What exactly is meant by the term post-truth? Paradoxically, post-truth is among the most-talked-about yet least-well-defined meme words of our time. In this essay, the University of Sydney’s Professor John Keane contends that the best weapon against post-truth is democracy. Democracy being a living reminder that truths are never self-evident, and that what counts as truth is a matter of interpretation.
WE LIVE in an unfinished revolutionary age of communicative abundance. Networked digital machines and information flows are slowly but surely shaping practically every institution in which we live our daily lives.
For the first time in history, thanks to built-in cheap microprocessors, these algorithmic devices and information systems integrate texts, sounds and images in compact, easily storable, reproducible and portable digital form.
Communicative abundance enables messages to be sent and received through multiple user points, in chosen time, real or delayed, within global networks that are affordable and accessible to billions of people.
My book Democracy and Media Decadence probed the contours of this revolution. It showed why new information platforms, robust muckraking and cross-border publics are among the exciting social and political trends of our time. It proposed that the unfinished revolution is dogged by politically threatening contradictions and decadent counter-trends. The drift toward a world of “post-truth” politics is among these troubling trends.
What exactly is meant by the term post-truth? Paradoxically, post-truth is among the most-talked-about yet least-well-defined meme words of our time. Most observers in the English-speaking world cite the 2016 Word of the Year Oxford English Dictionaries entry: post-truth is the public burial of “objective facts” by an avalanche of media “appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
In China and in the Spanish-speaking world, respectively, commonplace talk of hòu zhēnxiāng and posverdadpushes in this direction. The popularity of the German postfaktisch (post-factual) usage captures much the same meaning. Selected as word of the year by the German language society Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS), it refers to the growing tendency of “political and social discussions” to be dominated by “emotions instead of facts”.
The GfdS adds:
Ever greater sections of the population are ready to ignore facts, and even to accept obvious lies willingly. Not the claim to truth, but the expression of the ‘felt truth’ leads to success in the ‘post-factual age’.
A catchword that has gone viral so quickly surely deserves careful attention and crisper definition, especially if we are not to be thrown off balance by a global phenomenon that sets out to do precisely that.
We can say that “post-truth” is not simply the opposite of truth, however that is defined; it is more complicated. It is better described as an omnibus term, a word for communication comprising a salmagundi or assemblage of different but interconnected phenomena.
Its troubling potency in public life flows from its hybrid qualities, its combination of different elements in ways that defy expectations and confuse its recipients.
Post-truth has recombinant qualities. For a start, it is a type of communication that includes old-fashioned lying, where speakers say things about themselves and their world that are at odds with impressions and convictions that they harbour in their mind’s eye.
Liars attempt alchemy: when someone tells lies they wilfully say things they “know” not to be true, for effect. An example is when Donald Trump claims there was never a drought in California, or that during his inauguration the weather cleared, when actually light rain fell throughout his address.
Post-truth also includes forms of public discourse commonly called bullshit. It comprises communication that displaces and nullifies concerns about veracity. Bullshit is hot air talk, verbal excrement that lacks nutrient. It is shooting off at the mouth, backed by the presumption that it is acceptable to others in the conversation.
Post-truth depends as well on buffoonery, bits and pieces of colourful communication designed to attract and distract public attention and to interrupt the background noise of conventional politics and public life. The bric-a-brac component of post-truth includes nonsense moments, jokes and boasting. It embraces clever quips, pedantry and wilful exaggerations (like Marine Le Pen’s description of the European Union as “a huge prison”).
There is plenty of rough speech. The contrast with the honey words and smiles of Bill Clinton, Felipe González, Tony Blair and other politicians from yesteryear is striking. The grotesquerie comes in abundance. Geert Wilders specialises in causing trouble, as when he dubs mosques “palaces of hatred”.
Disturbingly, there’s abundant talk of the importance of “truth”, by which is usually meant utterances whose veracity is self-confirming, thus proving that truth can attract rogues. There is dog-whistling. There is plain bad taste, as when a newly elected president enters the Houston Astrodome, crammed with traumatised homeless people who have narrowly survived a hurricane, and says: “Thanks for coming.”
Hair-splitting and wilfully setting things aside are common. The Israeli consul-general in New York, Dani Dayan, does this well, but the genius of evasion is surely Zoltán Kovács, the Orbán government’s spokesman. When subjected to forensic questioning by reporters about Hungary’s imprisonment and brutal maltreatment of refugees and operations by vigilante citizens’ “hunter patrol” border forces, he likes to say:
What you are trying to portray here is non-existent, a gross simplification. Next question.
And that’s that.
The silencing is not incidental. Post-truth performances feed on their production of silence. They remind us, in the words of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, that:
… the stupendous reality that is language cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists above all in silences.
The proponents of post-truth communication relish things unsaid. Their bluff and bluster is designed not only to attract public attention.
