The Post-Truth Age: A New Myth

Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s candidate in the 1952 presidential election, humorously said in a campaign speech: “I offered my opponents (the Republicans) a deal: if they stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them.

Political lying was well and hardy in 1952, as it had been over 400 years previously when Jonathan Swift published “The Art of Political Lying” in an effort to expose some of the lies in political campaigns in English politics of the time.

In his famous book, Swift writes, “I have been sometimes thinking, if a man had the art of second sight for seeing lies …how admirably he might entertain himself in this town (London), by observing the different shapes, sizes, and colours of those swarms of lies which buzz about the heads of some people like flies about a horse’s ears in summer”.

But was it any different in the years between? Were the Victorian politicians in Britain susceptible to political lying, for example? Well, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), seems to have had a rather poor opinion of their veracity, saying they were not good liars: they merely misrepresented the truth”.

Ronald Reagan, in the modern era, usually considered one of the most upright of US presidents, is tainted with what many describe as Reagan’s fib, when he maintained that he knew nothing about his administration trading weapons with Iran in an effort to secure the release of hostages and to fund the efforts of rebels in Nicaragua. Many writers cite the Reagan case as an example of post-truth politics. So, are we in this era any worse than previous generations?

“In this present era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire”, says the Oxford Dictionary about this ‘post truth age’; a term whose use increased in the media by over 2,000% in 2016. Another closely connected word that became popular a decade ago is ‘truthiness’.

A great example of this post truth age was one of the many claims put forward by Brexit supporters in the referendum debate that £350 million a week (some 42 billion annually) saved from the UK contribution to the EU would go directly into the National Health Service instead. So the UK would have a better health service if it were outside the EU.

This claim was immediately demolished by the British government of that time. It was a highly dubious claim by the Brexiteers and was never heard of again once they won the referendum. Are such statements intentional lies meant to misrepresent reality? Even if they are, does it really matter?

Is the post truth age is a new phenomenon?

There is an Orwellian euphemism, “diversity of perspectives”, which really implies that less than truthful information is as valid as truthful information. So perhaps the ‘post truth age’ is not a new phenomenon? But even if we accept the Orwellian euphemism, we are still left with the question of why mostly well educated and often mannerly men and women in politics tend to lie at times?

According to Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts, lying begins in our early life where we learn to avoid difficulties and embarrassing moments. Feldman writes, “We’re really trained to be deceptive. If we’re not, if we’re totally truthful all the time that’s not a good thing, there’s a price to be paid for that. We don’t like people who tell us the truth all the time.” Regardless of the ethical implications of lying, society rewards people for ‘white lies’, according to Feldman.

Of course, Feldman is writing about ‘white lies’, and not about lies that are premeditated with intention to deceive; but nevertheless, the foundations are laid for a future when life becomes more competitive and less certain; avoiding telling the truth can be practical, at least in the short run. From there it’s only a small leap to what politicians and top management do. The politics of governance, whether in the political world or in business, is the apex of competitiveness, where parties and people vie with each other for power.

Democratic elections are a highly competitive business. Does the democratic system encourage its players to lie when making difficult manoeuvres? Certainly, gaining power and keeping it is upmost in a democracy where there is often a need to outmanoeuvre and disorient opponents. Politicians often have quite sanguine and flexible personalities that allow them to live with this uncertainty and to be evasive when needed.

According to one commentator, The higher you ascend up the hierarchy, the more political the environment becomes”. Here we are juggling our own personal ambitions with the public interest and powerful pressure groups and individuals. Surviving and prospering honestly is a difficult manoeuvre in this competitive environment while maintaining a clear conscience. This calls for a flexibility of character that is not suitable for everyone.

Perhaps we should take the advice of Thomas More to solve our dilemma, “You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds….What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.” Probably this term ‘post truth age’ is a myth created by the media!