Updated: Nov 9, 2020
“We're in a post-truth world now, with eroding trust and accountability and it can't end well.”But are we really? Ever since the 2016 US elections, which led to Donald Trump getting elected as the President of the United States, we hear this sentiment across liberals, saying that the world has become a post truth world or that we are living in a post truth society. In this essay, I argue that humans have always lived in a post truth society. I do not deny that there has been no change in current times, but that change is not post truth but what I call a ‘Post-Hodor’society. I would be depicting this by first taking examples from different genres from the West and the East such as politics, religion, pop culture and history to show that post truth is not a new phenomenon and is just another fancy term being used by the liberals to depict that some radical change has happened in the society of the past and now and then I would go on to explain what I mean by a Post-Hodorsociety or world.
I. People See Things as They Are & Not as They Are[i]
First, we need to understand what post truth means? Lee McIntyre in his book ‘Post Truth’explains the phenomenon as a time in history when objectivity of facts has lost its value and people believes whatever appeals to their emotions and personal beliefs.[ii]Recent examples which are given to prove this theory are flat earthers, who believe that the earth is flat, or it could be Donald Trump claiming to win majority votes or having the most attendance at his inauguration and people believing him, when there is clear evidence to show otherwise. The rise of fake news is also attributed to post truth. Fake news is defined as news articles which are intentionally false and are intended to misdirect the reader.
Such an interpretation disregards the actual origins of post-truth. There is no origin of a post truth society since society has always been post truth but the origin of the idea of post truth lies in post-modernism which more than 40 years ago started to discredit truth, claiming that all truth is relative and is formed by the beliefs of the person saying it. The origin, as commonly believed, does not lie with 2016 elections or the current times. The left-leaning liberals aimed to sought freedom from the so called ‘state-sponsored truth’ and thus spawned post-truth. This can be seen in Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge published in 1979 which clearly shows that since humans have been postmodern, they have been setting the scene for a post-truth era.[iii]
II. A Lie Is Not A Lie If You Believe It’s True[iv]
Religion is the first thing which united human beings on a huge scale. Religion, essentially, are beliefs shared by group of people. Post truth is based on shared beliefs. If we say that we have moved into a post truth era, this naturally begs the question that when was truth objective, when was there a consensus on everything? Ever since the dawn of humans, we have always lived in post truth society. The ability to have shared beliefs and create stories is what made humans to come out on top of every other species. We created a fiction which made us obey the same laws and cooperate with one another. Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian, professor and the author of the famous book Sapiens, says that “Humans are a post truth species.” He goes on and argues that millions of years ago, “human locked themselves into a mythological bubble”.The bible was never questioned on its facts. Similarly, no religion has ever been questioned by its believers, be it Islam, Hinduism or any other. No one ever questioned that whether Jesus walked on water or Allah punishes those who commit haram. Emergence of fake news is another example that is given by the liberals to prove their claim of world turning into a post truth society. Fake news is just a story which might be false but is believed by many to be true and has an appeal to the masses. That exactly what religion is, the difference is just in the number of people believing it to be true.
There exists an argument against this understanding of religion, which is that Bible and the other holy books were not meant to be read as factual narratives but as a story which teaches morals. So, it is essentially an excellently written fictional book just like Lord of The Rings. But all this leads to cooperation. Religion was just one of the first ways to make masses cooperate with each other be it through a factual account or a fictional story or a mythology. Similarly, liberals have made their own fiction of “shifting to a post truth society” to bring more unity in their movement.
When Harari says that we are a post truth species, I cannot agree more. The existence of a person is based in his beliefs and it is very hard to break those beliefs because a person will go miles in protecting those beliefs. Very basic example of this could be a criminal. A criminal when charged with the case wants to undermine the trust that people have in the justice system. He will say that he is innocent and will try to undermine the trust that people have in police or the judiciary. Whenever someone challenges your beliefs, you feel threatened. This can also be linked to the communal violence between different religions in the sense that when someone from another religion says something or believes in something which is not in accordance with the beliefs of some other person’s religion, the other person can go to heights protecting that belief of his against the counter belief of other person. For example, the Babri Masjid Case, where the thought of a Mosque existing at the alleged birthplace of Lord Ram lead a mob violence which resulted in the destruction of the whole mosque.
