Post-Truth and the Erosion of Trust
“A couple of weeks ago, three excellent and interesting books came out in the same week with the same title. First was ‘Post Truth’ by Matthew D’ancona. The second one was ‘Post-Truth’ by James Ball. The third was ‘Post-Truth’ by Evan Davis. They are all responses to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to choose the word ‘post truth’ as their word for 2017 and the dangerous and growing phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ etc. Here are a few thoughts of mine about the concept of ‘post truth’ based on these books and why the resultant erosion of trust is so dangerous for our society.”
Rabbi Sacks, 12th June 2017
A couple of weeks ago, three books came out in the same week, with the same title. First was Post Truth by Matthew D’Ancona. The second one was Post-Truth by James Ball and the third one, which I can’t show you because I’ve got it on Kindle, is Post-Truth by Evan Davis. And of course, what they’re all about is a response to that extraordinary story that the Oxford English Dictionary decided to choose as its word that characterised 2016 as “post truth”, which the dictionary defines as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” or as it used to be called “lies”. Or my personal favourite is actually the one coined by the British politician, now no longer alive, Alan Clark, who, when discovered lying, admitted that he had been “economical with the actualité” or the American, very senior politician, who told something that was clearly proved to be false, who admitted, “I did mis-speak” the other day.
Post-truth has gone along with the related phenomena, otherwise known as “alternative facts and fake news”. And the end result is frankly, pretty serious, because we no longer know who or what to believe. Lies, post-truth, alternative facts, fake news, and the rest may have been responsible for the result of the Brexit vote in Britain, and may have had a significant influence on the American presidential election. The truth is that when we no longer know what to believe, there is an erosion of trust and the result is that a free society cannot function in the absence of trust.
Now, it’s worth reminding ourselves that humanity has been here before. As Richard Weaver said, one of our great faults is that we forget to read the minutes of the last meeting. And as far as I can see, the first reference to a post-truth society is 26 centuries ago, in the sixth century BCE, where Jeremiah describes exactly such a state of affairs. This is Jeremiah (in chapter nine of the book that bears his name):
“They make ready their tongues like a bow, to shoot lies. It’s not by truth that they triumph in the land… Beware of your friends. Don’t trust anyone in your clan, for every one of them is a deceiver and every friend, a slanderer. Friend deceives friend, no one speaks the truth. They have taught their tongues to lie, they weary themselves with sinning. They live in the midst of deception and in their deceit, says God, they refuse to acknowledge Me… Their tongue is a deadly arrow, it speaks deceitfully. With their mouths they all speak cordially to their neighbours, but in their hearts they set traps for them. Should I not punish them for this, says the Lord. Should I not avenge Myself on a nation such as this?” (Jeremiah 9:2-8)
Well, we know what Jeremiah inferred on the basis of his post-truth world, namely that the end was nigh. And of course it was, because his faithful city, now the faithless city of Jerusalem, was eventually conquered by the Babylonians. And the people sent into exile. And Jeremiah is significant here because although he was a moral extremist, he was at the same time, a political realist. And he knew that in the absence of truth, no society can stand.
Now, the assumption behind all the three recent books is that post-truth has come about through the multiplication of new media, which means that anyone can say anything pretty much to anyone. And on the internet, there’s no secure way of establishing and checking the facts. We know that on the web, lies can go viral, whereas the corrections very rarely do. Or as they say, ‘a lie can travel around the world before truth has had time to put its shoes on.’ Now, under those circumstances, it is the ruthless and the shameless who win.
But of course it goes deeper than just this new information technology. And of course here, Matthew D’Ancona is probably right in tracing it back to that significant intellectual school in the second half of the 20th century, known as the post-modernist. People like, Jean Paul Lyotard or Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida, a very obscure group of thinkers. My favourite, of course, is the line that goes, “What’s the difference between the mafia and a post-modernist? The mafia make you an offer you can’t refuse, a post-modernist makes you an offer you can’t understand.” But the fact is the post-modernists, of course, really caused doubt on the very idea of objective facts, objective truth, scientific method and the rest. And I think Matthew is right in directing us back there. But the truth goes back further than that. It really does.The person who really alerted me personally to this, back in 1981 was, Alasdair McIntyre. And those who’ve read my stuff are pretty aware that I’ve found Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue as one of the most important books I’ve ever read in my life. Now, Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, talks about the collapse of moral community and coherent moral thinking, what he calls the failure of the enlightenment project.
