Half a billion euros. A week. Every week. All year round. From Great Britain to Brussels. This claim was central in the British referendum about EU membership. The Leave campaign claimed that the British people sent a staggering sum of money to be redistributed by bureaucrats in the EU system; money that could be used for British welfare rather than everybody else’s. However, there was a problem: It wasn’t true. Both the UK Statistics Authority and the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that this sum had been grabbed out of the thin air. But then another problem arose. Namely that it didn’t matter. At least not to the Leave campaign, which kept repeating it, regardless of it being a lie, and the claim kept circulating on social media. The rest is history, as they say. The Brits voted to leave the EU. And afterwards, the Leave people shrugged. That thing about the 350 million pounds was “a mistake”, as they said.
You have probably heard about this story if you have read about what has become known as ‘the post-factual society’ and ‘post-truth politics’. It has become a major part of the evidence for how we now live in a new sort of society, one where truth and common sense have abdicated the throne in the political debate. According to Politifact, the majority, or more precisely 70 percent, of President-Elect Donald Trump’s claims during the election campaign were wrong, if not entirely ficticious. Among his claims were that President Barack Obama had founded the terrorist movement IS, and that Trump had seen thousands of US Muslims cheer after 9/11. Or Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the Russian military wasn’t present in Ukraine when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Still, what is the post-factual society? Where did it come from? Does it even exist? This article tries to find answers to these questions.
The concept of post-truth politics was introduced in 2010 by journalist and blogger David Roberts. His analysis was that we as voters no longer start by examining facts that we then base our views and choice of party on. Instead, we do the reverse, by finding a party, acquiring its views, coming up with arguments, and only then selecting facts that fit all of this. Once political parties begin speculating in this, says Roberts, politics (the public debate and the media’s stories) becomes divorced from substance in the law-making process. Emotions and identifying with a political group come before an overall evaluation of facts and a sensible plan for how to act.
Emotion and identity superseding fact was, actually, already five years earlier the formula used by Stephen Colbert – then host of The Colbert Report, today of The Late Show – in his famous satirical concept ‘truthiness’. This was, as Colbert explained early in 2016, pseudo-arguments whose credibility were based on ‘gut feelings’ and increased the more compellingly they could be delivered.
Up until recently, the concept of the post-factual society circulated quietly. However, in the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s candidature and later victory in the United States presidential election, it is on everybody’s lips.
This does not mean that everybody accepts ‘the post-factual’ as a good diagnosis for our present. Respected journals like New Scientist and Toby Young from The Spectator have been sceptical. Others, like the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, are in full agreement.
We will come back to this. Let’s start with the basic elements: politics, lies and truth.
Trump trumps Machiavelli
There is nothing new in having politicians spin, angle, exaggerate, and even lie now and then. It was in fact recommended with philosophical arguments in the 16th century by Niccolò Machiavelli in his notorious book The Prince, which many see as the first piece of literature in modern political theory. The Prince was meant to be a manual for young and inexperienced regents, and here you could read that politics – which Machiavelli basically saw as a sort of warfare – was divided between law-making and power. Because animals aren’t organised through law, but only power, politicians must learn from animals, Machiavelli said. From two animals, in particular; the lion (as a symbol of the capacity and readiness for violence), and the fox (as a symbol of cunning). While the lion defended itself against ‘wolves’, the fox defended himself with ‘snares’, he wrote.
Translated to modern political language: You should both be able to frighten your opponents with violence and avoid falling into traps. The latter requires the ability to lie. Your political opponents could abuse the agreements you have made – e.g. about a ceasefire – for an ambush. Hence, you should not only learn to break the promises you make; you should also make them well knowing that you don’t plan to keep them. One could, Machiavelli wrote, “provide countless modern examples and show how many peace agreements, how many promises, that have been made void and meaningless by the princes’ lack of faith, and how those who best understood to be like the fox came out on top.”
Those who know when to lie and how to do it best will win. That was Machiavelli’s insight. And because the first lie in any lie is that it isn’t a lie, the young prince should not just learn to lie, but also be hypocritical and deceitful and pretend. It was, wrote Machiavelli, “necessary to be able to carefully cultivate this nature and be a great pretender and hypocrite.”
