Post-truth was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016.
It’s a word which has sprung into prominence mainly due to Donald Trump’s election win. I heard a good example the other day on the radio when a US political commentator was talking about Trump’s promise to build a wall on the US/Mexico border. His view was that ‘whilst some construction might happen, essentially the wall will come to mean a metaphor for a stronger border’.
But the thing is that Trump did not just commit himself to a stronger border – he promised to build an actual wall. And the thousands who chanted ‘Build the wall, Build the wall’ at his rallies were not shouting for a metaphor.
Does it matter anymore?
In the old politics, failure to build an actual wall (or prosecute Hilary Clinton, or deport all illegal immigrants) would be a serious matter. But in a post-truth world, does this really matter anymore?
Similarly, I think of the retired couple at my church who said a key reason why they are voting for Brexit was because of the £350m a week which would be diverted to the NHS following a leave vote. But after winning the referendum leading members of the leave campaign soon distanced themselves from this claim.
Does the power of a message now matter more than its integrity?
‘What is truth?’
Of course, this is no new problem. Pontius Pilate, the 1st century Roman governor of Palestine, knew that Jesus of Nazareth had done nothing worthy of execution. And yet, political pressure meant he felt he had to sent him to his death.
When questioned by Pilate, Jesus puts truth at the heart of his mission and purpose:
‘ “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” Pilate replied.’
Pilate’s reply is no abstract philosophical question. It speaks to the heart of the relationship between truth and power. What does ‘truth’ even mean when Pilate had the ultimate power to kill or pardon whoever he chose?
Truth and power
The relationship between truth and power is explored brilliantly by George Orwell in 1984. In this dystopian future, the concept of objective truth no longer exists. ‘Truth’ is simply whatever the all-powerful ruling Party dictates it to be:
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Orwell’s vision is a terrifying warning about what happens when lies and deceit end up in total control of a society and a political system. “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
This is why everyone of us needs to reject the cynicism of post-truth culture. A commitment to objective truth is vital for the health of our society. We must fight to keep key institutions – Parliament, courts, police and media – as free from corruption as possible.
Last year I had to spend 4 days in court because I had been accused of something which was wholly false and without foundation. I was completely exonerated – but I was so grateful that the UK has a system which enabled a fair hearing. As my lawyer said to me and all the witnesses: ‘You have one job: to tell the truth.’
It’s a job we all have. We can be all be committed, whether at work, with our friends and family or on social media to be more committed to telling the truth and standing up for what we think.
We should speak with grace and care, but we should not be afraid to disagree with people or say uncomfortable things. All organisations, workplaces and churches benefit from those who are willing to challenge the comfortable collusion that so easily develops in groups of people.
We need to reject the cynicism of post-truth culture. On both institutional and personal levels, reality is liberating. Lies and deceit imprison, the truth really does set us free.