What is Post-Truth? And what is the Post-Truth Era?
Post-truth is a broad category of statements that are beyond (post) the realm of truth. Such statements happen all the time but it is only recently that post-truth has become commonplace, along with a whole bunch of untruths, dogma, and outright lies. The Post-Truth Era (aka now) is characterized by societal trends which have decoupled truth from reality. We could go into a whole lot of sociological detail about these conditions, but we’re discussing those later, first let’s examine what Post-Truth is before we go slapping on an “Era” to it.
We apologize for the overuse of the word “truth” in this essay, but there’s simply no way around it.
You might assume that because something is beyond truth, that it’s an untruth i.e. a lie. Not even close. While post-truth ain’t truth, it’s no lie. In order to lie, you must first know the truth, post-truth assumes no knowledge of the truth, hence the “beyond” part.
Is Post-Truth something between Truth and Lies?
Mayhaps post-truth is something that lives in the Twilight Zone? You know that place where truth and lies mix and mingle like a gaggle of over tanned cougars at a frat party? Sadly no, it’s not that easy. While P-T is more grey than black and white, it is not a twilight zone dweller. We already have categories to describe that. We call them Bullshit and Truthiness.
Bullshit is a mix of truth and fiction, spun by the speaker for a particular purpose. The speaker doesn’t care if he’s lying or truth-telling, the point isn’t to get the facts right, but to extrapolate from limited data to construct something “true enough” sounding. Bullshit is a kind of lazy lying, where the Bullshitter puts his motives and vanity above allegiance to the truth, but without seeking to outright lie.
Post-truth is different from Bullshit because the speaker assumes that if his bullshit doesn’t sound “true enough” the audience will call him on it. Hence the phrase “call him on his bullshit.” Conversely, Bullshit requires an audience who actually wants to call him out, to evaluate his claims. In Post-truth the speaker either doesn’t care if his argument sounds “true enough” or he simply doesn’t understand “true enough.” In his mind the crap he spews sound like gold, even if it is nonsense (ex. Sarah Palin) In addition, the Post-truth audience either doesn’t want to call someone on their bullshit or it lacks the capacity to evaluate said bullshit.
Truthiness is Bullshit’s obnoxiously religious cousin. While Bullshit spouts off nonsense to the girls at the club, Truthiness stays home reading abstinence guides. Just as Bullshit is lazy lying, Truthiness is a form of overwrought truth telling. Truthiness holds truth to be independent of facts, data, or any real world evidence. It rests its claims solely on an appeal to emotion; to what your gut intuition tells you. Secular dogma drives it and in fact you could argue that religious faith is also “truthy”. Truthy claims sound like this “I know that the Liberals are destroying America.” When asked how, the Truthy answer is always “I just know ok?”
While this also bears resemblance to Post-truth, Truthiness never let’s go of (goes beyond) the truth. Truthiness so loves “truth” that it uses emotion and faith to protect it from any potential threat. It’s like an obsessive ex partner who can’t get take pictures down from the mantel. While its convictions are objectively false Truthiness still clings to the idea of truth, something P-T abandoned years ago.
So what’s Post-Truth then you pedantic bastard?
The key to understanding P-T is that it abandons truth and the evaluation of truth claims. This is unique to all the previous categories. True/False Truthiness/Bullshit all are concerned with either possessing or covering up the truth. Further, they’re all directed at an audience who both desires and is capable of, evaluating those truth claims. As such Truth/Truthiness/Bullshit/Lies or TTBL exist on a linear continuum, like this:
Both Truth and its “truthy” cousin are more concerned with promoting what they perceive as authentic either through evidence and logic for Truth or conviction and faith for Truthiness. Both Bullshit and Lies are concerned with obfuscating that “truth” in order to achieve a goal or to cover something up. Despite their differences, each category still contains intentionality ie they “give a shit.” They’re all designed to service a particular need. Even Bullshit which can be just idle talk, serves to bolster the speaker’s perception amongst the audience. Meanwhile the liar, honest man, and Truthy man, more directly “give a shit.”
