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Is Being 'Post-Truth' A New Concept?

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The Oxford Dictionary announced a couple weeks ago that "post-truth" is its 2016 word of the year.

According to the dictionary's website, the word is "an adjective 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.' "

The word has been around for a few decades or so, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, there has been a spike in frequency of usage since Brexit and an even bigger jump since the period before the American presidential election.

That sounds about right. Feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies, that's what actuated the electorate. Not arguments. Not facts.

In the case of candidate Donald Trump, what's impressive is not that he openly lied (President Obama founded ISIS? The challenge to President Obama's status as an American was initiated by Hillary Clinton? Climate change is an elaborate Chinese hoax?) What's impressive is that the electorate — or rather, a very large minority of the electorate — didn't seem to care or at least refused to treat the candidate's dishonesty as in anyway disqualifying. That's the post-truth bit.

Is it really so new? Is it really true at all that truth is "so yesterday" in American — and maybe also British — political life?

I am not so sure.

Recall the famous case of Tawana Brawley. As I recall the story, Brawley, who was a teenage girl in New York, came home late one night; her clothes had been torn off and racist taunts had been smeared in dog feces on her body. She claimed that a group of white males had assaulted her. This was the 1980s — race relations in New York were taut (think: Bernhard Goetz and the Central Park jogger). Her supporters, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, took to the streets and demanded justice.

It was later determined that the events she reported had never occurred. She'd made up the story to provide cover so that her parents wouldn't punish her for staying out late.

There is no longer any doubt about this: She had lied.

I remember discussing the case at the time with a friend. My friend was livid; with tears in her eyes she insisted that what Brawley had said was true even if she had made up the story. For what was true was that black people are vulnerable and experience themselves as victims of white society.

Now you might say of my friend back in the '80s that she was "post-truth." She was letting emotions rather than facts guide her.

Alternatively, you could say she viewed the local particular facts at issue as irrelevant to the larger and more important truth of ongoing racial violence and injustice.

I don't for a second defend my friend's take on events, but I do think that this sort of case should give us pause before we jump to the conclusion that Brexit voters, or those who supported President-elect Trump, are indifferent to the question of truth.

My own view is that Trump's election marks a danger to the survival of democracy in our country. But I am not persuaded that his supporters as a whole are "post-truth." What's true for these people, as with my friend regarding the case of Tawana Brawley, is a certain story line.

This isn't so unusual in political life. An example: It didn't bother me that former President Bill Clinton lied about his sexual relationship with his intern in the White House. But I was not indifferent to truth. I just couldn't get myself to think that anything of importance was at stake.

Perhaps this is how Trump supporters feel when fact-checkers challenge his claim that he's a great businessman or that he's very, very rich. They don't care whether he's right; they like the fact that he feels great, that he feels rich. Ditto regarding Obama and ISIS, Hillary Clinton and birtherism, the Chinese and "the hoax" of climate change.

It isn't indifference to the truth to be indifferent to some of the outlandish stuff people say. Maybe it's post-truth.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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