On the Genealogy of Post-Truth

a dialogue between

Josie Orr & James Soderholm

JO: It was the autumn of 2016 when ‘Post-Truth’ was named the word of the year by Oxford English Dictionary, provoking the public to become aware of the term and apply it to real-life situations. However, why did it take until 2016 for the word to be universally recognized when some researchers have traced the concept where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” back to the 1950s, or even further back to the medieval period? 

Has it always been an essential part of human nature to use the power of emotion and belief to override objective facts when one is trying to pursue an agenda? During the medieval period, religious texts often illustrated torture and created the expectation of going to hell to those who sinned, thereby generating immense fear. As a result, people became emotionally controlled by their leaders. Alongside the leaps and bounds in progress of democracy and technology, can we see we the same pattern occurring today?

JS: You are right to wonder about the deep tap-root of this idea, or any idea. Like words, ideas need to be pulled up by their roots and examined to see the historical network underneath them.

The first instance I know of a battle between emotion and reason occurs in Plato’s Ion, a dialogue where Socrates cross-examines a flamboyant and successful ‘rhapsode’ (Ion) to determine why he flourishes in his trade, which is to read selections from Homer’s epic to a paying audience. Consider this exchange:

Socrates. I wish you would frankly tell me, Ion, what I am going to ask of you: When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem? 

Ion. That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heartthrobs. 

Soc. Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in his right mind or is he not? 

Ion. No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind. 

Soc. And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators? 

Ion. Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives. 

I think that Ion’s response is a defense of ‘post-truth’ and the commercial motive that often underpins it. Like many modern demagogues (Trump is merely the most twittering of them), Ion panders to the audience and thereby prostitutes the truth. It is a Platonic nightmare when emotion triumphs over reason. It seems we are living through a new cult of emotionalism where rational debate is not as compelling as hurt feelings. I wonder if many people actually preferred to be controlled by their emotions because it takes less work to have emotions that to tangle with rational arguments. Is there a fundamental sloth underneath the flourishing of ‘post-truth’? Anyone can wallow in emotion. Few can make strenuous arguments.

JO: Socrates keeps migrating back to the question ‘are you in your right mind?’, but how does he define the ‘right mind’? Does he mean to be consciously aware of your emotions, thoughts, speech and primarily present in the moment? This question is open to a vast array of interpretations but Ion immediately makes a link between himself and Socrates’ suggestion by stating it ‘strikes home’. 

There is a significant contrast when Socrates introduces two opposing emotions: panic and friendliness between the rhapsode and audience. It creates a chasm which is duly filled after moments of intense emotion contagiously transferred onto the faces of the viewers. Ion describes it as being ‘stamped upon their countenances’ portraying an industrialized machine that converts one emotion to another without any hesitation. 

I agree that Ion confesses to manipulating people’s emotion by witnessing someone else’s expression, implying it is a technique used continuously for businesses and commercial adverts. But since when were reasoned discussions and presenting objective facts no longer compelling enough? Is it true like you suggest that it is down to pure laziness that people do not seek this approach, but instead depend on emotion because it does not require a stimulating debate?

People can make arduous arguments if they persevere and discover information that is viable to contradict what is already existing. But when can one just accept a claim? Does it always have to result in an argument and debate? Aren’t there some statements that just cannot be challenged?

Referring back to how emotions are infectious, do people just automatically fall into the trap of being persuaded by the tugging at their heartstrings because it is regarded as an easy option or is our generation become more naive? 

JS: Heartstrings have always been easily pulled. That’s why actors and politicians and actor/politicians (Reagan) tug on them. Emotion trumps reason every time, which is why we must be so vigilant in our attempt to keep it from seducing us into an easy compliancy. I think Socrates thinks Ion is ‘not in his right mind’ to the extent that a kind of madness seizes him when he becomes ‘rhapsodic’ in reciting Homer’s verse. Plato’s cool and rational philosophy is meant to be the ‘right-minded’ alternative to messy but lucrative emotionalism.