What makes post-truth different, is that P-T tellers don’t give a shit or don’t know how to give a shit. The questions “Are they telling the truth?” and “Do they believe they’re telling the truth?” determine whether statements are truth/lie/truthy/bullshit, but in post-truth those questions are irrelevant because the audience either doesn’t care or isn’t able to evaluate the statement, while he speaker either doesn’t care if his arguments can be disproven or isn’t capable of determining how “real” his arguments sound. These two situations, either not caring, or lacking evaluative capacity, correspond to two categories of P-T, Simple, and Complex.
You gotta be fucking kidding me; you’ve got Simple and Complex Post-Truth? Pedantic douchenozzle!
So what exactly are the differences between simple and complex? Well, simple post-truth is all about the “not giving a shit.” In simple post-truth the speaker doesn’t really know or care if his statements make any sense, and he doesn’t expect anyone to be paying any attention. The audience also doesn’t care, they’re barely paying attention. Even if they did hear something preposterous sounding, it would be quickly forgotten.
Simple P-T is difficult to notice, because by its nature, we’re not supposed to notice it and when we do, we’re supposed to forget/not care. Simple P-T becomes most visible when it breaks down, when some strange individual decides to care and starts questioning the nonsense. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona is a perfect example of this. Back in April of 2011, Senator Kyl claimed that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does” even though planned Parenthood devotes only about 3% of its resources to abortions.
At first glance we might call this lying or bullshit, and we might agree with you if it weren’t for a few things. First, the magnitude of the discrepancy (87%) is so damn big that any half intelligent man could sniff the deception. Senator Kyl is a professional politician and thus a well practiced professional in the arts of lying and deception. If he knew that people were actually watching it’s hard to think he would go with such a silly number. 90% sounds like a man who doesn’t give a shit, and why should he? Does anyone actually listen to these speeches? Rarely. Turn on Cspan and nine times of ten the Congresspeople are speaking for the record, to an empty room. Senator Kyl knows this as much as the next politico. He knows that endless speeches which no one listens to are part of the game and if no one’s listening why should he care to fact check? He was talking just to talk, playing his role in the performance art of Beltway politics.
This was made only more obvious when Kyl’s staff responded to his asinine comments:
His[Kyl's] remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.Emphasis added.
The bumbling incompetence of Kyl’s defense demonstrates just how much this incident caught him off guard. Instead of owning up and confessing, or doubling down on his crazy, he argued that he didn’t mean to say what he said, but what he was trying to say still rings true…kinda. It’s the kind of convoluted half logic of a man who’s not sure what the fuck he was saying in the first place. It was like he was sleep walking through the speech, only partially aware of the words flying out of his mouth.
As you can see, simple post-truth is a kind of act, a cheap spectacle where the audience watches just because and the speaker performs like he’s not performing at all. Its real life turned into reality television, where things look and feel authentic but where no one actually believes in their reality or the consequences of their actions in this “reality.” Senator Kyl’s reaction follows this pattern exactly. He may have had just said “Oh shit! That whole speech thing was real? I thought we were just playing around like always?”
Going further, we can deduce that simple post-truth is not just an act, but an unconscious act; a product of an age where obfuscation, deception and outright lies are so common place, and critical thinking so rare, that it becomes ingrained habit, a case of epistemological Tourrettes. We’ve become so accustomed to giving the gray areas between truth and lies legitimacy, that all knowledge claims often sound the same. That’s what is most dangerous about simple P-T, it signifies that we have given up, that forms of untruth have become so ubiquitous that their use is no longer questioned in any serious way. Instead of truth, we seek “balance of views” instead of right and wrong we “agree to disagree.”
Complex Post-Truth, not all that complex.
