The OED named ‘post-truth’ as its 2016 international word of the year, reflecting what it called a ‘highly-charged’ political 12 months. As a good dictionary should, it gave a clear definition: ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals’. But is there a trap in the post-truth narrative?
After the past few months, we all have our own favourite examples of ‘post truth’. The trouble is, we’re unlikely all to agree what should go on the list.
I can think of at least three types. First, there’s a statement which is not only falsifiable, but can pretty easily be falsified, such as ‘the Pope endorsed Donald Trump’. He clearly didn’t.
Secondly, there’s an assertion which may be justified in the specific context in which it is expressed, but is nevertheless contestable. For example: ‘the economy is doing better this year’ is true if economic wellbeing is measured in terms of GDP in a particular place and reliable statistics show a rise in GDP this year. But it might not be true for those who choose to define wellbeing differently, for example as median earnings or for a different space, such as ‘the North’ or ‘my family’. My truth and your reality can look very different. ‘Immigration is good for the economy’ could be absolutely true under one construct and quite questionable in another scenario.
Thirdly, there are those statements about the future, which can’t be rigorously tested, at least not yet. In this category comes ‘if we do x (e.g. Brexit) then y will happen (e.g. recession)’. Statements in this category may be well (or badly) argued and reasonable (or not) in their conclusion, but not ‘true’ or ‘false’, at least not in the same way as the earlier categories.
Of course, we may disagree with statements in all three categories. But the problem with extending the ‘post truth’ narrative beyond the simple falsehood (of the ‘Pope endorses Trump’ variety) is to treat opinions or judgements rather than facts as equally falsifiable. You may be right that GDP has risen, but I may be right to insist I feel poorer. My judgement about the consequences of Brexit may be questionable, but if it’s based on forecasts it can be decidedly dodgy but not untrue in the same way. In these cases, ‘post truth’ is coming close to being a modern name for ‘heresy’.
Does it really matter? Yes – for two reasons. First, there’s the risk of ‘crying wolf’. If we use the language of truth/falsehood for opinions or predictions, we risk losing credibility when we call out real untruths. And if we get in the habit of doing so too frequently, we risk dismissing all dissenting views as false, which is the antithesis of an open society.
For those of us marketing policies or brands or anything else, recognising where the audience is coming from is the essential first step. Treating the audience as grown-ups, rather than jumping to the conclusion that they’re stupid or evil, comes a pretty close second. Challenging real untruths, about politics or your brand, quickly and firmly, should be combined with sensitivity where the difference is one of opinion and perspective.
So let’s leave ‘post truth’ where it is now sitting comfortably, in the dictionary.
David Landsman is a former British diplomat and the executive director of Tata Limited. Follow him on Twitter @David_Landsman