I wonder what statements cannot be challenged. Is there anything that everyone can agree upon or has cultural relativism made that impossible? Is post-truth becoming the only [language] game in town or will ‘facts’ enjoy a renascence once the emotional smoke-and-mirrors vanish? But if everything is open to a vast array of interpretations, how can there be ‘pure and simple’ facts, or truth?

JO: Emotion is a vital ingredient for human nature to establish interaction with one another; but can it be portrayed as a human imperfection when heartstrings can be so easily pulled, or have actors and politicians just abused the concept and used it to their advantage? 

You urge people to become more cautious against emotion but I wonder how this be achieved universally. Must it become compulsory to teach people how to create a barrier against emotion, asking pragmatic questions before leaping to one conclusion by being emotionally seduced. I am not suggesting emotion is not important, but in this post truth era it is being used with the wrong motive. Emotion should allow people to express themselves, not deceive each other.

Although Plato’s philosophy can be regarded as ‘right-minded’, emotion is surely inevitable and can interfere with rational choices. In this case I agree with you that Socrates describes Ion in a delirious state when reciting Homer’s verse. Does this represent how far emotion can adjust your composure and state of mind subconsciously when you are so involved in the context? 

Plato suggested there was such thing as a ‘noble lie’ in ‘The Republic’, indicating it is ‘a lie that was not only forgivable but even admirable so long as it was carried out for moral ends’. But what is regarded as moral? Does this excuse all politicians and actors from emotionally manipulative lying because they claim in the end it was for ‘moral’ reasons?

To say such claims there must be a clearer direction for when the noble lie can be applied, or if Plato made this famous remark to avoid the destructive consequences induced by lying. 

Statements that cannot be challenged are rare but do exist. Examples include words that are self- defining like ‘bachelor.’ The definition of a ‘bachelor’ is ‘a man who is not and has never been married.’ It is just an authentic fact. Another example is applying it to mathematics; if an individual were to ask ‘What is the number one?’, the answer is it is half of two. And if they followed on to say ‘What is the number two?’ you would say it is double one. These are all self-defining words which are impossible to disprove.  

Additionally there is also René Descartes’s philosophical proposal ‘I think, therefore I am’ implying that so long as one is thinking one must be existing. Descartes pondered what can he be fully certain about, discussing how he could not rely on his senses because they have a tendency to mislead, a tendency to be dreaming, and a tendency to descend into a pool of doubt. However, he discovered that even if he was being manipulated, no one can ever rob him of knowledge of his own existence. No matter how unreliable a fact may be, it will not undermine that he is a thinking being.

I believe that the language of post-truth has been weaved into our daily lives and until people become aware of the symptoms, facts are unlikely to fully recover because of the scepticism that would have coated them. One cannot pathologically read someone else’s mind, so surely any fact that is read is interpreted differently to every individual. At what point can everyone accept the same statement? It is a very good point you make: if everyone has a contrasting understandings of facts or the truth, is the category of ‘pure and simple’ facts no longer relevant or even more concerning, is it abandoned? There needs to be some kind of platform with concrete facts that everyone can agree on before anyone then begins interpretation. But who is responsible for determining the facts that are inherently ‘pure and simple’?

JS: If everyone were given lessons in proper debating technique, we might not have all these emotional issues creeping in. An ‘appeal to emotion’ is a logical fallacy the last time I checked. Cicero could be passionate but he and other orators and senators were judged on the merits of their arguments, not on their flamboyant and often (self)deceptive emotions. Still, I recognize that establishing facts is no easy matter, particularly in a time of tonic skepticism about any attempt to speak of ‘the truth’.  

Analytic truths about bachelors are true but trivial. As soon as one moves into the realm of beliefs and values, things get very sticky. Is it true that 9/11 was the work of cowardly, dastardly extremists? Is it true that Hiroshima was the work of rational men acting dispassionately? Is it true that most women wearing the burka are happy to be doing so? Is it true that Westerners simply want to spread democracy in the Middle East? Who gets to decide what is true and what is false? And who decides who decides?