So now that we’ve got the first kind of P-T down it’s time to work on Complex P-T. Complex doesn’t equal “difficult to understand” it only notes that simple has but one flavor, while complex offers 101 flavors of unique delusion.
Before we move on let’s update that chart from the beginning.
As we can see simple P-T doesn’t have a variable continuum like truth/truthiness/bullshit/lies. Rather it exists above the continuum with its single “don’t give a shit” flavor.
Now what make complex distinct from simple? Complex post-truth is different because it actually gives a shit. In fact, it is very concerned with truth/lies and evaluating those claims, but it remains post-truth because despite the intention neither the speaker nor the audience is capable of objectively evaluating said claims. Like a monkey performing high order calculus, they can only scratch heads in confusion and look for berries. As a result the questions “Are they lying?” and “Do they believe what they’re saying?” remain just as irrelevant as before. The monkey might have a sincere opinion about division by zero, but said opinions remain worthless.
Because complex post-truthers fall into a truth/lies continuum similar to the real one, a sort of mirror plane if you will. However, this mirror plane is a broken mirror, as claims to truth or accusations of deception are all processed within a warped frame of reference. Those involved in complex post-truth are so deluded that the truth appears to them as a lie. Basic foundational facts of various subjects are turned on their heads and hostile facts are twisted to support their deluded worldview. In fact, challenged enough times these people will actually use the facts that disprove their argument to strengthen their belief in their twisted evaluations. We see this in apocalyptic sects for example, where the failure of apocalypse is not seen as refutation, but as further confirmation, evidence that God/Satan/Aliens/genitivally mutated badgers have decided to give the world another chance. But it goes deeper than this.
Complex post-truth isn’t merely about faith overriding reason. As the subsequent example will demonstrate, faith often works in concert with reason to produce this post-truth. For example, several weeks ago my friend (let’s call him Patrick) and I were arguing with his neighbors (let’s call them Jim and Gia) about gender roles and gender assignment. Jim and Gia argued that “Boys are boys and girls are girls” and that there was nothing in between and all physical evidence backed them up. Transgendered people were therefore just deluded and weren’t caught in the body of the wrong gender.
My friend Patrick pointed out that even if you throw out transgender, there are legions of intersex people. These intersex persons are neither male nor female, both in mind and body. Jim and Gia didn’t believe Patrick and demanded proof. Patrick took out his iPhone, and brought up the Wikipedia entry on Intersex. Jim and Gia claimed that “Wikipedia doesn’t count,” so Patrick brought up Intersex on web medical databases. This provision of ostensibly irrefutable facts enraged the couple, and sent them off on a rant about how, it “doesn’t matter what your sources say because our source is the Bible and the bible if God’s word. God’s word trumps secular study.” We retorted “But the evidence is right there.” They responded that “our evidence” was there, but that the evidence of God superseded “secular science.”
That exchange sounds similar to Truthiness, but there’s a crucial difference. Truthiness appeals to emotion and emotion only. Jim and Gia were by contrast almost dispassionate in their argument, confident in their internal logic. And that’s what it was, the logic of complex post-truth. They were objectively wrong, but from within their twisted paradigm it made perfect sense. The Bible is the irrefutable word of God and so it logically follows that anything which contradicts it must be wrong or at least of suspect value.
But complex post-truth isn’t confined to matters of religious dogma. In a sense, that first example is only part post-truth instead, a blend of regular, humdrum blind faith, and modern day rationalism. Post-truth is more pernicious and just plain weird when it’s couched in terms of objectivity and reason. At least in the above case we can point out the folly of faith, but in the case of post-reason, the practitioner meets reasonable arguments with “reasonable” counterarguments of his own.
