I would have published this sooner if there hadn’t been for so many journalists beating me to the goalposts. I write this knowing I risk being just another voice waxing on angrily about the prevalence of lies that have produced the vote in Britain to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Since most intelligent people are familiar with these lies, I won’t even start by listing the more outrageous or popular ones.
I’ll start with language. The word post-truth has gained currency in recent weeks. While it encapsulates the idea that we are beyond truths or are willing to ignore truths, I think it is far too gentle. Post-truth rings too much like postmodernism, poststructuralism or post-realism. I prefer facticide. This word more aptly suggests a killing of truths.
Of course, truth is a slippery concept. When we think of truths, we think of facts, those things that can be evidenced or scientifically tested. We all know how evidence and testing can be interpreted in different ways. And some truths can change over time. For instance, the BBC quiz programme QI, known for its thorough and accurate research, once acknowledged that many of its ‘correct answers’ of the not too distant past were no longer true or correct because new information and scientific research changed the so-called facts.
And then there’s factoids, untrue or unreliable ideas that have been reported and repeated so often, they are taken as fact. The word itself, apparently first coined by writer Norman Mailer, takes its ‘oid’ suffix form the Greek word for appearance or form. This definition has been expanded and according to a few online dictionaries, a factoid is also a small or trivial fact. In this newer definition lies another danger – factoids are no longer half-baked truths, they’re just mini-truths.
These are some of the subtle ways that truths can be tampered with. In recent months, the world has witnessed the more blatant attacks on facts, expertise and truths. But what has been more worrying are the falsehoods that are standing in their place. I know this is nothing new. Back in the fifth century BCE, Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over truth.” It the time between then and our present day, many philosophers, artists and writers have made similar comments. But I’m more aware and fearful of this tendency now. The believed falsehoods of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, and their ilk in other parts of the world, are full of isolationism, nationalism and hate. I cannot see what good could possibly come from this.