THE IDEA THAT politicians lie is nothing new, but, by many accounts, it’s happening in a sneaky new way. In 2016, the adjective “post-truth” was declared word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries, whose editors described it 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 his new book “Post-Truth,” Lee McIntyre traces the history of this phenomenon, which, he contends, is a way of asserting ideological supremacy. He describes the current manifestation of post-truth as an outgrowth of post-modernism, the philosophical movement that is skeptical of notions of objective reality. As a result, the book asserts, we live in a “post-truth era, where alternative facts replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence.”
Ideas reached McIntyre at his home in Newton.
This excerpt has been edited for clarity.
How is post-truth different from simple misinformation or disinformation?
If someone makes a mistake or if they say something that’s false, that’s not an example of post-truth. That’s just a mistake. Post-truth is when they make a mistake on purpose with a strategic goal in mind. We live in a time when people are convinced by emotion, by intuition, by disinformation, and I think that that’s all strategic.
You cite some popular conspiracy theories — such as voter fraud costing Donald Trump the popular vote and Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the Kennedy assasination — as evidence of post-truth. Yet aren’t you treading on the same ground?
There isn’t a cabal of people who are deciding each and every time they talk to confuse or muddy the waters. So no, it’s not a conspiracy theory in that sense. It’s an observation that if you look at human history, this has happened before. There have been times when different political factions have understood that it’s important for the truth not to get in the way of their agenda. It’s simply the strategic understanding that if the truth doesn’t serve your agenda, you can challenge it, and you can create an environment in which, through disinformation and manufacturing doubt, you can get people to believe what you want them to believe. It is a real thing.
That happens, but it’s hardly a new thing. Thomas Jefferson, campaigning against John Adams, called him a hermaphrodite. Now, we don’t have good polling on how many people believed that, but was that post-truth?
In a political campaign, sometimes they will make up lies hoping that people believe that it’s not a lie and it’ll swing the vote. What’s happening now seems to be that people are telling lies, and even once the lie is caught, it doesn’t matter. That’s new. What’s also new is the exacerbation of the problem through social media, through how quickly information can be shared, to the fact that we now have the choice for information silos. That makes the problem much worse.
The real objective is not to convince you that something is true. The real point of it is to assert power.
If we were living in a post-truth era, people would doubt their car mechanics and dispute their doctors’ cancer diagnoses, right? The “post-truth era” implies something way, way beyond politics.
You’re right about that, but I challenge the idea that you couldn’t have a post-truth situation about any one of those things that you just mentioned. If there were ideological, political, religious, financial interests, I’ll bet you could get people to doubt certain facts about cancer or about what was wrong with their car, et cetera. It matters how hard you push.
Here’s an example: Since the campaign, Trump has been hyping this idea that the murder rate was going up. It wasn’t. But people were doubting it. Why? They doubted it because it didn’t feel true. They doubted it because if the murder rate was going down, why did they feel so afraid of murder?
Part of that is just due to all sorts of foibles in the way that human beings reason. Some sorts of cognitive bias just feel a lot like thinking, and it’s very easy for us to succumb to them. The problem of post-truth is when that sort of weakness in reasoning is exploited.
You write that the right weaponized post-modernism. How?
If you go back to the ’80s, the people on the right hated post-modernism. They hated this idea that there were multiple points of view and multiple truths, that the non-powerful had an equal voice. All of a sudden, that idea seems very handy for being able to say that the claims that scientists are making about climate change or evolution are a false narrative. There’s another narrative that’s just as valid. It culminates in looking at a photograph of Trump and Obama’s inaugurations side by side and saying Obama’s doesn’t have more people in it, even though you can see with your own eyes that it does.
Where is this headed?
It could lead us to authoritarianism. So what I’m hoping that people realize is that post-truths, all the fake news, all the things that we’ve been talking about is not just a sideshow. It could also lead to the erosion of our civil liberties. Look at attacks on the press. Those are not unnoticed in other countries where dictators are saying something’s “fake news” when they are challenged by the media.
At first, post-truth can be amusing; look what they’re trying to get away with, isn’t that stupid? Can’t they see that everybody understands that they’re lying? But then later, maybe we don’t care so much. Or maybe something terrible occurs and we don’t know who to trust.
How many people cared about the truth about whether torture worked or not in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? A lot fewer than you might imagine because they were scared. I’m not the only one who’s saying this.
How far down the spectrum towards dictatorship are we? Not very, I’d say. Our institutions have held up under Trump, even through the violation of norms that we thought were stronger.
I hope you’re right. But what if Trump fires Robert Mueller and Congress doesn’t impeach? What if people say, “well, that’s it, not much we can do?” What if he pardons Paul Manafort or he pardons Michael Flynn? I’ve been really proud of the press for what they’re trying to do. But we also haven’t had a crisis, like the stock market crashing or a foreign attack. When people are afraid, they cede power to those in authority.
So Trump fires Mueller, then shuts down the Russia investigation. Does that mean FEMA camps for Democrats and a president who refuses to leave office? That sounds alarmist.
I’m sensitive to the idea that maybe I’m being an alarmist about this. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to ring the bell, to keep an eye on this in case it might happen.
Are those questioning the alarmism on global warming also part of what makes us strong?
Denialists will often say, “I’m not a denialist, I’m a skeptic.” But they’re really not; they’re really quite gullible about the things that they want to believe.
Twenty-six percent of Americans believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. We’re a population that believes some crazy things and always has. Is the country equipped to handle post-modernist populism?
We’ve got to draw an important distinction between ignorance, willful ignorance, and denialism. What if somebody is exposed to the truth and they feel a little flicker in them that they don’t want to believe it because it doesn’t serve their agenda to believe it? Then they’ve migrated over to willful ignorance.
Later this year, I’m going to the Flat Earth Convention in Denver. I want to see where they are on that scale. And I think that they’re deniers, but I’ve got to test that hypothesis and just see is it ignorance? Presumably, they’ve been exposed to the truth, but they don’t believe it. Why don’t they believe it? In that environment in which people’s trust in the truth tellers — the scientists, the journalists, the teachers — is so eroded that misinformation becomes disinformation, that’s post-truth.Alex Kingsbury is deputy editor of the Ideas section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AlexKingsbury.