This is important to keep in mind. Machiavelli may be cynical in his view of politics, but he operates within a distinction between true and false – you should learn the art of deception and hypocrisy because it is a problem if you are revealed as a liar. You should be able to make lies resemble the truth. Yet why should politicians (princes) lie? Because, says Machiavelli, mankind is not good, but bad – everybody lies, everybody deceives. At least sometimes, and it is difficult to know when. This is a point that modern psychological science has found evidence for again and again.
In other words, the point of the post-factual society is not that politicians – or everybody else – suddenly have begun to lie or lie more. No, the new thing is that it has stopped being a career-busting scandal when politicians are caught lying. With this, hypocrisy has stopped being necessary because the distinction between lies and truth has become irrelevant. Or, as The Economist wrote in an editorial in September 2016: “Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance.”
In short, the new thing in the post-factual society is that lies work even after they are revealed as lies. They can even beat factual arguments. Trump trumps Machiavelli, we could say.
The question is how we came to this. What happened?
The tyranny of emotion
In one name? In one concept? Nietzsche happened. Postmodernism happened. This, at least, is the analysis of Russian-British journalist, TV producer and writer Peter Pomerantsev. In an essay in the British cultural magazine Granta, Pomerantsev argues that the digital disruption of the traditional media and traditional journalism – the collapse of newspapers, the flight from flow TV news, and the wildfire success of new media like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – not just fragments the news stream and creates algorithm-supported echo chambers, where people on the basis of their internet behaviour increasingly only are confronted with opinions and worldviews they already agree with. The post-factual society has come into being because its development was made intellectually legitimate by the ideas and thoughts of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the derived postmodern school. Nietzsche’s rebellion against not just Christianity, but against 2,000 years’ metaphysical views of reality being a single structure that could be acknowledged in a single ‘science’ where there is one true moral, was expressed in his widely famous sentence of how “there are no facts, only interpretations”. To Nietzsche, interpretations were less a question of truth and more one of power. He mentions no names, even though he indirectly refers to the two French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Once you have accepted, again according to Pomerantsev, that knowledge is a type of power – undemocratic and illegitimate – then the liberation that postmodernism inherited as a project from the Enlightenment, quickly turns into a wholesale rejection of facts, arguments, knowledge and the associated institutions. By way of the Italian philosopher and founder of so-called ‘new realism’, Maurizio Ferraris, Pomerantsev says that: “because reason and intellect are forms of domination … liberation must be looked for through feelings and the body, which are revolutionary per se.”
It is this philosophy that Pomerantsev thinks has seeped down from universities, out into media, advertisement agencies and the communication industry – and from there into politics. It is a worldview where every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’. This was the basis of opportunity for Trump.
“The very point of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense. And an audience which has already spent a decade living without facts can now indulge in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence,” Pomerantsev says.
The world of facts is not a settled landscape
Pomerantsev’s argument did no go unchallenged for long. Professor Stanley Fish – literary theorist, philosopher, and public intellectual. – wrote an essay gainsaying Pomerantsev in the US magazine Foreign Policy entitled “Don’t blame Nietzsche for Donald Trump”. Postmodern thinking and philosophy is not, says Fish, a claim that there are no truths or no distinction between true and false, but rather that what constitutes true and false facts are socially negotiable. According to Fish, a range of theories about why facts are historical and how they are enshrined is not a “political program”.
The internal philosophical discussion about postmodernism is not important here, but it leads us to an important point in the discussion of the post-factual society. For if “the project of determining what is true or false, correct or incorrect, accurate or off the mark will never be brought to a final resolution,” as Fish writes, there is a risk that we with the post-factual society sneak in a false idea about what facts are in politics; namely that we potentially can come into agreement once and for all. That politics – honest disagreement – can be dissolved into science. We will never get there, says Fish, “because facts that emerge in the course of argument will not be considered facts by everyone, the world of fact is not a settled landscape, but a battlefield.”
