Post-Truth and Post-Facts

Recently, following the Brexit win in the United Kingdom referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, it is frequently being said that we are living in the age of post-truth or post-fact politics. What most people understand by these terms is that, in such cases, many lies are told, fake news is spread or manufactured and untrue claims are presented as facts, largely, through the social media. People are concerned because if the world and the voters are not properly informed, they get carried away and are manipulated, which results in irresponsible voting.

That is not the correct interpretation of the above terms. The prefix “post” before the words truth and fact means two things: Firstly, it is something that comes after truth or fact. Secondly, it is something that follows and also exceeds, abolishes and overlooks things as insignificant. Therefore, when we use the term post-truth or post-fact politics, when we say we are living in the age of post-truth or post-fact, it means that we set politics without being concerned about what is true or not, what is a fact or not. It means that we live and act without being bothered with this description of facts.

Defiance of truth is a much more serious problem than just lying. Trump’s team, the key Brexit players and even our own ruling party Syriza are not trying to channel something untrue through generally true claims, so as to purposely mislead or deceive. They and their supporters, who massively reproduced their claims, couldn’t care less as to what is true or not. They are not interested in finding out or checking anything whatsoever. The fact that they propagate the chosen message suffices. It is mainly chosen randomly, in a totally offhand manner, in order to achieve specific objectives such as the cultivation of hate and the increase of xenophobia, insecurity and rage. They are aiming at the recipient’s time and emotions, not their judgment. They reinforce and deploye stereotypes, while not informing or using arguments. They make a painting depicting images, which are directed to the public and take the form of a simplistic and digestible narrative.

How have we come to this? What has made things easier? I will not refer to the politics, but to those abstract conditions that contributed to shape politics in that way.

In 1979, Jean Francois Lyotards’ book “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” appeared in print. (The prefix “post” also appears in the title suggesting the condition that comes after the modern, while at the same time transcending and abolishing it.) However, long before 1979, but surely in the 1960s (not mentioning advances in architecture, which go even further back), in philosophy, history, literary theory and so on, perception – that is the objective and true representation of reality – was questioned. A presumptively scientific method, which supposedly safeguarded the truth, was called into question along with so-called grand narratives like Hegelianism, Marxism, etc., which were replaced by multiple unique and asymmetrical micro-narratives, namely narratives for which we do not have a yardstick to effectively and conclusively decide on what is true and what we can trust.

It has been claimed that we cannot be excluded from these narratives, so as to watch the world in a totally unbiased manner, from God’s perspective, in the light of eternity. We always see things from a spatial and temporal angle, always trapped in a particular viewpoint, which is shaped by language, knowledge, tradition and so on, not allowing us to become something external or neutral such as some bare facts that will decide the truth of each subnarrative. Friedrich Nietzsche had already claimed in the 1880s that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” He was a philosopher who emerged, probably being misinterpreted, as a hero of postmodernism. Therefore, we are swimming in an ocean of narratives and interpretations, without a compass, at the mercy of hegemonies exercising control and correlations of power.

In many respects, such criticism of the so-called Enlightenment thinking or of Modernism, which was a belief in objectivity, the truth and the absolute power of science, was well-founded and prolific. However, it has been used politically; a lot of young left-wing politicians were postmodernist, while the modernists and followers of scientism were considered right-wing and conservative, in broad terms, as leverage for an irresponsible attitude theoretically, academically, politically and sociably. It is an attitude that shows no interest, beyond reasonable criticism and defensible validity criteria, in seeking to discern between fact and fiction, to look into what is true or not. It is a stance that rests assured in sluggish ease amid general rejection, unaware and unconcerned with the consequences of “throwing the baby – the truth – out with the bath water”; hegemony disguised as impartiality.

The irony here is that during the Bush administration and much more so now with Trump, a number of scholars who had embraced postmodernism and despised the old-fashioned terms “truth” and “fact,” presumably scoffing at the authority of science, were forced to defend science and its truths against unscientific superstitions that call climate change or vaccines into question and which are advocates of intelligent design, in contrast to their past beliefs. The far-reaching consequences of indiscriminate, self-satisfied relativism, which suggests that anything goes, are currently coming out of the closet, sweeping away key distinctions and reference points. The age of post-truth and post-facts is a sea of opinions, some side by side with their opposite, some true, others false, some serious, others indiscriminately foolish, which inflate depending on the force of the opinions without concern for veracity. The promise of equality and democracy is replaced by noise and manipulation. It’s time we searched for and claimed veracity and responsibility, not only politically but also theoretically.

The author, Vasso Kindi, is assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Athens.

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