I first saw the phrase “post-truth” appear during our recent election cycle and since then it seems to have gained a lot of popularity, becoming a sort of short-hand for the global socio-econo-political bubble that, right or left, we all sense is about to burst on us. News outlets on both the right and left have reported on and contextualized for themselves the status awarded to the phrase: “2016’s international word of the year” by Oxford Dictionaries. I have heard it said that post-truth is the intellectual successor to post-modernism.
Theoretically this phrase describes a political phenomenon in which appeals to emotion trump, forgive the pun, verifiable facts, evidence, data, statistics, logic, and so on. In practice “post-truth” seems to be something more like a stick to beat an opponent with that with every blow further implies that they have no regard for the truth, they’ve bought into fallacious nonsense, they’d rather bury their head in the sand than face facts, and most importantly that the user of the phrase, we, have or at the very least have regard for, the truth. If we’re unwilling to admit that this makes us feel superior, we must at least admit that it provides for us a very convenient trump (so difficult to use this word unironically) card to the debate.
People politically right of center love the phrase because it represents so perfectly their criticism of one of the hallmarks of liberal post-modernism: the idea that there is no Truth, there are only truths. Having decried relativism for so long, the notion of post-truth is for these people proof positive that without absolute truth, everything unravels into chaos. Those left of center, on the other hand, adopt the phrase because it embodies for them the present surge of anti-intellectual populism that has created real political chaos in major countries of the world, the obvious examples being Brexit and the 2016 US Election. Likewise they fear that unchecked populism will revive the oppression of women and minorities and infect the coming elections of France, Germany, Australia, and others, inviting a global nationalist confrontation.
At least we can all agree on one thing: truth just ain’t what it used to be.
We have two functioning uses for the phrase “post-truth”: one refers to a political tactic, the other (bastardized) version refers to a general disregard for truth. From here I address the second. It must be said that this “post-truth” ideology is not the intellectual successor to post-modernism for it is, at least in some sense, post-modernism.
Conservatives are not so wrong to criticize post-truth in this respect: when there are multiple or contradictory “truths,” there is no truth. The problem is that this criticism alone, without a solution proffered, is profoundly reductive and divisive: if truth were so simple there would be no disagreement, yet people all over the world are in constant disagreement about what “truth” is. If we were to take conservatives at their word for this, they would have us directly adopt conservative ideology as the truth. This doesn’t acknowledge the obvious fact that everyone believes that they have truth, many of whom believe this with intense conviction. In this respect liberals are not wrong to counter that the best available solution is to acknowledge that “truth” means something different for different people and that we all have a basic human right to be self-determined in our pursuit of truth and to be treated with respect regardless of where that journey takes us.
Post-modernism has its roots, obviously, in modernism. The modernism of the late 19th and early 20th century was a time for the discovery of hidden forces: the accidental discovery of invisible X-Rays in 1895 by William Roentgen, that lead to the discovery of the invisible force of radiation, was ominous portension of the coming half-century and an apt metaphor for the developments in thought of the period. The ideas of Masters of Suspicion Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx revealed previously unexamined forces like radiation to Roentgen, such as the subconscious and “means of production” at work in social, economic, political, religious, and personal life.
One profound lesson from the Masters of Suspicion transcends the rest and resonates to us through history. It is this: that at any time, we may be wrong about everything. The inability to detect radiation doesn’t make it any less powerful; the subconscious mind influences the conscious mind whether or not we know it is there; the powerless may be oppressed irrespective of our understanding of the dynamics of power. The moment we believe we are the most certain of the nature of the cosmos, of humanity, of ourselves, is the moment that we may be the most wrong. The lesson of modernism is that we must be vigilant in humility and self-reflection, accepting of the possibility of being wrong, and open to new ways of seeing the world.
Post-modernism is an extension of modernist suspicion. A good alternative name might be Radical Suspicionism. As millennials, the cosmic star children of post-modernism, my generation senses constantly that behind everything we could ever possibly know there is an explanation. Everything exists for a reason, that reason can be described, measured, evaluated, and ultimately debunked, revealing yet another reason behind it that itself requires debunking.
In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis addresses the phenomenon this way:
But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? … a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
The intellectual successor to post-modernism cannot be post-truth, because post-truth doesn’t address the real issue at stake. Post-truth is something else in disguise: the arrogance and self-deception of believing that one possesses the truth and that the other person does not only fail to grasp the truth but that they despise the truth. The real successor to post-modernism must blend real, absolute truth, the conservative exposition of the problem, with the liberal empathy for disagreement, the insight that everyone believes with equal conviction that they believe the truth and that to force one’s ‘truth’ on others is an act of oppression.
The solution is a kind of “empathetic absolutism.” It’s an upside-down form of argument in which I acknowledge that an absolute truth might be out there, but I have no right to claim that I have it any more than you do. The right to argue with a person over their beliefs, even refute them if need be, is a privilege that I earn by developing my empathetic muscle for that person. The more I invest in connecting with a person, the richer and deeper I seek to make my understanding for who and what they are, and the more I earn the right to speak with them about whether their beliefs are right and wrong.
Because you see, as you come to understand where people come from, what they have faced, and how they have lived, you come to understand how a person could believe what they believe, think what they think, and feel what they feel. As I begin to put those pieces together, that process challenges and informs my own beliefs, and drives me closer to an absolute version of truth that takes both of our experiences into account. Imagine the sheer breadth of social, economic, and politic understanding to be had from investing in a single person this way, then two, four, a hundred, a thousand.
When we portray Jesus keeping company with sinners, I think we often subconsciously think of it as a streak of benevolent arrogance in God that led him to grace lowly sinners with his divine presence. In reality I think it was something much more like this. It’s no wonder that he despised the self-righteousness Jewish leaders: they were so busy enforcing right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and crowing about the ‘truth’ they were guarding, that they passed right over the invisible force of real love that Jesus found in common people.
The empathetic but absolute Jesus is a surprising glimmer of hope in a dark age: 2,000 years of philosophy, having stripped away everything we could think we possibly know about anything, has not left us completely stranded. Far from it. It has led us to the heart of the Gospel.
Cover art is “La Trahison Des Images [The Treachery of Images]”(1929) by the famous Belgian surrealist René Magritte. As of this writing it is owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) though not currently on display.