.” The term deceive gives way to spin. At worst we admit to “misspeaking,” or “exercising poor judgment.”  Nor do we want to accuse others of lying.  We say they’re in denial.  A liar is “ethically challenged,” someone for whom “the truth is temporarily unavailable.” This is post-truth. In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction.

Post-truth politics is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance. It is made possible by two threats to public sphere: a loss of trust in institutions that support its infrastructure and deep changes in the way knowledge of the world reaches the public. 

While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the Internet. In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell cast a world in which the state is daily changing historic records to fit its propaganda goals of the day. Orwell based much of his criticism of this on Soviet Russian practices. Post-truth is a close cousin of relativism, where my truth and your truth might well collide, but we’re not going to get into any informed arguments or debate, out of which truth might emerge.

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth — an adjective 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’. 

Evidently, “post-truth” pipped other buzz words to the post this year because a blithe disregard for facts has characterised both the vote for Brexit in the UK as well as the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. But post-truth politics is having its day in India as well. Increasingly, unpalatable facts are being waved aside and the sceptics shouted down. What seem to sway the masses and mould public opinion are skilful plays on emotion and ancient resentments.

Why was this chosen?

The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.

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Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often being used by major publications without the need for clarification or definition in their headlines.

The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event — as in post-war or post-match — the prefix  in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’.

Keyes said post-truthfulness builds a fragile social edifice based on wariness. It erodes the foundation of trust that underlies any healthy civilization. When enough of us peddle fantasy as fact, society loses its grounding in reality.  Society would crumble altogether if we assumed others were as likely to dissemble as tell the truth. We are perilously close to that point.

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