Thursday 17 November 2016
The Oxford English Dictionary has just declared 'post-truth' to be the Word of the Year 2016. This responds to the trending concept that we live in a post-truth culture, which especially means post-truth politics. In the Anglophone world, this view is fuelled by the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump in the US. One Brexit campaigner went so far as to claim that people are fed up of experts - presumably because experts deal in demonstrable truth, rather than whatever feels good to believe today. Trump insisted regularly during his campaign that the Presidential Election was going to be rigged ... despite the fact that he produced no evidence to support the claim. Now that he has won, that 'truth' has strangely disappeared from sight.
It is hard to believe that society can function if truth is declared irrelevant. On the other hand, 'truth' has always been a ... malleable concept in politics. There is a whole range of words and phrases which describe different degrees of truthfulness and untruthfulness.
* Information carries the likely implication of 'true' - in iself, that is, because an item of information is almost certainly only a fragment of the whole truth. But then there are 'misinformation' and 'disinformation'. These are related but distinct, because misinformation is wrong but is only not true by accident; whereas disinformation is definitely and deliberately not true because it has been created by the Dirty Tricks Department in order to mislead.
* Propaganda has always had a bad ranking on the truth scale. Organisations use propaganda to tell good stories about themselves which do not have to have a high truth content ... to say nothing of black propaganda which tells bad stories about the Others, the Opposition,and in these cases truth simply gets in the way.
* Spin may be a slightly out-dated term these days, but the concept still applies since the control of truth on politics is still subsumed in the theory and practice of spin - the way that truth can be selected and re-shaped and angled to look good. The spin-doctors who control such reconstruction of the truth don't exactly lie, but they certainly don't tell the whole truth either.
* Message is what the spin doctors concentrate on obsessively - the chosen message that is to be projected day by day, even minute by minute in the Twitterworld. The key assumption appears to be that the democratic public can only focus on one thing at a time, and so clever politicians should remain on-message constantly, and never allow any off-message thoughts to disrupt and distract the projection of the single targeted idea.
Finally, there is euphemism. The code of conduct of the British Parliament does not allow direct insults. Thus, famously, you can't say that a fellow MP has told a lie, but you can apparently say that he or she has used a terminological inexactitude. Which is nice and polite, but since everyone knows that you really mean 'lie', this seems to be a lie about a lie...
But we must not lose hope - we do not have to accept the depressing prospect of a post-truth world. What we need, effectively, is a committed team of ‘truth monitors’ who check statements and insist unremittingly on the actual verifiable facts. I read somewhere of a French TV political debate programme which had a team of accepted experts on call to verify or qualify or contradict statements made by any of the politicians taking part. I acknowledge that this means calling in the dreaded ‘experts’ – but surely most people most of the time would accept that if you have a broken leg it is better to rely on an ‘expert’ doctor rather than on the advice of your mate George down the pub who is convinced that a broken leg can be cured by pouring tomato ketchup on it.
Now, I offer the following modest proposal as an efficacious solution.
Following the logic of Frank Herbert’s BuSab stories, we should demand officially sanctioned and financed subversion of the blatant manipulation of truth which seems to be the dream of so many of our politicians. This would mean that every nation state would have a Bureau for the Investigation of Lies and Exaggerations – a BILE force. This entirely independent institution would monitor the public statements, in all communications media, of all politicians, analysing them rigorously for false argument, dodgy evidence and downright lies. Any statement that did not measure up to a demandingly high level of credibility (say, 90%+) would be assassinated by acidic satire, merciless mockery and ... well, bloody common-sense. Once dismembered, the lie would be scoured away with a brisk scrub of verifiable facts and hard-edged logic.
To provide genuine objective impartiality, the BILE agencies should be under the independent authority of the United Nations. The hugely well-funded UNBILE organisation would recruit BILE agents internationally, from every culture everywhere; and would post them to each nation as required. These agents would be highly qualified: starting, of course, from a good IB Diploma (distinction in TOK), they would then have passed through a rigorous five-year training, culminating in the final brutally-demanding assault course of a one-week exposure to the Thoughts of Donald Trump. This would ensure that the legendary blue deer-stalkers of the UNBILE agents were respected everywhere.