Can We Afford to be Post-Truth?

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking • For December 31 weekender, 2016

Can We Afford to be Post-Truth?

David W. Hegg

Each year the Oxford Dictionary chooses a “Word of the Year” for purposes of pointing out some trend in the English-speaking world. This year, after much discussion, debate, and research this bastion of English language usage has chosen “post-truth.” Defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, post-truth reflects the post-modern movement away from propositional truth as either relevant or necessary. 

It has long been realized, in our post-modern world, that there no longer remains any negative stigma associated with telling bold-faced lies, or attempting to nuance the truth by holding competing truth claims at the same time. Increasingly, saying one thing while meaning another, or finding ways to hold both sides of an issue at the same time are seen as enlightened.

Perhaps the post-truth ethos first came into the public realm with Richard Nixon’s lies and Bill Clinton’s famous denial of intimacy with Monica Lewinski. We all remember their careful use of post-truth interpretive artistry.

But what is increasingly apparent is our willingness to accept statements that obscure the truth by absurdly suggesting one can hold opposites as true.

For example, I remember a governor stating categorically he thought abortion was morally wrong, but still insisted he would fight to keep it legal so everyone could make up their own minds. And more recently, I heard scores of otherwise intelligent people state “I’m not voting for her; I’m voting against him” as though “against him” was on the ballot. And then there’s the ever popular “I’m all for keeping the law, except when fudging a bit can save me on my taxes. After all, everyone does it.”

I could list many more statements in which personal sentiment has so changed the foundational aspects of truth as to evaporate its essential components and leave us to wallow in the slough of what some call truthiness. Truthiness relates to how a statement makes you feel. If statements that replace truth with absurdity make you feel good, or support the position you want to hold, truthiness is all you need. After all, our society takes it for granted that truth is relative telling us you can have your truth, and I’ll have mine.

But can we afford to slide down this very slippery slope? The history of our country, indeed of humanity itself, is grounded in truth. The reason we have museums and archives protecting and preserving historical documents is because we believe truth and the words that preserve it are the very anchors of our democracy.

But, if the idea of propositional truth can be fundamentally deconstructed and even replaced by the absurdity of post-truth sentimentality, our society will find itself shipwrecked on the rocks of absolute chaos.

The philosopher Ravi Zacharias lamented the sea-change in our society’s opinions on truth this way, in commenting on the Oxford Dictionary’s choice: “Their explanation is not so much that they are coining a new word as that they are affirming a new reality – a truth about the way we coddle the lie, the ultimate self-defeating statement.”

The Oxford Dictionary’s recognition of how far we have wandered from the path of truth constitutes a dramatic moment in our history. It uncovers the truth about truth, and ought to send shock waves through every person, family, neighborhood, city, and state in our fair land.

But it won’t, simply because it is so true. Faced with the inconvenient fact that we are fast becoming a people who prefer absurdity and truthiness to the real deal, we’ll almost certainly opt to disregard this truth that charges us with disregarding the very thing that makes life meaningful. And that’s no lie.