What it means to navigate a “post-truth” world
“What is a woman?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a biologist.”
This is the scene that played out between Senator Marsha Blackburn and Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Judge Jackson’s response — “I don’t know, I’m not a biologist.” — is polarizing. Does she really not know the answer? Or is she appealing to the “post-truth” of a political agenda? Does anyone care anymore?
Here’s why you should care:
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year was “post-truth”. The website defined 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”.
Simply put, post-truth refers to a lack of objective truth and more reliance on subjective truth. Post-truth societies are the result of placing emotional, subjective truths over logical, objective truths. Logical truths can be backed by evidence, whereas emotional truths are what a person may feel and even use to manipulate the truth. So, in the case of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson being unable to define womanhood, her response is a product and evidence of post-truth. Scientifically, a woman is an adult, human female with XX chromosomes. Emotionally, the definition seems to have changed in recent years to account for personal feelings or beliefs.
Ultimately, if logical truth doesn’t exist and if we don’t accept that it exists, the world becomes a competition between storytellers. In this world, whatever “feels most true”, whatever stories we prefer, or perhaps are told most impressively, prevails. In such a post-truth society, we can expect polarizing divisions and factions to emerge. And this is exactly what we see today.
Social media has proved to be a major contributor to society’s descent into post-truth. The polarization it has caused has been made abundantly clear in recent news surrounding Elon Musk and Twitter.
On April 25, 2022, Twitter agreed to sell to Elon Musk for his offer of $54.20 a share. The $44 billion dollar offer will take the company private and remove it from the Nasdaq stock exchange. Musk’s self-proclaimed motivations for buying the company are to create a platform for free speech with more tolerance for differing or uncomfortable opinions. Musk has expressed a desire to open source Twitter’s algorithms, to clean up the platform, and “defeat the spam bots or die trying!” Musk believes the app fails to live up to its potential as a platform for freedom of speech, and that he can make it happen.
Musk is a societal, post-truth Rorschach test. He represents the division between emotional and logical truth. His supporters cheer on his desire for access to free speech, and his opponents believe some speech and points of view should be repressed and censored. Musk’s opponents view his ownership of Twitter as a violation of emotional truth and deem his pursuit of free speech as an unworthy cause.
In a post-truth world, contradictory opinions with which one is not comfortable need to be eliminated, often via censorship or ridicule. However, it is vital to upcoming generations that emotional truth is not put above logical truth. In settings such as social media, the risks of post-truth and censorship are far too great to consider it an option:
Government censorship is most dangerous because of its cyclic properties. When a government begins to censor content for citizens, it is easy for the government to censor according to their agenda (propaganda). When all citizens are pro-government, they become blind to national flaws and are more likely to re-elect the same government officials that are indoctrinating them.
This is how dictatorships are made. There have been countless examples of such situations in history: Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Mao’s China, Putin’s Russia, and, to a lesser degree, the US scandals such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. When a government controls the speech, it controls the truth. As cliche as it may sound, George Orwell’s 1984 is not an impossible reality. Government censorship should never be trusted.
It’s also important to point out that the government isn’t always right. It’s vital to society that we question authority and keep leaders in check. Slavery was legal and accepted as right until citizens fought for the truth. Here it’s important to note: Science and “experts” have a tendency of being proven wrong over time. Objective truth is not infallible and requires persistent, rigorous debate and additional scientific investigation. Truth — even objective truth — should be a pursuit, not a fixed idea. We need to seek the truth and fight for it.
Private company censorship also has major flaws. Whether we like it or not, nearly all sectors of life are influenced by opinions, including the board of directors at any major company. For instance, tobacco, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies exert heavy financial influence on public and private entities to shape their media coverage. When these private media companies start to censor, they often do so based on a subjective, self-interested view of reality — not objective fact, but opinion. In this situation as well, truth becomes hard to find and society becomes further polarized until whistleblowers or principled journalists expose the problems.
As social media continues to carry out its post-truth influence, it is clear that we are being faced with a major divide. Universal logical truths are becoming increasingly obsolete. It’s almost impossible for people to come to any understanding or compromises in such a time when no one can agree on the truth. “That’s my truth”, and “That’s just your opinion” are concepts that can promote civil disagreement between two parties with differing viewpoints or these types of subjective post-truth statements can be weaponized to diminish democracy by shutting down any opportunity for true mutual understanding and empathy.
On the political side of post-truth, we have seen its harmful effects play out for the past 50 years.
A recent prime example of post-truth harm is Donald Trump. A majority of Trump’s lies took the form of huge (or in Trump-speak, “yuuuge”) exaggerations, over-generalizations, or “half-truths.” At times, his statements weren’t completely false but were lies nonetheless because his conveyance of ideas was so bold, exaggerated, and broad that they obscured the objective truth, causing confusion and in some cases, violence.
In 2013, during Obama’s presidency, he described a new health care law, saying “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” This turned out to be a huge lie. According to PolitiFact, “Boiling down the complicated health care law to a soundbite proved treacherous, even for its promoter-in-chief. Obama and his team made matters worse, suggesting they had been misunderstood all along. The stunning political uproar led to this: a rare presidential apology.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush called for the invasion of Iraq. He claimed their mission was to disarm the country of “weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” However, the UN found no evidence of such weapons.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton and 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky were involved in a major political sex scandal. During the scandal, Clinton lied under oath and gave the American public a false story.
When leaders are dishonest, citizens bear the brunt of the consequences. Citizens become angry, unable to trust authority, and confused as to whether or not truth even matters. Worse, some citizens go all in on the lie and will follow corrupt leaders, despite all evidence pointing to a post-truth deception. When the most important people in a country are unaccountable to objective truth, how can we expect the rest of the citizens to live to a higher standard? Truth — objective truth — is important above all. In healthy societies, citizens would rather seek the objective truth as soon, and as profoundly, as possible than to be fed lies and suffer the consequences of post-truth dysfunction. Lies — including overly subjective and one-sided post-truth — are unfathomably detrimental. A society built on emotional truths and lies is built on nothing at all.
Our society will become a post-truth world if we allow it to become one…if we resign ourselves and accept truth as optional or as something we are not entitled to expect any longer. In a time where “untruth” is the norm, it’s not unique, special, or cool to lie, cheat, and steal. In fact, if you truly want to be a rebel: Tell the truth. It is unique to seek truth, live an honest life, and consider your conscience. Who will you be?: A typical teenager or a remarkable one?
Your conscience isn’t you. It transcends you. And whether you like it or not…it wants the best for you.
Is truth something that we care about? That you care about?
Truth matters now more than ever. Seek it.