NOTE: This column contains SIX factual errors or outright untruths. See if you can spot all of them. If you don’t care if there are factual errors or untruths in this column, then you are the subject of what I’m writing about this week.
I look forward to this time of year, not only because it’s the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, but also because this is when the good folks at the Oxford English Dictionary release their list of Words of the Year. Last year, the top award went to “emoji,” which was very understandable, given the popularity of these little pictorial thingies.
Having survived (?) the roller-coaster ride of this election year, we shouldn’t be surprised to find these terms on the Oxford list for 2016: “alt-right,” “Brexiteer,” “glass cliff,” and “woke” (being aware of racism and injustice in society). Also on the list were terms like “chatbot,” “coulrophobia” (the infamous fear of clowns that proved to be more hoopla that reality), “adulting” (behaving like a responsible adult, something we certainly didn’t see much of during the election), and “hygge” (a feeling of being cozy and comfortable, a term we have borrowed from Danish culture).
And what term emerged at the top of the Oxford list (cue the drum roll)? It’s “Post-truth,” a term that, according to its dictionary entry, 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.” So, I suppose we should think of ourselves as living in a post-truth world. Let’s take a look at what this means.
Casper Grathwohl (that’s really his name), the President of Oxford Dictionaries, tells us that “It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly charged political and social discourse” (as reported by Alex Johnson in a NBC News article). According to Johnson, the term “post-truth” was coined by Amy Schumer in her 2015 HBO special, and was defined by her as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” This is not a partisan issue, and it’s not dependent on who you voted for. And this year is certainly not the first time we have seen a disregard for facts and accuracy in our society. We have perhaps been living in the post-truth era for quite some time.
Perhaps the most visible indication of our disregard for facts is the current hoopla over the reporting of fake news on Facebook. According to Nicky Woolf, writing in the November 17 issue of San Francisco, “a lie can go around the world before the truth has even been posted.” The lie in question was the one that told social media mavens that “US to House 250,000 Syrian Refugees at Navajo, Standing Rock Indian Reservations.” This outright fabrication was posted by Robert (who doesn’t want to use his last name—how interesting). It seems that Robert is the author of “Real News Right Now,” an Onion-like Facebook page that entertains us with fake news reports that most readers don’t bother to verify. Robert has gone on to tell us, just in time for the 63rd anniversary of the JFK assassination, that we now know that President Johnson’s limo driver was the real assassin and that Lee Harvey Oswald was watching the motorcade from the street rather than from the 6th floor window of the book depository. It seems that Facebook pages are littered with fake news stories and various other post-truth tidbits, making us dubious (or not) about what is true and what is false.
President Obama has weighed in on the post-truth controversy by declaring at a meeting of CIA officials in Sydney, Australia that “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s now, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” There is of course a danger that living in a post-truth world might create an attitude that facts don’t matter—the only thing that matters is what we believe to be true and what our gut tells us is true. After all, the Internet would never lie to us, would it?
Needless to say, our increasing inability to distinguish between truth, untruths, fabrications, and lies has many educators worried. For instance, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Jon Fingas asks us to consider why so many middle school students in a recent study failed to spot fake news accounts given to them in class. “Why,” Fingas asks, “did many of the students misjudge the authenticity of a story?” Maybe it’s because they “were fixated on the appearance of legitimacy, rather than the quality of information. A large photo or a lot of detail was enough to make a Twitter post seem credible, even if the actual content was incomplete or wrong. There are plenty of adults who respond this way, we’d add, but students are more vulnerable than most.”
These concerns about not being able to distinguish between fake and real when it comes to information is a phenomenon that grew up with our transition from a information-gathering to an entertainment-based society, particularly in the 1950s, with the advent of television as a presence in nearly every home. As you should know from reading my weekly columns (which have appeared since 1993), I am a big fan of popular culture but am willing to admit that its presence (and it is indeed impossible to escape) often blurs and even erases the lines between truth and fabrication. And now that we are witnessing the rapid encroachment of virtual and immersive reality, those lines might prove to be rather meaningless. And this scares me more than the sight of clowns in the woods.
There is a rather large reference list that you might want to consult as you try to grapple with the implications of living in a post-truth society. You should begin with classic studies like Daniel Boorstin’s THE IMAGE: A GUIDE TO PSEUDO-EVENTS IN AMERICA (1962), George S.W. Trow’s provocative WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT (1981), Anthony Smith’s WHO’S TELLING THE TRUTH (AND HOW CAN WE TELL)? (1983), and Neil Postman’s AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN THE AGE OF SHOW BUSINESS (1985), moving on to Neal Gabler’s LIFE, THE MOVIE: HOW ENTERTAINMENT CONQUERED REALITY (1998), and Samuel Arbesman’s THE HALF-LIFE OF FACTS: WHY EVERYTHING WE KNOW HAS AN EXPIRATION DATE (2012).
Now that we are nearing the end of this week’s column, did you spot the six errors? Did looking for them amid the other factual information presented here make you feel uncomfortable and even disoriented? If so, then you don’t live in a post-truth world. If you didn’t feel uncomfortable at all, and in fact didn’t care, then welcome to the post-truth world.
See you next week with a column hopefully filled with verifiable information.