Want to better understand ‘post-truth’ politics? Then study postmodernism

First published by the HuffPost on 21 November 2016.

This week the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) declared ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year. The OED 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.’ Importantly, the impact of the word post-truth on the English language has been laid bare by OED’s Oxford English Corpus, which analyses millions of words from the world wide web, academic journals and other forms of printed text. The Corpus found that the word’s use has grown by an estimated 2000% since last year. Moreover, the analysis pointed to the UK’s Brexit vote and the US elections as reasons for its surge in use.

Interestingly, the news media reacted excitedly to the OED’s choice for 2016 and it was widely reported on the radio, TV, in newspapers and across the internet. The inevitable punditry followed with broadcasters, journalists and other commentators from all sides of the political spectrum reporting on the phenomenon of ‘post-truth politics’ in particular. However, as any student of A Level Sociology should know, the idea that we now inhabit a post-truth society where empirical facts, well researched evidence and established norms and values fall by the wayside as people’s ’emotion and personal belief’ become more important in uncovering the truth, or reality, is not particularly new.

The idea that we live in a media saturated world of differing choices and that our understanding of the world often reflects our own perceptions, views and opinions, has been well established by the philosophers, cultural critics and social scientists often referred to as ‘postmodernists’. In social theory, for example, postmodernists often approach society with a cynical distrust or scepticism towards the big ideas of the last few ‘modern’ centuries, especially those political ideologies and social theories, such as Marxism and structural functionalism, that emerged from Enlightenment rationality. Essentially, postmodernism questions our own and others’ claims to an objective reality and rules out the existence of absolute truths.

Consequently, the postmodern world, or condition, is often summed up us as an era of incessant choice, alternative lifestyles and the ability to live in a fragmented society of diverse and often a estranged groupings. Thus, when media commentators point to increasing political polarisation where people are only exposed to the facts they find palatable and live in ideological bubbles where they only hear and see what they want to, we can see the world many postmodernists foretold – and were often mocked for theorising about – becoming ever more present; even if the word post-truth is used instead of postmodern.

If we consider the similarities between the ideas behind post-truth and postmodernism, it could be argued that post-truth is simply echoing the ideas that have been developed by postmodernists. Although the word post-truth had been used before, the OED suggests that post-truth was more than likely coined in 1992 by the Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in an article for The Nation magazine. In this article, Tesich, whilst focusing on the Persian Gulf War and the Iran-Contra affair, stated that ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world’. In contrast, the word postmodern was first used by the art critic John Watkins Chapman when describing a style of painting that deviated from the popular and established styles of the time. In the 1920s people used postmodern to describe new styles of music and in the 1940s the word was used to characterise certain types of architecture. In philosophy, many point to Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as influential postmodernists, although it is debatable as to whether they would have considered themselves as postmodernists. However, it is in the work of these philosophers that we see questions emerging around the nature of reality, our claims to understand it and how power influences it in a society that has changed beyond anything that the classical philosophers could have imagined or comprehended.

Nevertheless, perhaps the current use of the word post-truth is best reflected by the more overt postmodernist theories of Jean Baudrillard, whose book Simulacra and Simulation argued that advances in communication technology have left us with a confused understanding of what is real. This is hyper-reality or, in other words, ‘a real without origin or reality’, as we are unable to distinguish between the real and the false, especially if two things lay claim to the same truth or origin. Furthermore, Jean François Lyotard wrote in his bookIn Human that the grand metanarratives, or ideologies of the Enlightenment, have become less meaningful to us and this has resulted in our general distrust of scientific and social scientific claims to truth. Here, both Baudrillard, writing in the late 1970s and 80s, and Lyotard, writing in the late 1970s, were articulating the view of the world that has suddenly been popularised by the word post-truth.

It is with some amusement, then, that I have listened, watched and read the frantic conversation about post-truth politics, especially considering that it has been part of the postmodernist view of the world for decades. This is also a view that I have been trying to teach to my Sixth Form students for the past five years and it has been their biggest complaint whilst studying sociology due to its abstract nature and complexity. I have also heard many of them dismiss postmodernist theories in favour of Marxism, Feminism and New Right perspectives. It is ironic for me that post-truth has become such a popular word to use in the year that I have stopped teaching postmodernism at A Level, especially as it may have inspired some of my students to take postmodernists more seriously. Still, I would suggest that if you really want a better understanding of post-truth, read up on postmodernism.

Picture credit: Ben Terrett (Creative Commons 2.0)

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