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The cost of living in a post-truth society

26 May 2017

David Atkinson warns of troubling consequences for public life


"Alternative facts": the aide to Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, who coined the phrase "alternative facts"

"Alternative facts": the aide to Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, who coined the phrase "alternative facts"

THE Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 was “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”.

Dictionary editors said that, while the word had been in existence for the past decade, there was a “spike” in frequency last year “in the con­text of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presiden­tial election in the United States”.

”Post-truth” is not quite the same as “lies”. It is about exercising power and control, and manipulating pub­lic opinion. The liar may know the truth, but the post-truth politician does not care what is truth and what is not — whether this is a £350-million advertisement on a bus, or the message about EU im­­migration from UKIP’s anti-migrant “Break­ing point” poster.

In “post-truth” politics, people pick and choose between “altern­ative facts”, to quote the phrase used by one of President Trump’s aides when defending the White House’s statements concerning the numbers who attended the presidential inauguration.


FOR post-truth politicians and journalists — and, indeed, for many users of social media — “truth” no longer carries the transcendent quality that it does, for example, in the Bible, where it points to reli­ability, integrity, and trustworthi­ness, rooted in the faithfulness of God’s word.

The departure from the tran­scendence of truth could have deeply troubling consequences for public life — as the Hungarian-British scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi warned during the turbulent 20th century.

Polanyi expressed his com­mitment to science in terms of a “love of truth”. He also re­­l­ated science’s quest for truth to the importance of transcendent values in public life: “A general respect for truth is all that is needed for society to be free.” Conversely, when truth is no longer respected, or even acknowledged, he argued, our very freedoms are at stake.

Polanyi was outraged at the way that 1930s Soviet society handled questions of truth. Truth was what the Party defined it to be. Scientists were free to follow their own in­­terests, but “they would inevitably be led to lines of research which would benefit the current Five Year Plan”.

Polanyi would have none of this. Just as science is a “society of explorers”, committed to the belief that there is reality to discover be­­yond what is already known, so, by analogy, a free society needs to hold fast to transcendent values and work together in their light. “The ideal of a free society is in the first place to be a good society: a body of people who respect truth, desire justice, and love their fellows,” he wrote. Polanyi is not far from the com­mandment “You shall not bear false witness,” nor from Jesus’s saying: “The truth will make you free.” But he is a long way from post-truth.

Journalists often find it hard to tell the truth, despite the text-book words: “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Of course, there are different interpretations, and all our knowledge is limited and open to correction. Polanyi acknowledged that this was the case in science, which is why a scientist’s theories are tested by a peer group, and corroborated or criticised. It is pos­sible to get it wrong. But journalism, despite the uncertainties and diffi­culties in verification, can still aspire to tell the truth.

That is utterly different from not caring about truth. Post-truth pol­itics can lead to disillusionment with politicians, and open the door to extremist views that no one feels it is important to verify or challenge. Social media seems to be in­­creasingly dominated by opinion, and opinionated news. A false news item or allegation becomes a tweet and goes viral through the networks among like-minded people who reinforce each other’s views. Polit­i­cians are routinely accused of lying — not least during an election campaign — and increasingly that is accepted as part of the “game”. The really troubling thing in a post-truth world is that truth ceases to matter.


WHAT motivated Polanyi was what he called a crisis in our culture: where a society loses touch with transcendent values such as truth, justice, love, and beauty, our proper human moral passions become in­­creasingly liable to be pushed in other directions, too often into violence.

Writing in 1975, just before his death, Polanyi had a poignant warn­ing, which society today would do well to heed: “When a judge in a court of law can no longer appeal to law and justice; when neither a witness, nor the newspapers, nor even a scientist reporting on his experiments can speak the truth as he knows it; when in public life there is no moral principle com­­manding respect; when the revelations of religion and of art are denied any substance; then there are no grounds left on which any individual may justly make a stand against the rulers of the day. Such is the simple logic of totalitarianism.”


Dr David Atkinson is an Hon­orary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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