Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” was the word of the year for 2016. The Dictionary defined “post-truth” as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Further, the editors noted that
Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.”
An article in Nature (vol. 540, issue 7631, 28 November 2016) contained an excellent analysis of how post-truth has become an acceptable part of daily discourse:
- The tolerance of inaccurate and undefended allegations.
- Non sequiturs in response to hard questions and outright denials of facts.
- Repetition of talking points passing for political discussion.
- Serious interest in issues and options treated as the idiosyncrasy of wonks
- “Don’t bother me with facts” is no longer a punchline; it has become a political stance.
The biggest problem in a post-truth world is determining who and what is telling the truth, and even further, not knowing what truth is. Truth, as used by Oxford Dictionaries and Nature, is not an abstract philosophical idea. The context implies that “truth is what conforms to reality.” Therein lies a problem: what is reality? Whose reality is it? Is it an objective or subjective reality? Is it both an objective and subjective reality? How can we know?
I think a few questions need to be asked when something is presented as true according to the facts:
- What is the source of the facts and is the source reliable?
- Are the facts the real facts, or have they been altered in some way for political or religious reasons?
- Do we have all the facts, or have some facts been withheld that skew the truth for political or religious reasons?
- Who is interpreting the facts and do they have the qualifications for making an interpretation?
However, the public has been conditioned to hearing sound bites and reading headlines, so real thinking rarely takes place. This may be why “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The media is often blamed for current state of affairs, and this is partially true. The media has limited time and space to present information. The public generally is not willing to read and/or listen to detailed presentations, and even less willing to think through the various consequences of information being accurate or inaccurate. No one wants to watch, read, or listen to detailed reports.
The problem with condensing information into smaller, acceptable bits for the public can result in some misleading analyses of that information. I do not believe this is because the media is “liberal” or “right wing” necessarily or that there is a media conspiracy of some kind. Media personnel are limited in their training and ability to summarize adequately everything that needs reporting. We all have this limitation, for we do not know everything about everything. We are responsible for investigating what is presented and coming to reasonable conclusions for ourselves. The post-truth world is not limited to secular society. It is evident in the religious culture as well and the comments of the writer in Nature would be applicable to much of what is happening in Christian circles.
The public has been conditioned to believe that all ideas are equal, so there is no need to think about them. However, some ideas are better than others and we choose those ideas that are better. This requires serious thinking and reflection, and there will always be differences of opinion about many ideas. The public in general lacks that skill. Living in a post-truth world informs me that I do not have complete truth, that I must consider some of my ideas may be temporary and subject to change as I come across new and better ideas. When new ideas come my way I need to be willing to make changes.
On the other hand, since I am involved in proclaiming some ideas I think are the better as a Christian minister, am I perpetuating a post-truth mentality in the process? Do I articulate clearly my reasons for choosing these ideas and not withhold the limitations of those ideas? Am I encouraging my hearers to engage in thoughtful reflection on and discussion of what I am proclaiming? Is my theology a series of non sequiturs? Am I appealing primarily to emotion and personal belief?
I can’t answer these questions satisfactorily. I believe positive change can be made in the lives of people and I can be a part of that change. To aid in the process I can only do my best to be honest with the “facts” that I believe to be true, to present them fairly, to be open to new truth along the way, and to accept the struggle with truth as part of the journey.