So ‘post-truth’ officially became a thing. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, somewhat euphemistically 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.
Or as the Guardian presciently had it, back in May 2016: In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king. The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper. And those pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world.
I think it’s fair to say that all this post-truth stuff has downgraded our public discourse to the status of a bunch of shouty drunks on the night bus, who just can’t be reasoned with, and – whatever your vote, in whatever campaign, and whatever your reasons – we all deserve better than this.
I see it as not as ‘post-truth’ but post-trust.
But let’s remember that most things in culture go in cycles. Fashion does. Politics does. Values change and evolve, and then they change and evolve again.
So I’m coming to think – and hope – that we should instead think of ourselves of being, temporarily in a pre-truth period; the trough of a wave that will soon begin to rise again.
I’d like to think that the cycle will turn, and people will start to embrace again the idea that there are indeed such things as experts and facts. That evidence does matter. That not everything is an opinion. That not all sources are equal. That accountability is actually a good thing. That you actually can’t have your cake and eat it.
Indeed, our social media types are already thinking aloud about the unintended consequences of allowing filters, curation, algorithms, fake news and so on to co-create echo chambers, absent all debate.
If they sense that’s a problem, so should everyone.
I suspect there will be many people out there who will recognise some time down the line that they’ve been used and manipulated, and they won’t be happy.
And as a consequence, in a few years’ time I’d like to think we will be living in a post-post-truth age.
(But watch out – because on the principle of cultural cycles, it could also be a pre-post-truth age all over again…)
Anyway, perhaps we’ll learn from all this. Perhaps – with people facing an overload of complexity – we might even introduce things like mandatory critical thinking courses into our schools. And it might even be that in a few years’ time, the events of 2016-17 could actually form a useful and entertaining part of such a syllabus.
Imagine a bunch of eight-year-olds comparing and contrasting the campaign messages, checking out the sources. Imagine them deconstructing the words of the candidates and campaigners. Imagine them scoffing at the endless repetition of simplistic cake-and-eat-it slogans.
Then imagine their eyes widening as they turn to their teacher and ask: ‘they didn’t really say that, did they, Miss? But it isn’t true…’