When I was growing up it was easy to understand truth from lies; to distinguish fact from fiction.
Truth emanated from the mouths of politicians, priests, sports heroes, policemen, business leaders and the newspapers. We trusted people in uniform and those representing large institutions, both secular and religious. We trusted our scientists and our teachers. We trusted the books in the library and the bloke who lived next door. We knew that some people were prone to exaggeration, but we always knew when they were stretching the truth. Somewhere along the way that has all changed and we are now living in the post-truth era; a truly dystopian place to be!
It is not only the fault of Trump - although he does share a part of the blame – he is really a symptom of the broader malaise. But also at fault are our broader political class and the process that allows untruths to live unchallenged. According to the Washington Post, ‘President Trump made 9,014 false or misleading claims over his first 773 days in office’. When the leader of the free world acts this way, the high value we used to place on truth telling has the potential to fade away.
Beyond Trump, ‘government actors’ are specifically deployed to use information (or rather disinformation) where they once deployed bullets and bombs. The digital ‘ones’ and ‘zeroes’ are as potent as the viruses and pandemics of the past, particularly when deployed by the agents of totalitarian regimes seeking to expand their power and influence.
Our media also plays a role: either because the ‘good media’ seems to feel a need to achieve balance in every story. But in the post-truth era there is not always another side to show. The climate scientists should not be equated to the climate change deniers; equal time should not be given to the antivaxxers and doctors. There should be a price to peddling lies and hysteria. And social media also plays a role by both quickening the lies and spreading them further. Social media just accelerates the notion variously attributed to Swift (18th Century) and Spurgeon (19th Century), ‘a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on…’
What can we do about this?
I am by nature an optimist and I am comforted to know that the human race has always found solutions to what had seemed intractable problems: getting water to run up hill; taming fire; printing books; freeing the slaves; ‘touching the face of God’; and making the perfect coffee.
If we can do all that surely, we can return truth to its rightful place. I suggest the following:
1. Teach our kids, our families, our staff to be sceptical of what they read and to think about why certain people say what they say. Get them to consider for a moment why Clive Palmer claims that Joseph Lyons, Billy Hughes and Robert Menzies are all his party’s legacy Prime Ministers;
2. And following from that point, encourage everyone to undertake some basic research and review multiple sources: most of human thinking is now a few keystrokes away; while the Internet contains the elements of a post-truth era it also holds the key to understanding why that is the case;
3. Subscribe to quality news sources: the digital era has sounded the death knell to a century-and-a-half of newspaper hegemony funded by the classified rivers of gold. So instead of having news gathering paid for by advertisers we shall have to pay for it ourselves. And the more of us that do so the cheaper it will be for everyone;
4. Read stuff you don’t agree with; you might learn something and if not you will better understand your own views; and
5. Support the politicians who take this stuff seriously and if you can’t find them, run for a seat yourself.
There is a way to navigate back to a place where truth still has value…let’s hope we can get there soon enough!
“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US Senator.