A US president whose chief defence against charges of deception is to accuse the MSM (mainstream media) of spewing ‘fake news’.
A Brexit referendum which gave the voters a choice between ‘£350 million per week for the NHS’ and ‘Project Fear’ with its threats of war and civilisation’s collapse.
European and North American populaces growing ever more isolated in their ‘news bubbles’, choosing only outlets that conform to pre-existent worldviews – now they only read ‘The Daily Me’ (to use Nicholas Negroponte’s witticism).
Welcome to the post-truth world! The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2016 was well selected, defining it as: ‘relating to, or denoting, circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’
We didn’t choose it, but we can’t see a way out of it.
Some years ago, I was taken on a tour of the BBC’s glittering new HQ next to All Souls Church, Langham Place. We first saw the older Broadcasting House with its iconic façade, curved deliberately as an architectural echo to All Souls’ rotunda. In the Council Chamber, opposite the portrait of Lord Reith, the first Director General, sits the BBC coat of arms. Under it is one Latin word: Quaecunque. This is the first word of Philippians 4.8 in the Vulgate. What a superb motto verse for a broadcaster! Unfortunately, it is far too long for a crest, and so gets abbreviated to ‘Whatever.’ It would be hilarious… if it weren’t so tragically accurate.
Contemporary Western culture no longer has the philosophical tools, nor the political will, nor the popular means, to resist this state of affairs. We have lost the ability to discern between truth claims and forceful assertions, between hurt feelings and genuinely hateful or dangerous agendas. Instead we have become defensive, hastening to besmirch our opponents’ motivations while impervious to evidence of our champions’ flaws. One man’s fact is another woman’s fake news.
Buffeted by a perfect storm of converging factors: the legacy of centuries of philosophical scepticism; the brutality of 20th-century history; the impotence of national and local politics in the face of globalisa-tion; the rapid development of technology (especially for distracting entertainment); we have lost any agreed frameworks or metanarratives. Few chose to be here. Even fewer know how to get out of it. We’re left with worldview vertigo.
It doesn’t matter – just get on with your own life.
We resort to going with the gut, voting for the one with the better impression rather than with the better case. Yet what alternative is there in the face of bewildering complexity?
Neil Postman fully anticipated this in 1985 with his ground-breaking Amusing Ourselves to Death. He saw that the nascent obsession with authenticity had little to do with truth-telling. ‘It refers only to the impression of sincerity.’ Referring to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, the problem was not so much that ‘he lied but that on television he looked like a liar’. This is alarming, even for Nixon haters, Postman suggests, because ‘the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying’.
The conundrum, when all our perceptions of a complex world are mediated, is that we can never know for sure what is real. So we shrug. And move on. of In his 1992 book, The Condition Postmodernity, David Harvey explained what options we have after the collapse of meta-narratives. There are only four. None are appealing. All are chillingly identifiable.
• Be reconciled to meaninglessness.
With no yardsticks for grasping reality, we are like Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity – spinning uncontrollably in the void. Hedonism? From an existential perspective, things are miserable. So why not make the most of it? I have much sympathy with this!
• Deny complexity.
This is easier than grappling with globali-sation’s challenges. Take refuge in depthless slogans and soundbites. Take some proposed legislation: it is far simpler to rally opposition by nicknames ( ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘Hate Crimes Bill’) than explaining details (the Bill may have 150 pages of dense verbiage). It’s easy to fall into this trap. Many Christians do this for their understanding of God and his gospel…
• Settle for limited action.
Some still have an activist’s heart. If we can’t change the world – who knows what would be universally useful anyway? – we can still improve our neighbourhoods. That will do some good at least.
• Construct your own metanarrative.
This is the scariest. It opens the floodgates for the assertion of power, instead of merely defending an alternative interpretation. It cannot be argued against. Such is the way of schizophrenia and of terrorism. It is the way of neo-fascism.
Lethal exploitation of this confusion
For those who desire it, the quagmire presents a perfect opportunity for asserting strength. Appeal to your own base, who will follow you because they like how you sound rather than what you argue for. Opponents’ reasoning is immaterial – even when they prove you lied through your teeth.
Before the 2016 US Presidential Election, The New Atlantic published a fascinating article by Salena Zito about candidate Trump. She noticed this about his use of statistics and research: ‘When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.’
It’s too early to tell what repercussions the new president’s administration will have. Trump is not the first Western politician to have played fast and loose with the truth. But he is surely the first truly post-truth Western leader. It is arguable that he doesn’t seem to care what is objectively true.
Personal truth in a post-truth environment
It is bewildering – and hard to know how to respond. This is not to suggest that we give up on truth telling, to the powerful or otherwise. Only that we need a greater canniness and courageous wisdom than we might realise. Here are a few gospel pointers.
• Don’t abandon the metanarrative.
The gospel is the grand story, par excellence. But it’s a story of divine folly and weakness… being far wiser and stronger than human wisdom or power. The gospel never mandated the assertion of power. Instead, it uniquely prompts courageous truth-telling (through synagogue proclamation and in lecture-hall reasoning) with sacrificial service. This is a metanarrative of powerful love, not assertive power. The cross is evidence of that. And we must model that.
• Truth is a person.
But even when we find it currently hard to argue for this metanarrative, we can seek consolation from the fact that we follow not a philosophy but a person who is Truth personified. And when people encounter him (as opposed to it), there is magnetism and security to be found. He draws us in and welcomes us, even in our weakest and darkest states. Point to how he uses his power.
• Take truth-telling seriously.
We must do this at every level (from explaining our worldview to our personal honesty). I am reminded of the civilian who became PA to a senior army officer. When someone awkward rang, he asked her to say he was unavailable. She immediately refused, saying: ‘If I lie for you, how will you ever know that I’m not lying to you?’ It’s a great question. Our integrity matters even more now.
• Expose deception and oppression.
Jesus had little time for people who despised those on the bottom rung. They will always be the worst off in a post-truth environment. We must counteract that impulse at all costs. If we don’t, the gospel metanarrative will seem as arbitrary and self-serving as that of the powerful.
• Trust the resurrection of the dead.
Worldly power executed Truth personified. But death could not hold him. Truth personified is also the resurrection and the life. Which means, in eternal terms, there can never ultimately be a time that is post-Truth.
Mark Meynell is Associate Director (Europe & Caribbean), Langham Partnership