III. The Truth Can Be A Bad Choice for A Wise Man[v]
In the political and the historical context, post truth has always existed. Politics is about power, and you get power when people believe in what you say. The more the number of believers the more power a leader has. Hitler in Mein Kamp wrote,
“the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”[vi]
Joseph Goebbles the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany always believed that a lie repeated thousand times over will make it truth. This was the philosophy of an official who had the duty of spreading the Nazi Propaganda of Hitler in the mid-20thcentury. The story sold in this case led to a killing of thousands of Jews. Then how can someone say that Trump Election or Brexit is the trigger which shifted us to a post truth society.Way back in1931, Japanese army faked attacks on themselves so that they could rationalize their invasion of China. They even made up the country of “Manchukuo” after the invasion. The doctrine of Terra Nulliswas used to wipe of Australian history of thousands of years by the Colonials. This doctrine is used to legally deem a land unoccupied. The colonials claimed the land of Australia to be unoccupied even though the native population existed. This was in late 18thcentury. Even China, who itself were a victim of a staged attack by Japan once, has also never recognized Tibet as an independent country. Nations and politicians have been bending the narrative to suit themselves and to push their ideology is very old or maybe is something which has always existed in the world since humans have always perceived truth with their own beliefs.[vii]
In an article in The Washington Post, Barton Swaim claims that post truth has always been the basis of politics. Even before Trump the Western politics was full of exaggerations, lies and vague information. The only thing Trump is doing different is that he is honest about it. You can clearly observe from such instances that truth has never been objective and has been plural. This again shows that the concept of post truth is not new. In India religion has been the basis of politics, laws, administration and almost every other thing has a religious side to it. With already establishing above how religion has always been post-truth coupled with the fact that religion plays a very central role in almost everything in India, it is arguable that India is most clear post truth society. The communal violence in India is based on two groups of people with two shared beliefs trying to prove that their belief is the one that is true, again the demolition of Babri Masjid could be an example of this. Be it the segregation laws or the Jim Crow Laws in the southern America or be it the Disturbed Areas Act, 1976or the Godhra riots in Gujarat where thousands of people were killed Politicians, in East and West, have won and still win elections based on such violence.
IV. The Best Books (Pop Culture)...Are Those That Tell You What You Know Already[viii]
Pop culture reflects society. In pop culture too, the idea of post truth is not new. In 2005 Stephen Colbert, coined the term ‘truthiness’[ix]Solomon Asch in 1950s conducted experiments to test how people react to other’s thoughts or behaviour.He concluded that at least 75% of the people conformed to group pressure and agreed to the most common answer even though it was clearly wrong. Sitcoms, also in the early 1950s, started using laugh track to make the people watching at home feel that they are in the theatre. Another effect which laugh tracks had was the result that is proven by the conformity principle i.e. even if a joke doesn’t land but if enough people laugh at it be it fake or real, majority of people, under pressure, will laugh and the next time they listen to that joke again, they will be the part of the group who is creating this pressure and the cycle goes on. This is similar to how fake news spreads or how facts are claimed to be treated as in a post truth society.
Pop culture has been exploiting this behaviour of humans since very long now. TV is where most of the humans have learned to be media sceptics. There are many examples of such television dramas which show people in power, bending or changing the narrative through media to fulfil their dreams and protect themselves, be it Francis Urquhart in the book or the show ‘House of Cards’or Olivia Pope in ‘Scandal’. Orwell in his book 1984 wrote about a how a Totalitarian state changed historical records to suit the propaganda it needs to disseminate.[x]It could be observed that this was inspired by the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. Moreover, it is argued that the visuality of pop culture is one of its strongest powers. This visual nature forms the structure in which we experience reality.[xi]The existence of such shows, books and movies depict that even before 2016, humans had experienced post truth in what they believed to be fictional stories made from thin air but those stories are actually based of reality, like 1984.
