“Post-truth” was just announced as the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. Before you say “wait, that’s two words, not one,” you should be more unsettled about its meaning. This adjective is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
This represents a dramatic shift in the way our culture approaches dialogue and ideas. Its completion and full extension will lead to drastic consequences. Truth is the basis of interpersonal trust and communication. To tell someone the truth is to affirm their humanity, to regard them as worthy of dignity and honesty. By treating the truth as irrelevant or permitting falsehood to multiply, we threaten to break apart the fabric of society.
Post-truth is the idea that the reaction to a statement is more important than the truth of the statement. It is more concerned with playing on raw emotion than sticking to the facts. Post-truth is poisonous.
The term “post-truth” has grown more and more popular in the wake of this election, one that will go down in history as being rife with name-calling and vicious accusations on both sides of the ballot. It is not difficult to see the connection between the announcement of this word and the current state of Western politics. In fact, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, Robert Grathwohl, stated that the choice of this word is reflective of “a year dominated by highly charged political discourse.”
Entire columns could be filled simply recording Trump’s slanderous falsehoods and blatant lies on the campaign trail over the last year-and-a-half. Trump’s accusations that Obama “founded ISIS” or his denunciations of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” are clearly appeals to visceral xenophobia rather than actual fact or truth. But just as it is wrong and incorrect for people to lump Muslims together into a fearful stereotype or to call all Mexican immigrants “rapists,” it is also unreasonable to define Trump’s supporters by the very worst of his rhetoric. They are not all racist, and to label them as such is the embodiment of the post-truth phenomenon.
Reality is subtler and more complex than the broad strokes we are in the habit of painting it with. The knee-jerk response to post-truthisms, or lies, on campuses like Princeton is to spit back words like “racist” and “chauvinist.” But we know it’s not that simple. An emotional reaction to the election results is understandable. However, typifying sets of people with singularly damning epitaphs is itself an instance of “post truth.”
The words we use to describe one another matter deeply. When we typify people in this way we cause ruptures which society will be hard-pressed to mend. Aristotle’s definition of truth is “to say of what is that it is, and what is not that it is not.” Essentially, this is to call things as they are, by their true names. This is the opposite of knowingly making false accusations to make ourselves feel better.
Often our immediate reaction to blatantly “post-truth” rhetoric is to react in kind. The way to combat “post-truth” rhetoric is with clear, non-reactionary, non-emotional description of reality, with all its beauties and blemishes.
Our belief in capital T “Truth” now extends far beyond mere politics. In Marilyn McEntyre’s book "Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies," she writes: “[College students] now expect to be lied to. They have grown used to flippant, incessantly ironic banter that passes for conversation and… recognize how much political discourse consists of ad hominem argument, accusation, smear campaigns, hyperbole, broken promises, distortions and lies.” Additionally, she says, “they are receiving a daily diet of euphemisms, overgeneralizations, and evasions that pass for political and cultural analysis.”
This seems harsh, but it is a wake-up call of sorts. We are used to being fed untruths or part-lies orchestrated to evoke an emotional response. But that doesn’t mean we should be. We should not settle for this. We should be dissatisfied with the vitriolic and narrow-minded accusations of both parties. Reality is way more complicated than any of the eye-catching headlines or one-dimensional Tweets in our news feeds can capture.
Accepting simple headlines and reactionary names for the other “side” is buying into the post-truth era. University English professor Jeff Nunokawa writes, “We should be careful how we use words, because they can’t be careful how they use us.” In a time when divisions in America are more apparent than ever, careless words can cause much more damage than we think. A little generosity and a touch of humility could go a long way towards healing the rifts in society.
Just because we live in a “post-truth” era does not mean we should, ourselves, be post-truth. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his most famous speech: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Sentiment should not trump truth.
Jack Bryan is an English major from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org