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Living in a post-truth world

By Jason Beale - posted Friday, 22 February 2019

In 2016 the Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year was 'post-truth'. At the time, with the rising popularity of Donald Trump, political certainties were collapsing, and this was a convenient pejorative to cast at one's political opponents, a way to avoid engaging with the ideological enemy. It was clearly considered to be a bad thing, a contemporary form of ancient Greek sophistry, in which any position could be asserted, even in the teeth of 'fact-checking' and ridicule. The instant news cycle had finally overwhelmed the mass audience into a 'post-modern' malaise anyway, and it was impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff.

For many decades there has been a widespread cynicism about the sincerity of politicians and politics in general, but only in the internet era has this ennui become weaponised into a form of vicious ridicule of the ideological other. If you oppose Trump you 'know' he is the standard bearer for 'post-truth' manipulation of the media. However, the same accusation is also hurled at the left-wing liberals so keen on overturning the traditional certainties of family and country.

The re-evaluation of social values and roles that is prominent on the left is surely more sympathetic of 'post-truth' than anything that Trump has endorsed. Interestingly, the newest socialist face in the US political scene, member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has herself expressed a positive take on 'post-truth', stating in an interview on 60 Minutes that, "I think that there's a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right." When the morally righteous are so brazenly contemptuous of reasoned discourse there is cause for worry. This is 'post-truth' in the service of an authoritarian ideal.


In my search for enlightenment on this confusing state of affairs I turned to a recent book by the British philosopher Julian Baggini, titled A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World. The notion that 'truth' has a history is already a clue to the relativism that Baggini promotes in his pages. The consolations to be had from 'truth' being a historical construct are seemingly many. For one, there are voices to be heard from cultures and groups other than the so-called dominant privileged ones. Whether this requires an altered standard of judgment is uncertain. It is plain however that 'truth' is some kind of football that one side has been holding for too long. Baggini sees the sharing of truth as a 'noble impulse':

The relativist impulse is by and large a noble one. It is opposed to the ownership of truth by one, usually privileged group; the crowding out of alternative perspectives; the simplification of complex reality.

It looks like Baggini is willing to let 'truth' slip away while every interest group gets to choose its own so-called 'reality'. And God forbid we use a single standard to judge truth claims. That would be a 'simplification' in his view. To misquote Samuel Johnson, relativism is the refuge of a self-hating culture. This new complexity includes a downgrading of empirical evidence vis-à-vis morality in way that Ocasio-Cortez might approve:

We know that people disapprove of murder and that being killed is not good for the victim, but these facts do not prove that it is wrong. 'Wrong' is just the wrong kind of thing to be subjected to empirical demonstration.

Baggini goes on to quote Hume: 'reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.' This is adduced to explain that "no logical proof is required" in order to "feel or see why life is of value" nor would any logical argument ever be convincing. According to Baggini, anyone doubting the value of human life is a "psychopath (who) lacks not rationality but feeling." Would Baggini apply the same approach in the abortion debate to support the pre-born's right to life I wonder? Isn't it also something only an unfeeling person would dispute, a cold-hearted rational psychopath, or a feminist? One suspects Baggini would balk at such consistency in the name of 'alternative perspectives.'

On the other hand, he has no trouble judging Hume for a footnote contrasting the achievements of racial groups, as he understood them in the 18th century. That's fine, since we all know that anything smacking of racism is "factually incorrect." So are morals fact-based or not? Baggini retroactively applies the contemporary dismissal of racial differences onto the 18th century context. He claims that for Hume "intelligence is no guarantee of virtue." How convenient. To the same extent, virtue signalling is no guarantee of intelligence in Baggini's case.


It is not only morality that exists beyond the realm of reason. In the 'post-truth' world our very sense of normalcy is an illusion that we maintain, perhaps no more than an enlightenment fairy tale:

We all have to make some basic assumptions that we cannot afford to doubt. Belief in our very sanity is in some sense a leap of faith.

I recommend that anyone who seriously doubts his or her 'sanity' get help from a mental health professional. Surely we all experience moments of stress, sadness, confusion, and even depression. But no one should need a 'leap of faith' to be a stable functioning person. For Baggini, the power of belief is greater than anything, including science:

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Reference: A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World (Quercus, 2017). Julian Baggini's latest book is How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy (Granta, 2018)

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Jason Beale is a Melbourne writer and artist.

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