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Origins of ‘post-truth’ and how the liberal left spawned it

Post-truth” has been announced as the Oxford Dictionaries’ internation- al  word  of  the  year.  It  is widely associated with Us presi- dent-elect  Donald  trump’s  extravagantly untruthful assertions and the working-class people who voted for him nonetheless. but responsibility for the “post-truth” era lies with the middle-class professionals who pre- pared the runway for its recent take- off.  those  responsible  include  aca- demics, journalists, “creatives” and financial traders; even the centre-left politicians who have now been hit hard by the rise of the anti-factual. On November 16, 2016 Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post- truth”  had  been  selected  as the

word which, more than any other,

reflects “the passing year in lan- guage”. It defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circum- stances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

the  word  itself  can  be  traced back as far as 1992, but document- ed usage increased by 2,000% in 2016 compared to 2015. As Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl explained: We first saw the frequen- cy really spike this year in June with buzz over the brexit vote and again  in  July  when  Donald  trump secured the republican presidential Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defin

ing words of our  time.  punditry on the “post-truth era” is often accompanied by a picture either of Donald  trump  (for  example,  bbC News  Online  or  the  Guardian)  or of  his  supporters  (the  spectator). Although the spectator article was a rare exception, the connotations embedded in “post-truth” com- mentary are normally as follows: “post-truth” is the product of popu- lism; it is the bastard child of com- mon-touch charlatans and a rabble ripe for arousal; it is often in blatant disregard of the actualité.


The truth about post-truth

but this interpretation blatantly dis- regards the actual origins of “post- truth”. these  lie  neither  with  those deemed under-educated nor with their new-found champions. Instead, the ground breaking work on “post- truth” was performed by academ- ics, with further contributions from an extensive roster of middle-class professionals. Left-leaning, self-con- fessed liberals, they sought freedom from state-sponsored truth; instead they built a new form of cognitive confinement  – “post-truth”.

more than 30 years ago, aca- demics started to discredit “truth” as one of the “grand narratives” which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of


“the truth”, which was to be reject- ed as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permit- ted only “truths” – always plural, frequently personalised, inevitably relativized.

Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal   truth.  this   was   one   of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean- Francois  Lyotard’s the  postmodern Condition: A report on Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era.

And these attitudes soon spread across wider society. by the mid- 1990s, journalists were following academics in rejecting “objectivity” as nothing more than a professional ritual. Old-school hacks who contin- ued to adhere to objectivity as their organising principle were scolded for cheating the public and deceiving themselves in equal measure.

Nor was this shift confined to the minority who embraced war reporter martin bell’s infamous “journalism of attachment”, which supported the


idea that journalists should respond personally to events. Under the flag of pragmatism, the professional consensus allowed for a lower-case version of truth, broadly equiva- lent to academic relativism – which nonetheless dissociated professional journalism from the allegedly anach- ronistic quest for the one true truth, as  in  Ivor  Gaber’s three  Cheers  for subjectivity: Or the Crumbling of the   seven   pillars   of   Journalistic Wisdom. but this shift meant that journalists were already moving towards a “post-truth” age.

meanwhile, in the ‘creative’ econ- omy … In the second half of the 1990s, branding comprised the core business of the newly categorised “creative industries”. bright young things generated fast-growing reve- nues by creating a magical system of mythical thinking known in short- hand as “the brand”.

branding came to be seen as far more important than the mundane activity of product design, develop- ment and manufacture. In britain, as the latter went into decline, the simultaneous expansion of City-type activities meant that the national economy was reconfigured around whatever the next person was pre- pared to believe in, which is as close as financial markets ever get

to the truth. In Western econ- omies, this system of managed perceptions and permanent pr – promotional culture as a whole way of life – has now largely replaced the incontrovertible  facts  of large-scale


throughout  the  second  half  of the 1990s and into the new century, there was optimistic talk of a “new economy”, driven by the expansion of technology and the internet. It was seemingly based on a whole genera- tion of “symbolic analysts” – robert reich’s term for “the workers who make up the creative and knowledge economies” – happily living on thin air.

even then, there were concerns that the associated media sector was a living example of the emperor’s New Clothes, as illustrated by televi- sion’s “self-facilitating media node”, Nathan barley. but it is now clear that in moving inexorably towards free-floating, barely verifiable “intan- gibles” (a buzzword of the time), the millennial hybrid of creative and financial services was also a stepping stone to “post-truth”.


Political post-truth

But the political realm experienced parallel developments, too, and they were similarly aligned to the trend towards “post-truth”. In the Us, bill Clinton initiated the transformation of politics into “showbiz for uglies” – a show of inclusivity performed in a series of shared national experiences. In the UK, this was exemplified in tony   blair’s   role   at   the   forefront of public reaction to the death of princess Diana.

the  extent  to  which  such  phenom- ena are best understood as myth rather than reality, has been well illustrated in the recent film Hyper Normalisation by Adam Curtis.

by the turn of the century, gov- ernment was already less about  the “truth” than about how “truths” could be spun. so-called “spin doc- tors” took centre stage; it was gov- ernment by pr – and the Iraq War was a prime example. Facts, apparently, took a back seat.

meanwhile, the art of govern- ment was also being dumbed down into “evidence-based” managerialism

– the largely exclusive process with which “Washington insider” Hillary Clinton has been unfavourably asso- ciated.

As   further   practised   by   tony blair, during his stint as UK prime minister, outgoing Us president, barack Obama, and their respective administrations, the subdivision of politics into (a) cultural experience and (b) management, has made a dual contribution to the social con- struction of “post-truth”.

As the protagonists neared the role of a priest or pop star in their near-mythical performances,  so the Clinton-blair-Obama triad has moved politics further away from truth and closer to the realm of the imagination.

meanwhile, in the hands of man- agerialists what was left of the truth

– “the evidence base” – was soon recognised by the wider population as a tool for use in social engineering, and largely discredited as a result – hence the mounting hostility towards experts, on which brexiteer michael Gove sought to capitalise in the run- up to the eU referendum.

On both counts, prominent rep- resentatives of the centre-left pre- pared the ground for the post-politics of “post-truth”.

the  irony  is  that  some  of  their closest relatives have been the first casualties of its further realisation.

“post-truth” is the latest step in a logic long established in the history of ideas, and previously expressed in the cultural turn led by middle-class professionals. Instead of blaming populism for enacting what we set in motion, it would be better to acknowledge our own shameful part in it.


The author is a Principal Lecturer in Journalism, Humanities and Creative Industries, University of East London