EVERY YEAR Oxford Dictionaries—the last word on all expressions English—issues a list of new words to be included in its famous corpus. It is not unusual to see words from other languages included in the list—‘paratha’ and ‘pyjama’ are examples of such entries. This year, however, a strange new term has made its entry: post-truth.
Simply put, ‘post-truth’ refers to a condition when ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Sounds familiar? After a string of polarising political events in the recent past—Brexit, the bitterly contested US presidential election, among others—public reactions have been extreme. The world, it seems, is divided into two halves where people feel their political position is right and that of those holding other beliefs, wrong, even morally reprehensible. There is no room for truth, reasoning on the basis of facts or logic. From respectable academics to Twitter trolls, all are equal participants. That is the post-truth world.
In a sense there is nothing new here, except an expression that has just entered a lexicon. The practice of relativising truth—that what you say and what I say are equally valid, irrespective of the kernel of truth they may have—is as old as Western civilisation itself. In Protagoras, a celebrated Platonic dialogue, the same problem presents itself in a different guise between two philosophers, Socrates and the sophist Protagoras. One can actually draw a straight line between that celebrated war of ideas in Attica all the way to the protestors in American cities chanting anti-Donald Trump slogans.
This is a dangerous moment. If one says, ‘Truth is what I say it is’, that leaves very little room for any recourse to an objective standard that anyone can appeal to. The net result is that everything is just a matter of numbers. If truth or untruth is to be determined by the number of people who vote for or against it, the world will become anarchic very soon. The Trump election shows this clearly. Respected academics and seasoned journalists gave up any pretence of neutrality. Instead of asking why so many people gathered behind Trump, all they offered by way of explanation was that racism and ‘White angst’ lay behind what they observed. There are plenty of other examples. But for now, let us celebrate the official adoption of a new word.