The surprising origins of ‘post-truth’ – and how it was spawned by the liberal left
“Post-truth” has been announced as the Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of the year. It is widely associated with US president-elect Donald Trump’s extravagantly untruthful assertions and the working-class people who voted for him nonetheless.
But responsibility for the “post-truth” era lies with the middle-class professionals who prepared the runway for its recent take-off.
Those responsible include academics, journalists, “creatives” and financial traders; even the centre-left politicians who have now been hit hard by the rise of the anti-factual.
On November 16 2016 Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” had been selected as the word which, more than any other, reflects “the passing year in language”. It defines“post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
The word itself can be traced back as far as 1992, but documented usage increased by 2 000% in 2016 compared to 2015. As Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl explained:
We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.
Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.
Punditry on the “post-truth era” is often accompanied by a picture either of Donald Trump (for example, BBC News Online or The Guardian) or of his supporters (The Spectator). Although The Spectator article was a rare exception, the connotations embedded in “post-truth” commentary are normally as follows: “post-truth” is the product of populism; it is the bastard child of common-touch charlatans and a rabble ripe for arousal; it is often in blatant disregard of the actualité.
The truth about post-truth
But this interpretation blatantly disregards the actual origins of “post-truth”. These lie neither with those deemed under-educated nor with their new-found champions. Instead, the groundbreaking work on “post-truth” was performed by academics, with further contributions from an extensive roster of middle-class professionals. Left-leaning, self-confessed liberals, they sought freedom from state-sponsored truth; instead, they built a new form of cognitive confinement – “post-truth”.
More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the “grand narratives” which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth”, which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths” – always plural, frequently personalised, inevitably relativised.
Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth. This was one of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era.
And these attitudes soon spread across wider society. By the mid-1990s, journalists were following academics in rejecting “objectivity” as nothing more than a professional ritual. Old-school hacks who continued to adhere to objectivity as their organising principle were scolded for cheating the public and deceiving themselves in equal measure.
Nor was this shift confined to the minority who embraced war reporter Martin Bell’s infamous “ journalism of attachment ”, which supported the idea that journalists should respond personally to events. Under the flag of pragmatism, the professional consensus allowed for a lower-case version of truth broadly equivalent to academic relativism – which nonetheless dissociated professional journalism from the allegedly anachronistic quest for the one true truth, as in Ivor Gaber’s Three Cheers For Subjectivity: Or The Crumbling Of The Seven Pillars Of Journalistic Wisdom . But this shift meant that journalists were already moving towards a “post-truth” age.
Meanwhile, in the ‘creative’ economy …
In the second half of the 1990s, branding comprised the core business of the newly categorised “ creative industries ”. Bright young things generated fast-growing revenues by creating a magical system of mythical thinking known in shorthand as “the brand”.
Branding came to be seen as far more important than the mundane activity of product design, development and manufacture. In Britain, as the latter went into decline , the simultaneous expansion of City-type activities meant that the national economy was reconfigured around whatever the next person was prepared to believe in, which is as close as financial markets ever get to the truth. In Western economies, this system of managed perceptions and permanent PR – promotional culture as a whole way of life – has now largely replaced the incontrovertible facts of large-scale manufacturing.
Throughout the second half of the 1990s and into the new century, there was optimistic talk of a “ new economy ”, driven by the expansion of technology and the internet. It was seemingly based on a whole generation of “symbolic analysts” – Robert Reich’s term for “ the workers who make up the creative and knowledge economies ” – happily living on thin air .
Even then, there were concerns that the associated media sector was a living example of the Emperor’s New Clothes, as illustrated by television’s “self-facilitating media node”, Nathan Barley. But it is now clear that in moving inexorably towards free-floating, barely verifiable “intangibles” (a buzzword of the time), the millennial hybrid of creative and financial services was also a stepping stone to “post-truth”.
But the political realm experienced parallel developments, too, and they were similarly aligned to the trend towards “post-truth”. In the US, Bill Clinton initiated the transformation of politics into “showbiz for uglies” – a show of inclusivity performed in a series of shared national experiences. In the UK this was exemplified in Tony Blair’s role at the forefront of public reaction to the death of Princess Diana. The extent to which such phenomena are best understood as myth rather than reality, has been well illustrated in the recent film HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis.
By the turn of the century, government was already less about the “truth” than about how “truths” could be spun. So-called “ spin doctors ” took centre stage; it was government by PR – and the Iraq War was a prime example . Facts, apparently, took a back seat.
Meanwhile, the art of government was also being dumbed down into “evidence-based” managerialism – the largely exclusive process with which “Washington insider” Hillary Clinton has been unfavourably associated.
As further practised by Tony Blair, during his stint as UK prime minister, outgoing US president, Barack Obama, and their respective administrations, the subdivision of politics into (a) cultural experience and (b) management, has made a dual contribution to the social construction of “post-truth”.
As the protagonists neared the role of a priest or pop star in their near-mythical performances, so the Clinton-Blair-Obama triad has moved politics further away from truth and closer to the realm of the imagination. Meanwhile, in the hands of managerialists what was left of the truth – “the evidence base” – was soon recognised by the wider population as a tool for use in social engineering, and largely discredited as a result – hence the mounting hostility towards experts, on which Brexiteer Michael Gove sought to capitalise in the run-up to the EU referendum.
On both counts, prominent representatives of the centre-left prepared the ground for the post-politics of “post-truth”. The irony is that some of their closest relatives have been the first casualties of its further realisation.
“Post-truth” is the latest step in a logic long established in the history of ideas, and previously expressed in the cultural turn led by middle-class professionals. Instead of blaming populism for enacting what we set in motion, it would be better to acknowledge our own shameful part in it.