And he focuses on a particular moment in history, (the Bloomsbury group in the early 20th century) and the emergence of a moral theory known as Emotivism. MacIntyre says that when we lose a sense of objective morality, in truth, moral judgments are simply expressions of our personal feelings. Truth disappears, feelings win. And under those circumstances, there’s no point in being honest, there’s no real truth there to be had. And it’s the most manipulative, or the most persuasive lie that wins. But actually even there, MacIntyre, doesn’t really descend to the very heart of the darkness that is post-truth.
And I have to admit, as I usually do that, the person who got it right was Nietzsche. Nietzsche, of course, was an atheist and to be honest, I don’t agree with most of what he says, but he was the most honest atheist and the most profound one ever. And it is here in his book, On the Genealogy of Morality, that he says something absolutely stunning. He speaks about people who think of themselves as free spirits (in other words, atheists like him), and he says they’re very far from being free spirits because they still believe in truth.
And this is what he then goes on to say. He says, “Our faith in science is still based on a metaphysical faith. Even we know, as of today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still date our fire from the blaze set alight by a faith thousands of years old, that faith of the Christians, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth. That truth is Divine. But what if precisely this becomes more and more unbelievable? At this point”, he says, “we need to stop and take time to reflect. Science itself, now needs a justification.” And then he says, “Science is not nearly independent enough for that, because science itself never creates values.”
In other words, says Nietzsche, our belief in truth ultimately goes back to religious and philosophical foundations, which we are rapidly losing. In fact, Nietzsche is absolutely correct because today we’ve tended to search for our values in Darwinian evolutionary psychology. And the truth is there is nothing, whatsoever, in nature that tends towards truth or truthfulness. Every animal that is the potential prey of a predator has to learn to conceal, to hide, to deceive. In nature, the truth does not set you free. In nature, the truth gets you killed. And at the very best, if we believe (and it’s still controversial) in group selection, then honesty is only a viable evolutionary strategy within your narrow group. Never, ever practise honesty towards an outgroup.
So there it is. If all we’re left with is the debris of a faith we no longer believe in, that ancient faith in truth itself (and here I think Nietzsche is exaggerating because Plato himself believed that political order depends on the big lie, so it is really a Christian and Judeo-Christian foundation), if we lose that, then we’re going to lose the very value of truth as a whole, which comes to us through the Prophets of ancient Israel who famously spoke truth to power, and were the most devastatingly honest, self-critics of their own society. So here we have it. Our loss of truth is more than just our contemporary information technology and the social media. It’s got to do with a collapse in the very foundations on which the building called truth was built.
A free society depends on trust. Trust depends on honesty in public life. And honesty in public life depends on truth as a norm. Or to put it as we must, a free society is a moral achievement, and without that, we will lose it. We’ve forgotten that without a shared moral code to which we are all accountable, into which we are all educated and which we have internalised, we will lose the trust in public life on which our very freedom depends.
And here, let me give you one last quote, one of the most powerful quotes ever, and certainly as far as I’m concerned, it just shook me rigid when I first read it, and I re-read it regularly. It is by Bertrand Russell, in the introduction to his History of Western Philosophy. For Bertrand Russell, the highest points of Western civilisation were achieved in the Greece of Athens and in Renaissance, Italy. And this is what he writes:
“What happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy: traditional moral restraints disappeared, because there were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare fluorescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves, but not so destitute of social cohesion.”
In other words, unless and until we re-establish the moral basis of Western civilisation, (which is a combination of the Judeo-Christian heritage and the enlightenment values,) until we recover the ideals of honour and honesty in public life, then post-truth will lead us inexorably to post freedom, which is a place none of us should want to be.