JO: From a conservative view, human nature is fixed and it is absurd to think it malleable; it is the politician’s duty to accommodate what is already existing. You allude to the various orators and senators whose arguments were always held valuably, yet now it appears this worth has begun to fade in the post-truth era. If you compare this to what conservatives believe it makes you question whether it is the people who have changed to appealing to emotion if apparently human nature is secured. So is it the politicians that have allowed emotion to erupt and pour into our daily lives without controlling it. They are supposed to ‘accommodate’ but what if we have delved so far into the post-truth phenomenon that it is a practical decision to work with what is existing and not to adjust it. Have humans brought it upon themselves or is it the work of politicians who have a reputation for emotional exploitation? 

All of the questions you raise enter into very blurred territory because they include beliefs and values which immediately links to emotions making the statements far more attached to the individual. We get our facts from the news, many of us unable to witness the scarring horrors of 9/11 so instead resort to a seemingly reliable source: a news broadcast. It is impossible to experience every event first hand to prove it happened; one would then be relying on memory and how reliable is that if for example you suffer from post-traumatic stress which has led to your mind blocking certain scenes? Surely, if you are told a statement enough times it begins to become true, forgetting that there are alternatives. This rhetorical trick was illustrated in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, where people were played audios of what they must believe at night whilst they were sub-conscious resulting in them recalling these beliefs without hesitation because they had been drilled into them for years. 

It is the media companies that decide what is true or false, for they are what people turn to when they seek information and assume it must have been checked before it is released. In the UK we have free media and therefore the government should not interfere; however, some newspapers produce articles in the interests of political parties through bribery. Persuasion is a dangerous weapon corrupting non-partisan companies blindly. But the question you end on ‘who decides who decides’ is very hard to distinguish one answer. The logical answer would be the experts in that field, but in reality it is determines by the level of power you possess. Power overthrows any truths and, by adding emotion, it makes itself all the more destructive. 

JS: I sometimes wonder if we are witnessing the death of expertise. Expertise was once the adjudicating force separating sound from unsound arguments and beliefs. If you want heart surgery, you do not ask someone on the street to dig into your chest. If you want your car to run well—which is even more important—then you don’t ask someone who cleans your house or installs your dishwasher. And yet we allow anyone to weigh in on politics in the name of democracy. And people become powerful without having a scintilla of expertise in their fields—witness the revolving door of cabinet ministers in the UK. Expertise used to trump emotion. Now emotion trumps everything.

How do you coax people out of their narcissistic echo-chambers? It is like trying to twist the head around of someone in Plato’s cave. In my lifetime I have never seen the ideological landscape so boringly partitioned between warring factions that resort to name-calling rather than brisk logic and sound arguments. How will this increasingly tedious and tendentious game end? Will people eventually become so stupid that they will do nothing but traffic in emotionalism or will your generation find a way to overcome post-truth and start talking sense again in a world where ‘facts’ don’t melt instantly at the touch of a warm tear?

JO: In this generation it is clear that expertise has faded, becoming instead just a collective body of individuals with no one standing out from the crowd. Having a degree does not mean the same as it did in previous generations because now it has become the norm: anyone can go to university no matter what your background is. 

So if it is regarded as a necessity to have a degree for the majority of jobs, what exactly do you need to be a politician? Theresa May has a degree in geography, and John Major and Winston Churchill never even went to university. According to the US definition of a politician it is ‘a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organisation’. I think that illustrates perfectly how politicians are now seen with no specific qualifications required. However, personally I would expect the person who is in control of the entire country should have a bit more of expertise since they can easily be regarded as the most powerful figure. 

The question isn’t how can we teach people to be aware of post-truth claims; it is how can we motivate people to return to logical arguments given by experts. From the perspective of those who instantly are swayed as soon as an emotive chord is struck, why would they bother to put in the effort to read and come to a valid conclusion supported by sufficient evidence? As politicians they need the consent of the people, and if the public responds vehemently, then why would they try alternative methods? Being in parliament it is a very competitive environment so they are not in a fit position to begin exploring and experimenting other methods of persuasion. If you apply this logic to a medicine which has been working successfully for years, then why would you want to use another one which might not have as triumphant results?