Politics as a battlefield. That was also Machiavelli’s viewpoint. And Fish’s explanation of politicians like Trump is also rather Machiavellian: They are bad people: “They say things not in order to initiate a dialogue, but because they want to wound people; they trade on ignorance and prejudice; they rehearse gossip and baseless rumours they know to be false; they really are liars.”
Fish’s strength lies not only in pointing out that even science is historical – what was factual yesterday sometimes turns out to be wrong tomorrow – but also that politics is about more than facts; that politics also is a conflict of interest. This, after all, is one of the reasons for the success of democracy. It makes room for that conflict and for mistakes and for correcting mistakes. Historically, autocracies have had difficulties with that.
Even so, it is a bit weak to explain that the Americans can elect a president who utters false statements more than two thirds of the time he spends talking, simply by claiming that they have been taken hostage by a man with a bad character. There are many reasons why Trump and the British Leave campaign were successful – and many of them are based, as the Englishman John Gray has argued, upon quite legitimate dissatisfaction with the state of things. On the other hand, it is rather worrisome that this dissatisfaction must to such an extent be carried by false claims.
The question is why we; the people and the voters, aren’t better at distinguishing truth from fiction. Who are we who suddenly allow the post-factual society? Never have facts been so widely available. Analyses, prognoses, statistics, budgets, balance of payment and growth data take up far more space than ever in the public debate, and with the internet, they have never been easier to access. Why, then, have we suddenly become post-factual? Perhaps this is actually part of the problem – this massive amount of information transmitted through digital media. Maybe our brains simply can’t keep up. It has long been argued by thinkers like the US journalist Nicholas Carr that the internet and social media overload and change our cognitive abilities, making us more superficial and less good at concentrating and going in-depth with anything: Dumber, as in the title of his famous 2008 essay in The Atlantic.
“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” This is an argument that Carr has unfolded with great care in his Pulitzer-nominated book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Carr has been criticised for being a luddite. However, according to Danish science journalist, writer, and PhD in neurobiology Lone Frank, there is a valid point here: “Source criticism becomes more and more difficult because there are more and more sources, and then it becomes easier to follow the mechanism where you choose the sources that confirm what you already believe,” she explains to SCENARIO.
“Our brains haven’t been created to always use cognitive resources on evaluating information – only when it is absolutely necessary. You don’t go out to see if information is true or false or to find new information unless there’s an investment for you in it. This also carries a lot of frustration for me as a scientist and science journalist. I see my work as standing and shouting, ‘listen, goddammit!’ But people don’t.”
A question for the future
It is precisely because of the limitations of our neurological and cognitive design – and the limited number of hours in a day – that we have institutions like journalism, universities, science, courts of law, parliaments and public administration to help us handle reality. This doesn’t just require that these institutions are good at it. It also requires the trust of the people, which in recent decades has taken a dive regarding politicians, political institutions, journalists, and the media. The question is why. Why and when did sound scepticism turn into blanket distrust and indifference?
Here, we move into as-yet unknown territory, where the post-factual society simply is a label, not an explanation. Francis Fukuyama has listed several different reasons – that political parties no longer are parties for the masses, that associational life has declined, that the political system is inefficient, or because of disruptive digital technology. However, it is difficult to find a coherent explanation.
When SCENARIO asked Mark Lilla, a US professor of the History of Ideas at Columbia University, he threw up his arms. He has become the talk of the town with his new book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, which examines the history of ideas behind one of the political megatrends of our times, the sort of political nostalgia that Donald Trump (“Make America Great Again”) is peddling. What is Lilla’s analysis of the reasons for the post-factual society?
“I can grasp at different elements of an explanation: the internet, the collapse of family structures, parties that no longer reflect the real social divides. However, it also seems as if the very idea of citizenship has been depleted. That many no longer feel like they have any obligation to society, only rights. That the only thing that matters are themselves and their friends and families. We lack the ability to talk of common purpose, tradition, charity, and social classes. We no longer have a vocabulary for that. It is a huge democratic problem. Why this has happened, is part of what I will dedicate my time to consider and investigate in the future. But it has been something of a shock.”
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