V. "Hold the Door (Hodor)”[xii]: Living in a ‘Post-Hodor’ Society
After establishing above, that post truth is not a new phenomenon, it can be said that humans have always been in the vehicle of post truth, we have always been driving on the roads of ideological conflicts, altering things to suit our agendas. People throughout the history have believed untrue things and thus there is nothing post about post truth. Then what has changed, that has led to this sudden outcry of shifting to a post truth era?
The answer to the question is Internet. With the dawn of internet, the circulation of news became easier and fluid. It suddenly became very convenient for people to spread news and choose from which sources they get their news. Social Media and Internet opened the gate for masses and freed them from the exclusive power commanded on circulation of information by the elite. Thus, there was no one to ‘Hold the Door’ and selectively spread information anymore. A space which was very highly regulated before in a moment has become a place of lawlessness with no rules and regulations governing the spread of information. Co-incidentally, the episode and the season of Game of Thronesin which Hodor died aired in 2016 sharing the year with when ‘post-truth- was declared word of the year.
After social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter became prominent, the abundance of information to consume is at an all-time high. Studies show that the recent generation is the most individualistic generation.Since there is an abundance of information waiting to be consumed and the ability of selecting what information one wants to consume has led everyone consuming only information which is relevant to them and aligns with their beliefs. This leads to a lack of shared beliefs. In the time, before the internet when the elites held the door of information, the scarcity of information played a very crucial role in uniting us together as a society. We were restricted to local news of our community and experienced things as a community rather than individual souls. The abrupt removing of Hodors (People who held the door,) has allowed people to get more information than before. This more information has also led to more fake news in the media but as already established fake news is not a new, it has always existed and has been used by nations to fulfil their propaganda. The only difference between then and now is the that before the internet fake news sued to filter itself or the media elites used to filter it out which now has changed. Truth is always derived from some information, our accepted truths before internet were just a product formed by Hodors, who restricted the circulation of information to impose a societal or economic order which they wanted.
Venturing back to where I started this paper, humans always lived in a post truth world since our notions of truth have always been grounded in opinions, beliefs, and biases irrespective of facts and has always been subjective. The change is, that now we live in a world where accessing information has become much easier which has allowed us to eliminate the Hodors from the picture. So, more information has led us to see and understand the world in its less regulated form. This is a benefit only when with free access is complimented with diverse opinions. Tech-giants like Facebook and Google have not been doing this. They have been feeding the same kind of information to the same person to irrespective of it being true or not.[xiii]Due to this people consuming a certain kind of news are only receiving certain kind of news. Thus, I argue that we have moved in to a Post-Hodor era in an ever-existing post-truth society where internet has given us the ability to question the old and existing norms challenge the major sources of media.
[i]Home Box Office (HBO), Big Little Lies (2019) [ii]Lee C McIntyre, Post-Truth(MIT Press 2018) pg. 5. [iii]Misha Ketchell ‘The Surprising Origins of “Post-Truth” – and How It Was Spawned by the Liberal Left’ (n 2). [iv]Home Box Office, Fargo, Season 3, Episode 9 [v]History TV, Vikings, Season 5, Episode 1 (The Departed) [vi]Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf: My struggle(Jaico 2008). [vii]Harari (n 9). [viii]George Orwell, 1984(2014). [ix]Truthiness (noun): The belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support. [x]Orwell (n 17). [xi] Constance Duncombe, ‘Popular Culture, Post-Truth and Emotional Framings of World Politics’ (2019) 54 Australian Journal of Political Science 543. [xii]Home Box Office, Game of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 5 [xiii]Netflix, The Social Dilemma, 2020