A recent example can be found in this claim that “Carter and Clinton’s Community Reinvestment Act caused the financial crises because it forced banks to take on affirmative action loans they couldn’t afford.” That claim looks and feels reasonable, but is actually 100% false. First, Clinton never passed a “Community Reinvestment Act” it was passed in 1977. Clinton changed the regulations a bit. Second, while Clinton’s change did usher in CRA loan securitzation, Mortgage backed securities or MBS have trading since Solomon Brothers started it in the 80s. Further, as economist after economist has said, the biggest subprime lenders were startups with no CRA regulation. Only 6% of all subprime loans were eligible for CRA subsidies. Further, the subprime boom was only possible via Wall Street securitization, without legions of willing investors salivating over mortgage bonds lenders would never have made the loans in the first place. Then of course there was the fraud, ratings agencies corruption, credit default swaps, and overleveraging. Fact is, there’s just no solid evidence to back this claim.
Regardless many of those living in the Tea Party universe hold to this imaginary history. And while we’re sure that some of them started this bullshit claim for cynical, selfish reasons, it’s been taken up by plumbers and nurses and small businessmen for selfless reasons. These people sincerely believe that “big govment” made the banks ruin the economy. Why else would they spout views so opposed to their own economic interests? That said, while delusion does tend to follow the Right more than the Left, the Left has plenty of strange and exotic post-truths as well. Take a gander at Andrea Dworkin. If that’s not your bag, take a gander at “Humanitarian Intervention” one of the most logically inconsistent foreign policy doctrines. During the Arab Spring the US either nervously ignored it (Egypt) until things were beyond the pale, or allowed it’s allies to massacre the opposition in order to safeguard American interests (Bahrain). Yet liberal interventionists offer terribly “reasoned” support for the “defense of human rights” in Libya, the only country offering cheap oil and a weak anti-western tyrant to dispose of. That’s not to comment on the morality of the intervention itself, but clearly any doctrine that’s so spottily applied, yet so ardently supported reeks of delusion.
This is how complex P-T works, it goes beyond the truth by taking on it’s form and its rituals but jettisoning the content. A university professor can argue in a that attacking Libya while letting the Saudis massacre Bahrainis logically consistent. A tea part “patriot” can argue that regulated loans to worthy borrowers in black and brown neighborhoods caused the crisis while their own ex-urban hellholes explode in a subprime meltdown. These people all believe that they’re not only telling the truth, but that they have evidence and reason on their side. And no matter how many times you debunk their evidence or provide counter factual examples, many of them will never relinquish their hold on “their” truth because it sounds right to them, and they “know” that new evidence will arise to vindicate them. In psychology we call this Confirmation Bias, but this is no simple case of bias, this is full blown complex hallucination.
So, if we take a look at the full “truth continuum” it would look something like this
Simple and Complex Post-Truth have a nasty love child named the Post-Truth Era.
We’ve got the definition of post-truth down now, but we haven’t fully developed what a Post-Truth Era is. Simply put, the Post Truth Era is this era, right now. It is a point in history where P-T in all shades proliferates like a fungus growing on the body politic, expanding only now because of newly generated favorable conditions. These conditions are many, but we can group them into three broad categories, information ubiquity, hyper commoditization and the Big Sort.
Information ubiquity describes our current state of total info immersion, where all knowledge can be stored easily and accessibly in electronic form. Because of the explosion of information carrying capacity, modern people are inundated with a flood of facts, ideas, images etc. every day, all day. The info-load is so great that we are unable to sift through it all. The sheer volume forces us to turn off our credulity and just let it flow over us.
Certain people choose to keep that “credulity switch” off. They choose to ignore most of the information, letting truth/lies and everything in between fly by without comment. It becomes background noise. These are the people who respond with “I don’t know much about that” to any conversation outside of humdrum life. We all know them and we’re all friends with at least one. And we should perhaps envy their simple, relatively carefree existence. Nevertheless, that existence starts the cycle of simple post-truth. As that audience ignores more and more of what goes into the infosphere, information providers (the speakers) lose incentive and desire to put effort into their claims (like Senator Kyl). Thus with no one really listening, no one’s really talking.
