In their yearly moment of semi-glory, the Oxford English Dictionary announced last week that their word of the year is post-truth, 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.”
Context isn’t exactly required, but the OED points to spikes in the frequency of post-truth— since Brexit and the presidential election here in the United States—as their reason for its selection. “It has also become associated with a particular noun,” notes the OED, “in the phrase post-truth politics.”
The OED claims that the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich was the first to use post-truth in the current sense—as in, truth itself has become irrelevant, not just secondary. In a 1992 essay in The Nation, Tesich wrote: “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”
He’s right! That’s the scary, terrible, truly wild part. We built this post-truth world, and it’s a product, partly, of using stories less for information and more as personality-shapers. Sharing a story on Facebook or Twitter often just means “this is my personality” or “this fits my opinion” rather than “here are the facts.” In every aspect, an online presence is just a curated selection that pretends at nuance—this is not where you get to know someone, this is where you get to know about someone. A like, without reading the article, is at best an ideological agreement—at worst, it’s just a way of saying I like you and I like these opinions. But those likes are “numbers” and “eyeballs” and “organic reach”, and those things equal money.
The thousands of recent articles about fake news fit the post-truth profile, and it’s a way of trying to understand how crystal bubbles build—especially on social media—and how news has become so far removed from fact (the spiral continues: The Washington Post claims the new trend is toward fake fake news allegations; a very post-post-truth article for the Post).
In the September article “Yes, I’d lie to you“, The Economist argues that it’s complacent to say the way in which politicians lie—and the way those lies are received—is the same as it’s always been:
“Helped by new technology, a deluge of facts and a public much less given to trust than once it was, some politicians are getting away with a new depth and pervasiveness of falsehood. If this continues, the power of truth as a tool for solving society’s problems could be lastingly reduced.”
Across the board, no matter the outlet, there’s an agreement that although lies, fakery, and yellow-y journalism and politicians have been around for the years, the way those lies are shared—more quickly, angrily, and sensationally than ever—is what has changed. And that’s our fault, because we perpetuate this culture.
In the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes about Aldous Huxley’s vision in Brave New World.
“In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think… Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
Here’s hoping centrifugal bumblepuppy doesn’t make it to the shortlist for Word of the Year 2017.