“In the matter of politics, our society has become a consumer of emotions, constructed values, and ambiguous promises.”
The Washington Postmerican Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression,” was headline on August 5, 1964, almost 55 years ago. That same day, the front page of The New York Times read: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
As it turned out, the truth was very different; there was no “second attack” or “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” But by reporting official claims as absolute truths, the American media, with their then-steadfast trust in what their government told them opened the floodgates for the Vietnam War. President Johnson urged for the immediate passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which stated, “Congress approves and supports the determination of the president, as commander in chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” And so began the War in Vietnam.
Afterwards, in 2003, the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, Colin Powell, made the case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq in a presentation to the UN Security Council; “Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world.” Six weeks later, the war in Iraq began with precision missile strikes on Baghdad. Nevertheless, former Ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson told NBC he informed the CIA and the State Department that such information was false months before U.S and British officials used it during the debate that led to war: “If they were referring to Niger when they were referring to uranium sales from Africa to Iraq…that information was erroneous and…they knew about it well.” Colin Powell would, of course, later consider his United Nations speech a lasting “blot” on his record.
Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to a mainstay in our language and culture. The term was first used in 1992 by the Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich, when he suggested that dictators had to work hard at suppressing the truth. In 2004, American author Ralph Keyes argued that in the post-truth era, we don’t just have truth and lies—but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall just short of a lie.
This concept had a boom in 2016, when Oxford Dictionaries labeled “post-truth” the word of the year, 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.” Its use increased 2000% between 2015 and 2016. This situation, of course, has a political context, developing concurrently with Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential election, picturing how objective facts have taken on less importance than emotive speeches or beliefs. The value of “post-truth” lies in the fact that it is a phenomenon that manipulates public opinion and suppresses truth with remarkable political effectiveness. And this is happening not only in dictatorships in the developing world—but also in Western democracies.
In our era, the prefix “post” has become all too popular: post-modernism, post-ecology, post-capitalism, even post-neoliberalism, a term used recently by Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But regarding post-truth, does it indicate a disruption in the way we carry out politics in modern democratic nations?
Enlightenment philosophers believed that educational development would build democratic regimes of informed citizens capable of responding rationally on behalf of the common good, perpetuating truth as an ideal. Passions and emotions were neglected in politics, ignoring their role in the public sphere. As a result of this, mass education led to relativism, and emotions became a tool for the discourse in the exercise of power. Myriam Revault d’Allonnes contends in her book The Weakness of Truth that in totalitarian regimes, the combination of terror and ideology leads to the construction of a systematic and consistent world of false ideas that replace reality—whereas in democracies, the danger resides in the growth of relativism, where everything is validated.
Throughout history, the conflict between objective fact and subjectivity has been present in philosophical debates. Nevertheless, most philosophers, in my view, never abolished the distinction between truth and fiction; they only positioned themselves against the absolutism of truth as a universal norm. They, thus, suggested that epistemic relativism is about attributing validity to different views of the world and accepting those views constructed in a particular context. The problem with post-truth is its ambiguity, which makes it more problematic. Since the Enlightenment, Westerners have displayed a cognitive bias thinking that we are automatically able to distinguish between fact and fiction, knowledge and opinion, factual accounts and myths. Nonetheless, postmodernism has described us as a “consumer, media and postindustrial” society. Habermas’ Öffentlichkeit, Jacques Derrida’s “deconstruction” and Baudrillard’s “simulacra,” have been an attempt to identify the changes regarding our understanding of language, truth, and knowledge. In the matter of politics, our society has become a consumer of emotions, constructed values, and ambiguous promises.
Slavoj Žižek explains that an event can be an occurrence that shatters ordinary life, a radical political rupture, or a transformation of reality. In the case of 21st century politics, the rupture took place on September 11, 2001. From that moment on, concepts such as “preemptive war” or “a war against terrorism” began to permeate the collective consciousness of the international community. The September 11 attacks set the United States on the path to a post-truth era, which would be epitomized two years later with the Invasion of Iraq on the back of spurious claims about “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
And this taste, on the part of the public for consuming fantasies, rather than realities, has only grown. We are in the midst of a transition from a society based on facts to one based on data, which promises to sense shifts in public sentiments. Donald Trump is the leading exponent of post-truth politics, described by The Economist, for instance, as, “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.”President Trump’s discourse appeals to sentiments. A simple but clear example is when in his speeches he uses the phrase “billions and billions of dollars,” never giving an exact number but using language for an emotional statement to magnify a situation. Politics has become about making believe, and it is now based on problematic distinctions between rationality and emotion.
The combination of populist movements with the postmodern undertones inherent in social media is the basis for post-truth politics. As mass education lead to relativism and traditional media evolved, the current public sphere has changed drastically. Social media has become a means through which anyone can express their point of view about any given subject, providing a microphone for the layman’s opinion. Facts have been blurred, hindering information and the possibility of an informed debate, which is so necessary for democracy. All the while, conspiracy theories prosper under such conditions.
Conspiracies have been present throughout history; they flourished in 19th century America, when modern-day political parties developed. And they’ve continued ever since—from claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the federal government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Thanks to the Internet today, they can disseminate ever so quickly, while an increasing share of people accept their plausibility.
Recent examples include events surrounding the Mexican elections of 2018, when a rumor circulated regarding Russian interference in the polls. This discourse could have been a potential smokescreen to achieve political goals or merely fake news. However, the theory disseminated for weeks in the Mexican public sphere, creating confusion and different assumptions about the possible outcomes. Another emerging theory was the involvement of Juan Guaido in the Venezuelan crisis. In the private sphere, people started to claim that Guaido was an American CIA agent deployed to destabilize the country.
The main debate is not about lies as they have always existed in politics—but about truth. Truth hasn’t lost its importance. Its importance has actually only increased. Yet while we can accept that there are many ‘truths’ that individuals live by, an idea so emblematic of modernity, the problem with the post-truth era is its rejection of facts and scholarly expertise. If everything can be interpreted, then nothing can be certain and every truth is equally valid. For the post-truth, the use of the prefix “post” does not imply a world where truth has disappeared; instead, it suggests the centrality of opinions rather than facts.
The post-truth era is a threat to liberal democracy. From the murky events in Gulf of Tonkin to the justification for the invasion of Iraq, it has revealed the vulnerability of institutions and the order established in the post-War era. There are inevitable consequences for the future of democracies if we continue to fail so often in sorting truth from fiction.
Luz Paola Garcia graduated with a B.A in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey. She currently works as a political consultant and as writer for Revista Ciudadania.