In a January 2017 appearance on Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, defended then Press Secretary Shawn Spicer’s use of “alternative facts” to describe the crowds at President Trump’s inauguration (Sinderbrand). The contentiousness of the television segment signaled that more was to come of what had already been playing out in media coverage of U.S. politics. As can be seen in this clip, Conway’s interviewer and NBC moderator, Chuck Todd, tried to take her to task with his questions. However, for every specific point he attempted to tether his line to, Conway diverted the conversation back to her own agenda. There is no clear common ground to build from in the video.
It is now October 2018 and the months since Trump’s inauguration have been embroiled in partisan divide at every step of governmental functioning, and any foundation of common ground to be sought after on the basis of truth seems to be a thing of the past. How did we get here? Where do we go now?
Fitting into this year’s Humanities on the Edge lecture series themed around “Post-Truth Futures,” Lee McIntyre will deliver the second presentation in the series, “Post-Truth in the Internet Age” on Thursday, October 25, at 5:30 p.m. in the Sheldon Museum of Art, Ethel S. Abbott Auditorium. McIntyre, a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and Instructor of Ethics and the Harvard Extension School, takes on the above questions of how we got to this point and suggests where we might go in his recently published book, Post-Truth (MIT Press, 2018).
Understanding the origin of post-truth is the first step in combating it. The term was awarded the Oxford Dictionaries “word of the year” in 2016, being 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” (qtd. in McIntyre 5). McIntyre finds it notable that in the Oxford definition, “the prefix ‘post’ is meant to indicate not so much the idea that we are ‘past’ truth in a temporal sense (as in ‘postwar’) but in the sense that truth has been eclipsed—that it is irrelevant (McIntyre 5). Indeed, McIntyre acknowledges that the title term is often used with a tone of regret by those lamenting the loss of truth itself as a stable starting point of political thought.
A range of characteristics contributes to cultivate an environment of post-truth. As much as we might like to point fingers, no single figurehead (no, not even Trump) can carry the full weight of blame. McIntyre’s chapters in Post-Truth consider the influences of science denial, cognitive bias, the decline of traditional media, the rise of social media, and postmodernism in the current force behind our post-truth situation—and he takes the long view on each of these contributing factors. For example, in Chapter 2 “Science Denial as a Road Map for Understanding Post-Truth,” when unpacking the significance of science denial, McIntyre looks back to the 1950s and the tobacco industry’s creation of doubt in obfuscation of the detrimental health impacts of their products. This blueprint for bamboozling set the stage for the denial of climate change science today.
As you might already suspect, there are lasting impacts to this climate of post-truth. The tone of the text is urgent because McIntyre wants us to understand what is happening and take up the tools to fight it. His writing does not fall into the trap of false equivalence—avoiding an error routinely made in our media outlets by giving equal time and energy to both sides. This thing of post-truth is bigger than a single “outrageous” belief—it is “a corruption of the process by which facts are credibly gathered and reliably used to shape one’s belief about reality” and this ultimately signals denial that “some things are true irrespective of how we feel about them” (McIntyre 11, author’s emphasis). With the decline of traditional media and the rise of social media, we as a society have fewer opportunities to break out of our self-curated information silos.
But! We can fight back against fake news, and McIntyre gives us some simple steps: 1) “recognize the systemic problem and see how it is being exploited,” and 2) cultivate “more critical thinking” (118, 120). As obvious as this framework may seem, he makes a point worth remembering: young people—who McIntyre calls “digital natives”—only know the world of fake news, so it behooves all of us to practice the tasks that fifth-grade teacher Scott Bradley teaches his students to follow when fact-checking information:
Look for copyright.
Verify from multiple sources.
Assess the credibility of the source (e.g., how long has it been around?).
Look for a publication date.
Assess the author’s expertise with the subject.
Ask: does this match my prior knowledge?
Ask: does this seem realistic? (McIntyre 121)
Just because they are simple strategies doesn’t mean they don’t warrant repeating. Do you do this for every article you scroll through on your phone? We’d all like to think we do.
Less simple, though, is teasing out the connections between postmodernism and post-truth. In Chapter 6, “Did Postmodernism Lead to Post-Truth?” McIntyre considers the ways that postmodernist thought has been coopted by right-wing ideology. As it turns out, the blame for our post-truth situation should be shared with academics; “It’s all fun and games to attack truth in the academy, but what happens when one’s tactics leak out into the hands of science deniers and conspiracy theorists, or thin-skinned politicians who insist that their instincts are better than evidence?” (McIntyre 145). Never mind that applying postmodernist thought in an effort to deny climate change is “a complete misfire of the original politics that motivated postmodernism, which was to protect the poor and vulnerable from being exploited by those in authority,” McIntyre observes, “Even if right-wing politicians and other science deniers were not reading Derrida and Foucault, the germ of the idea made its way to them” (145, 141). While much of the subtlety of postmodern theory is lost in any right-wing use, that nuance is exactly where McIntyre identifies as a location for further effort by postmodernist thinkers: learn how to fight back and support truth.
While reading Post-Truth, I zeroed in on one important distinction in McIntyre’s argument—besides being captivated by the work he performs in documenting the roots of our post-truth situation—that these “alternative facts” are weaponized as “as a mechanism for asserting political dominance” (xiv, author’s emphasis). See, post-truth involves intent behind the promulgation of falsehood. McIntyre shows that it goes further “when self-deception and delusion are involved and someone actually believes an untruth that virtually all credible sources would dispute. In its purest form, post-truth is when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie” (9). Our current post-truth situation is much different than our previous understandings of propaganda or falsehoods. This acknowledgement in itself is validation for those of us who have been wondering why the current contentious political cycle feels especially toxic. (As an aside, writing this with the U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings so recent in memory is especially exhausting given that the truth of sexual assault has been consistently eclipsed by a will to erase abuse.)
A delusional liar might be a lost cause, “but because every lie has an audience,” it is our job to confront lies in an effort to stop the spread of “willful ignorance” to anyone who might be listening (McIntyre 155). In closing Post-Truth,McIntyre urges his audience to be concerned and take precaution:
If we want better news media outlets, we can support them. If someone lies to us, we can choose whether to believe him or her, and then challenge any falsehoods. It is our decision how we will react to a world in which someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Truth still matters, as it always has. Whether we realize this in time is up to us. (172)
I hope you will join me in welcoming Lee McIntyre to UNL this coming Thursday, October 25 at 5:30 p.m. in the Sheldon Museum of Art, Ethel S. Abbott Auditorium.
McIntyre, Lee. Post-Truth. MIT Press, 2018.
Sinderbrand, Rebecca. “How Kellyanne Conway Ushered in the Era of ‘Alternative Facts.’” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/22/how-kellyanne-conway-ushered-in-the-era-of-alternative-facts/?utm_term=.85b6f33ad15e.Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.