Truth or Consequences: The Perils of a “Post-Truth Society”

Activism

Many people in America are increasingly concerned about how “truth” is valued and portrayed, whether by certain media outlets or leaders from different sectors of our society. This is a subject of serious consideration among philosophers, sociologists and political scientists – and it should be among all of us. These concerns lead to a crucial question — are we headed toward, or are we now living in, a “post-truth” society?

A “post-truth” society can be 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.” In essence, a post-truth society is one where opinion is given more weight than truth, especially when that truth might be contrary to how a person wants to see the world, or was raised to see the world. In this particular context, truth refers to objective data and verifiable information.

The idea of living in a post-truth society, where opinion or contrived “facts” prevail over objective realities, is a threatening proposition to a healthy society and system of governance. Clearly, history demonstrates that our government has not always been truthful about its actions, domestically or internationally. Although we can imagine situations in which withholding information for a short time might be appropriate, the practice of regularly withholding, misshaping or misrepresenting the truth cannot be the norm of a healthy society. Amidst the realities of these practices there has always been a prevailing sense that – in balance – principled, honest government and leaders predominate, and truth prevails. A healthy society – a healthy democratic republic – builds on that premise.

So, if the truth seems to be undermined on many occasions in our current culture, why is this? Has our society become so polarized that when facts stack up in favor of one point of view, those with opposing ideas just can’t stomach the other side being correct? Have people been subjected so often to dueling scientists that they do not know which way to turn, defaulting to their desired outcome, or their own “personal truth?” Does the media – and I differentiate media such as opinion talk radio on all sides of the political spectrum from solid journalism – feed their listeners what they want to hear rather than a realistic assessment of the bigger issues which comprise any given issue? Are too many presumed leaders playing fast and loose with the truth? Are the longer-term impacts of media and leaders who tend to demonize those with whom they disagree causing people to close ranks around only like-minded people and ideas?

Regardless of the cause, the lack of regard for the truth – especially where the truth on a given issue can be clearly demonstrated – is reason for concern. When we observe leaders in various sectors of our society – government, business, nongovernmental organizations and religious – appear self-serving rather than being concerned with the truth, the message being sent to our society at large, and especially our children and the next generation of leaders, is that the truth is not important. If we do not regard this as a concern, then as a nation we are indeed like the frog in the kettle.

As a result, we need to be clear-headed about this. Is it not essential therefore to put our opinions or biases aside – even if temporarily – to see an issue more clearly and evaluate information as objectively as possible? For example, when objective information, such as pictures from satellites – which most can agree are not aligned with any one political perspective – can document sea level rise, regardless of opinion on the subject, can there be a reasonable retort? Truth – unadulterated facts, facts that can be independently verified – should prevail. As another example, recent research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) clearly indicates that people who have encountered toxic stress as young children can carry forward social, emotional and physical impacts. The research is unequivocal. This helps us explain the challenges many people in our society face and, from a policy standpoint, how we might direct resources more appropriately to address those challenges.

So, what is our role as participants in a democratic republic? Nothing less than seeking truth – and demanding that from our society’s leaders. It starts with spurning the impacts of excessive partisanship and refusing to be sucked into the “personal truth” vortex. We must ask if we are complicit in perpetuating misinformation by not being objective in our own analyses. Avoiding this trap is absolutely necessary to keeping a healthy system of government and a healthy society, as it is another method of checks and balances if we honestly approach our role.

Perhaps we can take some solace from philosophers who suggest that as long as we voice concerns about becoming a “post-truth” society, as long as we value and objectively seek truth – verifiable facts – we have not gone over the precipice. When partisanship is mingled with clarifying truth, however, there is demonstrable cause for concern. In his farewell address to the American people, George Washington prophetically warned about the many potential dangers of excessive partisanship and self-serving leaders. We ignore his concerns – and the consequences of our own inaction – at our peril.