In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) word of the year was ‘post-truth’. If you cast your mind back several months, you’ll perhaps remember seeing it frequently, usually in newspaper articles about Donald Trump or Brexit.
The OED defines it as: post-truth (adjective): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.1
Having read this definition, I found myself thinking about The Sophists. These were ancient Greek philosophers who, back in the day, upset the traditional philosophical applecart. Apparently, so keen were they to win debates, they resorted to rhetoric, with truth being the casualty. The contemporary definition of sophistry – ‘a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible but generally fallacious method or reasoning’ – is, perhaps, the unfortunate contemporary legacy of The Sophists, and sophistry has come to signify ‘the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism and moral unscrupulousness’.2 History has not been particularly kind to The Sophists.
"Reality exists, but an individual’s conception of reality is socially constructed"
Is post-truth the same as sophistry? I’m not sure. However, I defy anyone to watch any of those interminable adverts for workouts, equipment, diets, etc., which feature on any TV shopping channel, and not think that the fitness industry might well be considered to exist as a post-truth world in its own self-contained bubble.
Listening to a 2016 podcast I’d saved from Radio 4, which presented a different angle on bias, news, information and social media, the words ‘bubble’, ‘echo-chamber’, ‘algorithm’, and ‘curate’ all popped up with startling frequency.3 On re ection, any of these could easily have been 2016 words of the year. The simple point
being made in this radio programme was that, if you rely on only one place for your news and information, and if this is any of the established social media sites, then anything you take in will have been chosen – curated − for you. It will have been based upon an algorithm that has checked what you look at and then bounces back (echoes) things that you want to see and hear, effectively keeping you in your own self-validating, ego-massaging bubble, along with people who think and feel exactly the same as you. Yet you already knew this, didn’t you?
One of the hazards of writing and editing as I do is that you re- ceive all kinds of emails, many of which are press releases promoting this or that product. Some of these are very well written, factual, concise and to-the-point: take a bow, The Vegan Society! As for the others ... well ... the best place for them would be on a string in the outside toilet of my childhood.
Now, here’s the worrying, post-truth thing – some bloggers, social media sites, magazines, and even mainstream newspapers publish these exact same, toilet paper press releases verbatim and without any fact-checking whatsoever. Do I blame the writers of press releases? Not at all. After all, their job is to get publicity for their clients. Quite why anyone would want to write so duplicitously is another matter.
The fairly obvious post-truth problem, of course, is that people read and often believe things that are published online or in print. One of the (many) contentious aspects of last year’s US presidential election, or the EU referendum for that matter, was the ‘fake news’ that might have swayed voting. Fake news is everywhere and it’s certainly not new; not that long ago it was called propaganda.
So, dear reader, what’s true and what’s fake? As I’ve said before (indeed, I intend this to be my epitaph): reality exists, but an individual’s conception of reality is socially constructed. If you think about it critically4, the answer to what’s real and what’s not is laid bare in this single, short sentence. I’ll leave it with you. fp
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