2016 has been quite the year, and I recently saw that the Oxford Dictionaries have chosen their Word of the Year. Out of a variety of finalists that included words as diverse as alt-right and adulting, the ultimate winner came out to be post-truth. Although it seems rather straightforward, post-truth is formally defined as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
I don’t think you have to look back very far to understand how this term has been used throughout 2016. As we reflect on our recent political season here in the United States, it was rather obvious that truth was not always the most effective method of persuasion. Rather than argue about policy positions, we ended up fighting about everything else in the world.
I know this might be a new idea for many people, but consider the culture that we live in.
What is easier? Developing a fully thought out opinion and intelligent perspective on an issue or shooting off the first thought that comes to mind without any verification? Clearly, the latter is much easier, and in our social media saturated society, that quick and easy emotional response can be seen by millions of people within minutes. Those millions of people, if they are on a platform like Twitter, can easily forward that response to millions of other people by simply retweeting. Even crossing over platforms, tweets can be shared thousands of times via Facebook or any other platform you can imagine.
I’m not just trying to pick on Twitter here, but it is a very convenient example. That first person who posted an emotional response might not have checked his or her sources very well or care that much about accuracy, but the blame does not stop there. Every person who shared that piece of information without even a quick Google search to double check an outlandish claim bears a little bit of the blame as well.
Truth has been sacrificed for generally speed or more specifically emotion.
We can’t just blame everything on social media however and our obsession with speed rather than substance. Look at the definition of post-truth carefully. This is a technical term that is used to describe a state of public opinion. When public opinion is more influenced by emotions than objective fact, we have entered what the Oxford dictionary defines as a post-truth society.
The definition itself implies that objective facts exist, and I would want to press the dictionary offers a little bit farther to tell me how we define objective facts. I did find the dictionary’s definition for objective, and it was, “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.”
Objectivity is at least very difficult to achieve, and I am of the persuasion that none of us can ever entirely be objective. When a newspaper makes a decision to publish one story instead of another, there is inherently some type of bias in that choice. The editor has made the decision that one article is more newsworthy than another. Worldviews are going to influence every possible interactions.
If complete objectivity then is impossible as I have suggested, then we really can never have anything but a post-truth society. Maybe there are different degrees of how far we are away from objectivity. That seems to make some sense to me. I can make an intelligent decision based on thought and logic at times, but there are other times when I can make decisions that are entirely driven by emotions and perhaps entirely illogical. I would say that the first case is much closer to objectivity then the second.
However, from what I have been reading this year, being in a post-truth society is not a good thing, and I would agree with that. Even if we have always been in a post-truth society, I suppose that we could then conclude that our situation as never really been ideal. It might be worse now, but it is seemingly impossible to have people operate in a completely objective way and therefore impossible for society to operate in that way either.
Where do we go from here then? What can we do to move away from this extremely post-truth society nearer to something that is at least nearer to objective even if we cannot entirely avoid human emotion?
First, I would suggest wisdom on social media. This should be a no-brainer. If we all actively commit to not perpetuating falsehoods as best we can, the viral nature of those false stories or wrong sets of data will lose influence. Once they lose influence, we have moved a little bit further away from this definition of a post-truth society.
Second, I would suggest always reading two perspectives on any issue prior to forming your own opinion. This might be scary because we have to encounter other ideas, but, even though I am a conservative, I don’t automatically trust Fox News. If you are a liberal, you should not immediately trust MSNBC. Even the news sources that claim to be more centrist need to be verified. It is easy to write a biased story and ignore certain facts. By reading at least one opposing perspectives, those other facts are going to come to light without a doubt. You might still hold to your original position, and that is perfectly fine. However, it is important to at least give the other side after hearing.
Third, I think that we need to practice charity. You all know I am very pro-life, and I have written about that issue many times. I have many friends who are pro-choice. I don’t agree with the position they hold, but I try to understand it as charitably as I can. This doesn’t mean that I agree with them or would want them to be passing pro-choice legislation. However, this does mean that I am going to try as best I can to not immediately write off anything they have to say because we disagree. As I said above, they deserve a fair hearing.
Fourth, utilize primary sources. I can’t stress this enough because there is no reason that in our age of technological availability we cannot find that original interview or article. I don’t need to rely on someone to spin the interview for me; I can read the interview myself. Maybe this is just my independent Baptist spirit coming out since I believe in the priesthood of all believers, but I actually think that people ought to use the minds that they have been given. We don’t need the spin doctors to interpret everything for us. We can look at the primary sources ourselves.
Fifth and finally, we can just slow down. When I write an article, I don’t hit the publish button immediately. I always try to give it a few days just in case, in my haste, I say something that should not have said or could have said better. Rather than fire off my first thoughts, I give those thoughts a few days to rattle around in there and hopefully improve. As a general rule, I find that the more I think about something, that better I understand it. I know, that’s pretty radical.
We may be living in a post-truth society, but I don’t know that we ever were a truth society. There has always been a degree of emotion influencing our interpretation of the facts, so what we need to do is focus on limiting not subjectivity as best we can. We ought to allow the evidence to stand for itself against scrutiny and let the chips fall where they may.