You no longer need 1984’s Newspeak Dictionary to know we live in Orwellian times. The Oxford English Dictionary recently declared “post-truth” the word of the year. It defines post-truth as a time when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
One can only assume this word’s leading contemporary currency reflects a larger social fact: emotionalism is overtaking our intelligence in public affairs. This has clearly foreboding implications for society, and for the fate and role of the academy in particular.
Certainly, the rise of shock jocks, the allure of self-affirming online algorithms, the trade in fake news and the crisis of journalism have all contributed to truth’s tarnish. The commercialization of the university, the academic absorption of public intellectuals and the speed-up of the academic assembly line haven’t much helped either.
However, emotional appeals that bypass our rational faculties are principally the province of propaganda. Is this what lies beyond the horizon of truth, a shadowy world of distraction, deceit and unchecked corruption? If so, the OED declaration should be a bright red flag for democrats, particularly in the truth-seeking professions.
How, after all, can citizens make intelligent choices about public affairs if evidence is systematically discounted in favour of personal whims and passions? Does a society with such a casual relationship with reality not risk tipping into the authoritarian grip of charismatic demagogues or the narcotic fantasyland of Hollywood and Madison Avenue? Is the make believe hyper-reality of a post-truth era a way station on the road to a post-democratic future?
Semantics these may be but the implications are chilling. And they get worse.
The OED announcement follows hot on the historical heels of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s 2006 choice of “truthiness” for the same annual honour. This neologism, popularized by late-night comic Stephen Colbert, refers to “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”
This is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s newspeak term “bellyfeel” – the blind, enthusiastic acceptance of an idea out of gut instinct. While Orwell’s satiric targets were the 20th Century propagandists of Stalinism and capitalism, Colbert used his term to mock the preference of right-wing talk radio and Fox News celebrities for an adrenaline-pumping, “feels right” realism over evidence and logic.
Again, it’s hard not to conclude that Colbert’s term also owes its popular salience to a social fact: we increasingly rely on gut feeling at truth’s expense. Chronically spun by impulse-driven consumer culture, Hollywood’s dream machine, the machinations of PR and the propaganda campaigns of state and corporate power, it’s hardly surprising that critical thought now struggles for air.
Yet with truthiness and a post-truth world both registering as important new words, it becomes harder to dismiss either as a freak, oneoff occurrence. Instead, with the social meaning of truth in apparent transition, the status of reality itself seems to be coming under progressive siege. After all, while truthiness suggests at least a semblance of truth, post-truth declares its utter obsolescence.
With mere novelty instances of truthiness now generalized to engulf our age, the linguistic and social standing of truth appears to be deteriorating fast. Alarmingly, we’ve made this rhetorical transition from truthiness to the triumph of a post-truth age in one short decade.
No wonder the ice caps are melting and a reality TV personality is the U.S. president. Colbert’s routine was a funny gag a decade ago – before the flood of fake news capsized our faculties, submerging us in this post-truth world. Now we know our preference for feels-right emotionalism over facts and reason can influence election results and history’s course.
Worse, that great Enlightenment project of discovering the truth appears – like melting glaciers – to be receding before our very eyes. Could we be regressing, after humanity’s long struggle to free itself from ignorance and superstition? Could we be slowly slouching backward to a high-technology, entertainment-intensive version of the social idiocy of the Dark Ages? Could the one challenge greater than carbon pollution be the pollution of our information environment with an increasingly overwhelming barrage of hype, lies and trivia?
In a post-truth world, who can say for sure? It sure feels that way.
Mitch Diamantopoulos is an associate professor at the University of Regina school of journalism and the editor of Thirty years of journalism and democracy: The Minifie Lectures, 1980-2010.