By John Tompkins
We live with truth all around us and yet some people readily embrace lies. Everywhere you turn among the academics and pundits, we constantly are fed a stream of rhetoric about how we live in a “post-truth” world. Somehow, as the narrative goes, we have given up on the notion that words can mirror reality.
There have been many (many, many, many) attempts to define what “post-truth” actually is. Some simply describe it as the new era where truth just doesn’t matter or that people can spread lies without being called to task. I think, however, it’s more nuanced than that.
Most of us do care about truth. It is veracity of supporting facts that some people have abandoned. Adherents to either side of the political spectrum will often point to biased sources of information (whether it’s Fox News, MSNBC or various Facebook pages) and use them to support what they feel is the truth. A study released in June, for example, reported that only one in four Americans surveyed could differentiate between a fact or an opinion.
There is a term used in propositional logic called “truth value.” I think this term is important because it points to the root of what’s wrong today in our discourse, whether it’s a “debate” among pundits on a cable show, arguments with online outrage warriors or a spirited conversation with relatives. When we have an opinion about a particular topic, we try to bolster that opinion with what we believe are facts. Once we point to these facts, we like to think that our opinion is somehow elevated to being correct. Without verifying those facts underpinning our viewpoint, one can find themselves defending a defenseless position.
When some conservatives say 3 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election, it’s immaterial that they don’t have the evidence to prove it. What they say is that illegal immigrants are to blame for Donald Trump’s losing the popular vote. But what’s peculiar about the statement is how it is framed: they don’t state their core sentiment, what’s behind their words. They are coating how they truly feel in a euphemism that lacks a truth value but carries the sound of truth for people who want to believe it.
This tactic is used in politics all across the spectrum. Some progressives argue against the use of vaccines, citing a now widely-discredited study. Despite the study being retracted, and its author, “Dr.” Andrew Wakefield, losing his medical license, those adamantly opposed to mandatory vaccines will then point to other studies from biased sources to support their claims. The same strategy is also used in debates about genetically modified organisms (despite a mountain of scientific evidence that they’re safe).
If two people argue in good faith about their personal opinions they will almost always come to the conclusion to “agree to disagree.” But when arguing in bad faith, some people try to use information with a lack of a truth value to support what they want people to believe is a logical conclusion; however, they are really masking their opinion they are actually arguing for. By analogy, they are building a house on a weak foundation and then calling it a castle.
Why is this distinction important? Why not just say how you truly feel? If you are trying to convince people you are right, you need the appearance of having knowledge, not mere opinion, especially when those opinions have prejudicial roots. When someone makes a statement, the specter of truth is still important. The appearance of truth has an impact for those who might otherwise be on the fence on a particular issue.
This is where I feel the root of “post-truth” actually exists. Many people no longer take seriously the truth value of statements we express to support our beliefs, nor do many people realize the disjunct between statements we express and the underlying beliefs we hold.
Some might see this as hair-splitting. After all, why does it matter “how” something is false? It’s because the truth value of sentences matters when determining how people process new information. It’s harder to draw supporters to adopt a policy with “I can’t stand illegal immigrants” than if one says “illegal immigrants are taking our jobs.” People can “agree to disagree” on an opinion concerning one’s personal feeling about illegal immigrants; however, a controversial position presented as fact requires supporting information; that information must be (as far as we can best determine) correct. But if one doesn’t care to consider whether the supporting information is true, or how that information relates to the underlying opinions, then the statement becomes a tool of propaganda. When the truth value of expressions no longer has social merit, people who don’t consider themselves racists or anti-immigration will oftentimes find themselves in agreement with propaganda. They will end up supporting bigoted views even though they themselves are not bigots (or don’t consider themselves bigots anyway).
Here’s what makes that process easier: supporters won’t bother to fact check the supporting statement to begin with. And again, those who do check still find it difficult to know what is (as far as we can tell) true and what is mere opinion. People often reason by following heuristics; and are trusting of sources especially when they are presented with all the signifiers of authority.
This is more dangerous than if people simply expressed the beliefs that underly what they say. Thought soldiers will take up the banner of prejudice, pseudo-science, authoritarianism or worse, and still think they are right, while sharing with others specific terminology and turns of phrase that papers over what is really meant; instead, they believe they stand up for tolerance (think of so many people that say they desire that Nazis have “free speech”, but rarely, if ever, speak out in defense of the speech of the worst off), the best available scientific theories (flat-eartherism, anti-GMO or anti-global warming propaganda), and global justice (the talking-points about the internment of children being, for example, legitimated by the Bible). They’ll feel comfortable fighting for reactionary or unsupported values because every piece of rhetoric (rather than evidence) they encountered emotionally supported how they felt, not what they actually know. Furthermore, people that have failed to understand the disconnect between their underlying beliefs and the slogans they share will, naturally, unite with others who never cared about truth, people who were more geared towards winning an argument at all costs using whatever information (good or bad) that would win over the most converts.
Truth does still matter, but for some, it remains only an idol. The argumentative value of that idol is priceless for those peddling propaganda. And sometimes, especially today, a person convinced that a lie is actually true can be more effective than the person selling the lie.
John Tompkins (@certifiablejohn) is a writer and former journalist living in Texas. He is now a public relations professional in higher education.