Conversely, other people choose to turn the “credulity switch” on, but because of the flood of information they are faced with a choice, info slice A or B? Some people choose a diverse spread of slices, giving them a diverse array of information, making them more capable of reasoned thought. However, other people exclusively consume one or two kinds of information. Typically they’re the ones caught up in complex post-truths. These people are epistemologically closed and build up an internal logic that is alien to objective reality and resistant to “hostile facts.” Information providers are either participants in this mass delusion, or cynical hucksters looking for an edge against the more logically inclined.
Hyper Commoditization is a condition under late capitalism (now) where everything and anything can be commoditized and sold on the market. We can see easily today. Water is sold like soda pop. Billion dollar companies help you make digital friends. Rumors are started and destroyed by “reputation management” firms. Trillions of dollars change hand every year on derivative markets where investors trade aspects of assets rather than the assets themselves and billions more are invested in the weather and other ephemeral concepts.
Moreover, hyper commoditization not only seeks to monetize everything, but it subjugates all traditions, values and identities and drafts them into the service of capitalism. For example, instead of Journalists looking to report facts and investigate possible corruption, market forces encourage news services to cut expensive investigation and focus on profitable “infotainment.” Even public television, a medium supposedly immune from profit motive, relies heavily corporate underwriting. Education is also subordinated to market forces, shifting its focus from nonprofits educating whole persons so that they can be moral and free thinking citizens, to for profits, training prospective employees in various vocations and nothing more. In general, this puts profit before people, leading to cuts in social spending and increases in overall inequality, forcing the populace to work harder and longer for the same pay.
These factors all encourage post-truth.
A society where education puts emphasis on rote test taking and narrow vocational skills, is not putting emphasis on general knowledge and critical thinking. Thus people are less capable of evaluating information. A society where journalism and scientific study are tainted by profits is a society where “reliable sources” are few and far between. A society that is devilishly unequal and focused singularly on financial gain is a society of individuals exhausted by work and soothed by Horatio Alger fantasies.
The Big Sort
The Big Sort is a product of info ubiquity and commoditization much like post-truth. It is also P-T’s greatest booster.
As identify and tradition become consumption choices rather than an expression of community people start to construct their identity proactively, with liberals moving to liberals towns and conservatives moving to right wing ex-urbs. Atheists moving to northeast while evangelicals go south. Sociologists and writers Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing were some of the first to catalog this phenomena, claiming that more and more Americans were clustering in “like minded communities.”
This clustering enables epistemic closure, which is a fancy way of saying “everybody thinks the same.” In the Big Sort people who previously might have stayed in their town, are now moving to areas where other people share their values. Thus towns and states polarize along neo-tribal lines. This creates fertile ground for post-truth because it habitualizes people to an intellectual monoculture. Anything outside that paradigm is considered shocking if not offensive. For example, the phrases like “goddamn feminists” and “I love abortions” are either applauded or derided according to which community you place them in
A summary of all the crap we just talked about aka the conclusion
So there ya have it. Post-truth is not a modern phenomena, but it’s popularity is a thoroughly modern event. Unlike truth lies bullshit or truthiness, post-truth lives beyond truth. The traditional questions “Are they lying?” and “Do they believe what they’re saying?” are irrelevant to post-truth because the audience and speaker don’t know and don’t care, or the speaker and the audience lack the capacity to answer the questions. Post-truth itself falls into two broad categories, with simple post-truth as a quasi unconscious act where speakers and listeners talk without consequences. Meanwhile complex post-truth inhabits an inverted world where internal logic exists independent of exterior objective reality. Through a combination of information overload, over zealous market forces and self conscious population sorting, post-truth has transitioned from occasional occurrence to a widespread and largely unquestioned social phenomenon.
Now, will this Post-Truth Era persist or will it end someday? That’s a question we’re unable to answer right now. We remain cautiously optimistic that reason and logic will prevail. If not, there’s always suicide.