It simultaneously hides from public attention things (such as growing inequalities of wealth, the militarisation of democracy and the accelerating death of non-human species) that it doesn’t want others to notice, or that potentially arouse suspicions of the style and substance of post-truth politics.
This engendered silence is not just the aftermath or “leftover” of post-truth communication. Every moment of post-truth communication using words backed by signs and text is actively shaped by what is unsaid, or what is not sayable.
The communicative performances of the post-truth champions are thus the marginalia of silence: mere foam and waves on its deep waters.
That is why the current hyper-concentration of journalists and other public commentators on “breaking news” stories about “fake news”, “alternative facts” and missing “evidence” is so potentially misleading.
Their fetish of breaking news turns them unwittingly into the poodles of post-truth and its silence about things less immediate and less obvious, deeper institutional trends, “slower” events marked by punctuated rhythms.
VAUDEVILLE AND GASLIGHTING
Treating post-truth as a species of pugnacious politics dressed in a coat of many colours, as a bricolage of lies, bullshit, buffoonery and silence, helps us grasp its vaudeville quality.
When thought of as a public performance led by a cast of politicians, journalists, public relations agencies, think tanks and other players, post-truth is an updated, state-of-the-art political equivalent of early 20th-century vaudeville performances.
Old-fashioned vaudeville featured strongmen and singers, dancers and drummers, minstrels and magicians, acrobats and athletes, comedians and circus animals. It was a show. Post-truth is equally a show. Directed against conventional styles of performance, it is an orchestrated public spectacle designed to invite and entertain millions of people.
While the genealogy of post-truth is partly traceable to the world of corporate advertising and market-driven entertainment, it has thoroughly political qualities. In the hands of the powerful, or those bent on climbing the ladders of power over others, the post-truth phenomenon functions as a new weapon of political manipulation.
Post-truth is not only about winning votes, siding with friends, or dealing with political foes. It has more sinister effects. It is a gaslighting exercise.
Drawn from George Cukor’s award-winning Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, the term gaslighting is here defined as a weapon of the will to power. It is the organised effort by public figures to mess with citizens’ identities, to deploy lies, bullshit, buffoonery and silence for the purpose of sowing seeds of doubt and confusion among subjects.
Gaslighting is typically a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain a position of advantage over others.
Their point is to disorient and destabilise people. They want to harness people’s self-doubts, ruin their capacity for seeing the world ironically, destroy their capacity for making judgements, in order to drive them durably into submission.
When (for instance) gaslighters say something, only later to say that they never said such a thing and that they would never have never dreamed of saying such a thing, their aim is gradually to turn citizens into mere playthings of power.
When that happens, the victims of gaslighting no longer trust their own judgements. They buy into the tactics of the manipulator. Not knowing what to believe, they give up, shrug their shoulders and fall by default under the spell of the gaslighter.
Consider the double act of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his former right-hand gaslighter, Ernesto Abella, in the sequence of events triggered by the murder (in November 2016) of Rolando Espinosa, the elected mayor of Albuera, an island community some 575 kilometres from Manila.
When asked by journalists to explain what had happened, Duterte reportedly said:
He was killed in a very [questionable way], but I don’t care. The policemen said he resisted arrest. Then I will stick with the story of the police because [they are] under me.
Espinosa was in fact shot in detention, inside a police cell.
I might go down in history as the butcher. It’s up to you.
Since I have nothing to show, I just use extrajudicial killing. [That’s because] I have no credentials to boast about.
The intended meaning of these utterances (to put things mildly) was oracular, so mystifyingly opaque that they served as the cue for Abella to strut his stuff: to go on air and to say that this or that never happened, that Duterte never said what people heard him say, that Bisaya-speaking Duterte got lost in translation when speaking in Tagalog, to affirm at Malacañang press conferences that his intentions are good and that he is utterly sincere, whereas his enemies are wilful dissemblers, fools and toads.
Abella insisted he provided not “crumbs”, but “meat, deboned”. Armed with his favourite phrases, “let’s just say” and “let’s put it this way”, he described his job as “completing the sentences” of his leader, to “impart his true intentions”.
In this murder case, Abella said, “it is … a matter of the leadership style and the messaging style of the president”. He added:
This is his messaging style to underline his intention. He is serious about it [the drug menace]. However, it’s just meant to underline his seriousness in making sure that nobody is corrupt and involved in criminality.
(This essay is much longer than most articles, so will take some time to read. You can continue here. Enjoy!)
The theme of truth, post-truth and the unfinished communications revolution is further explored in a recently published thepaper.cn interview, The Revival of Truth Isn’t the Remedy for Post-Truth (available only in Chinese).
This article is part of the Revolutions and Counter Revolutions series, curated by Democracy Futures as a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney.
You can follow John on Twitter @jkeaneSDN.