You refer to people being ‘stupid’ if they fall into the trap of emotionalism, but what if it is the culture they live in that brings them up this way. If everyone else does it and your closest family members appeal to emotion, it is easy to follow that path.

JS: Grubbing politicians create a more Ionized world where the showy rhapsodes hold sway over the idiotic masses. And I think we are finding it too easy to give into lavish emotions, the kind of kitsch-emotions Kundera so brilliantly analyses in ‘The Grand March’ chapter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Is Art a good way out of the quagmire of emotionalism? Poets and novelists often offer very precise thoughts and emotions all bundled up together. I wonder if Art can be a kind of brisk countermovement against the fuzziness of post-truth emotionalism. Strong arguments are another way, of course. That’s what Plato would have preferred.  

But some works of literary art show us another way to think outside the amusement park of emotionalism. Here is Kundera.

Ten years later (by which time she was living in America), a friend of some friends, an American senator, took Sabina for a drive in his gigantic car, his four children bouncing up and down in the back. The senator stopped the car in front of a stadium with an artificial skating rink, and the children jumped out and started running along the large expanse of grass surrounding it. Sitting behind the wheel and gazing dreamily after the four little bounding figures, he said to Sabina, Just look at them. And describing a circle with his arm, a circle that was meant to take in stadium, grass, and children, he added, Now that's what I call happiness. Behind his words there was more than joy at seeing children run and grass grow; there was a deep understanding of the plight of a refugee from a Communist country where, the senator was convinced, no grass grew or children ran. At that moment an image of the senator standing on a reviewing stand in a Prague square flashed through Sabina's mind. The smile on his face was the smile Communist statesmen beamed from the height of their reviewing stand to the identically smiling citizens in the parade below. How did the senator know that children meant happiness? Could he see into their souls? What if, the moment they were out of sight, three of them jumped the fourth and began beating him up? The senator had only one argument in his favor: his feeling. When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme. The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love. Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

Like the American senator, Ion is a kitsch-artist who traffics in the “dictatorship of the heart.” But I would hope that reading novels or writing dialogues is to educate oneself in such a way as to deny this tyranny. If that is not the case, if I deluding myself, then, for me, all is lost. What do you think?

JO: Plato would refuse to admit that the Senator’s argument, and only one, of ‘his feeling’ was a valid justification. But if it is ‘indecent’ to reject “the dictatorship of the heart”? Does one have to obey to prevent feelings of guilt or betrayal? Or is this a figment of the mind playing tricks and leading to a temptation to ignore any emotional interference? 

If one is to believe that the best method to achieve an answer is through listening to your heart, where does that leave pieces of writing and novels as you suggest? Is it just a small proportion of the world that holds this belief, and just because it is so rare that it is frequently spoken about? Or are we continuously surrounded by this post-truth phenomenon but simply lucky enough to be surrounded by intellectuals who have been taught to teach pupils the significance and value of any piece of work containing facts, evidence and making them aware of post-truth.

If there are no facts, no intellectual debates, no arguments worth pursuing, what is the meaning of any statement? It will just become empty words: a language which means nothing when conversing with one another. 

JS: Words emptied of precise meaning and stuffed with obvious emotions—is that where we stand, or slouch, in a post-truth world? Perhaps. It is not a pleasant to contemplate so many people who are, Platonically-speaking, not in their right mind. Rational but passionate dialogue, such as we have produced, is one way out of this quagmire of rhapsodic emotionalism. And I think writing and reading literature is another way because literary artists try to restore words to their precision, subtlety, and suggestiveness. I don’t much like our increasingly Ionized world. Who could have imagined—as Plato did—that the dictatorship of heart was to be a persistent tyranny? I conclude by observing that ‘post-truth’ means not only ‘after-truth’ but the death of truth, which makes our dialogue a kind of post-mortem and—paradoxically—a strong and lively response to that very death.