So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth? (John 18:37-38)
“Post-truth” – the word of the year for 2016 according to the Oxford Dictionaries – is defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
According to the Oxford Dictionaries, “The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix ‘post-‘ that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’. This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).”
The Oxford Dictionaries are in the business of stating facts – although I don’t know how that is going to work out in this post-truth society. The bold text above is all my doing. Because I am in the business of being horrified.
Language reflects culture. We only create words for the concepts we need. That we appear to have moved on from “truthiness,” Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2006, to “post-truth,” a mere ten years later, I find horrifying.
“Truthiness” is defined as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” The “truthy” world may be a bit wistful in really wanting something to be true that isn’t, but it still acknowledges that the real thing exists; the post-truth world has moved beyond all that and doesn’t even blink when it throws facts off the cliff.
And yet… I am sensing a bit of a contradiction in the headlines. Why, if this is indeed a post-truth world, are we getting our collective knickers in a twist by all the “fake news?” Here are just a few examples of the angst from the past few days:
Could it be that we only have a problem with veracity when it is other people providing the post-truth “facts,” to us? Do we think that perhaps when it comes to ourselves the truth-in-reporting rule need not exactly apply? I mean, we want to get people’s attention, right? We want to persuade them, we want them to agree with us; so if we take a few liberties, well, does it really matter?
Besides, how often in the last few years have I heard, “That isn’t my truth.” As if truth comes in different flavors and we can pick the ones we prefer. If something isn’t your truth, then how can you judge if somebody else’s truth is “true?”
See what a mess we get in when we decide everything is relative and there is no objective truth? Or when we decide it just doesn’t matter anyway?
I know we like to think we are all so progressive and continue to improve the world and society. But, “post-truth” isn’t actually a new concept. It is part of the broken human condition and has been around forever.
Sophocles described it in about 460 BC in his play fragment the Aleadai: “What people believe prevails over the truth.” And Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) would have it that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
The difference between their times and ours, is that in theirs, people believed there was still objective truth and that it mattered. Untruths were something to be ashamed of and avoided. I’m not so sure that the majority of us believe that anymore.