You want the truth? You can handle the truth
Tom Fletcher provides some guidance on how to survive in the era of post-truth politics
Every year the Oxford Dictionary picks a word of the year. In 2016, adulting fought it out for the top spot with chatbot and alt-right. I reckon the militia of alt-right thugs and bigots demonstrating in Charlottesville were more troll than chatbot, and more childing than adulting. But that’s another column.
My favourite on the list, hygge, was a Danish word meaning a warm feeling of contentment and cosiness. Think of thick socks by the crackling fireside with a storm raging outside. Admittedly not a word that gets much use in August in the Gulf. It has the same origins as the English hug, but is much harder to pronounce. I tried it once with a Dane and received a look of utter incomprehension and friendly concern.
The winner was, of course, post-truth, a clunky expression that swaggered onto centre stage in the second half of 2016 and has stubbornly refused to leave since. The Oxford Dictionary said that its use had increased 2,000 per cent. The German Language Society agreed with the choice, picking the characteristically more accurate postfaktisch as their word of the year. Both capture that way that some in politics and the media have appealed more to emotion than reason, more to heart than head. As one beleaguered US White House staffer bewilderingly put it, "we have alternative facts". She was, I guess unknowingly, updating Friedrich Nietzsche’s “there are no facts, only interpretations”.
Of course, the idea of crudely twisting the facts to suit a political narrative is as old as politics. Maybe we’re in a phase like the era in Europe that followed the invention of the printing press, when the ranters and pamphleteers shouted over everyone else until the rules caught up. Jonathan Swift could write in the 18th century that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it”. We don’t know whether it was Goebbels or Lenin – both masters of mendacity – who said “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. And George Orwell parodied the subversion of truth brilliantly in Nineteen Eighty-Four and elsewhere.
So what’s really new about the 21st-century version of post-truth? One key difference is the shift from governments deliberately covering up facts or stories that are uncomfortable to them – think of the Iran Contra Affair or the Suez crisis – to deliberately ignoring the facts. Denial of the impact of climate change is a classic and dangerous example.
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But the idea that truth is somehow less certain, less solid, has been given rocket boosters by the internet. The web makes everyone a publisher. To update Mark Twain’s already misattributed line, now a lie can go viral before you have logged in. Within minutes, social media amplifies or inflates an assertion beyond the point of rational scrutiny or debate. The facts get drowned out. Closed media circuits create echo systems, where the lie is reinforced until it takes hold. The experts become like the football fan pointing out why it isn’t a penalty when the rest of the terrace are howling for one. The corrections can’t keep up. Amid the disinformation and denial, conspiracies fester and reason and rationality flounder.
Meanwhile, fake news weaponises intolerance of difference and diversity, and creates a wall of noise and distraction. We feel unable to keep up or discern fact from fiction, overwhelmed by information, fearful of missing out on the latest celebrity scandal, toxic Trump tweet or cute cat.
My own profession, diplomacy, has faced this argument before. Its origins were in a system of secrecy, espionage and realpolitik. Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, who served as Britain's foreign secretary in the 1830s, claimed that "I tell ambassadors the truth, because I know they won't believe it." Another 19th-century statesman, the Italian Count Cavour, also saw a lack of morality as essential to the process of statecraft, concluding that "if we did for ourselves what we do for our country, what rogues we should be".
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So was Sir Henry Wotton, a late 16th-century English diplomat, right in his joking description of an ambassador as "an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country"? I don’t think so. Perhaps the best diplomats understand when to say nothing, or at least when not to say everything. No decent negotiator starts a meeting by laying all his or her cards on the table. But honesty has been and remains the currency of diplomacy. As a former French ambassador in Washington, Hervé Alphand, put it: "a diplomat is a person who can tell the truth to anyone in the government to which he is accredited without offending him, and to anyone in his own government at the risk of offending him." A vital but often thankless role.
And honesty must also be the currency of politics and of public life. So how can we cope with the new era of post-truth politics? I think it comes down to three responses: education, encouragement of a free media and enlightened individual decisions.
Firstly, we must ensure that the next generation are equipped not just with knowledge, but with the critical thinking necessary to sift through the information in front of them. There is pioneering work already taking place in the UAE to make moral education part of every child’s development. Across the world, we need a generation of curious, creative global citizens. We have to help them use their smartphones to open up to that world, not to hide from it.
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Secondly, a free and independent media is also essential in holding the truth to account, and challenging the deliberate manipulation of facts. As Stephen King puts it, “the trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool”.
But ultimately, it is up to each of us as individuals. We need to engage those with different views, rather than shutting them off: not everything with which we disagree is fake news or post-truth. We need to check the facts carefully, and cherish expertise. We need to support high-quality and independent media with our business. And to back politicians who prioritise educated, tolerant societies – the bridge builders not the wall builders.
I still believe that in the long run the internet, like the printing press, will help us to do all this, and will make politics and society more truthful as a result. The backlash against the backlash. The post post-truth era will be a place of greater truth.
So maybe we can still make truth the word of the year for 2017. I for one will feel more hygge, even if – to be truthful – I still can’t say it.
Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age
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Updated: May 2, 2018 10:13 AM