The post-truth society

I’m pretty sure it was in my Master’s program, probably in my first quarter in that program, that I was in a class with Anne Pym, a professor who offered me both endless fascination and endless frustration for reasons I won’t go into here.

We were reviewing the problem of evaluating sources, a problem in any literature review, which is basic to situating one’s research, or inquiry, in scholarship. Somehow I was asking about being able to trust truthfulness and Pym responded that she would hope so.

I don’t think I was satisfied with that response but I didn’t know how to pursue the line of questioning. Pym was relying on a certain good faith that people were basically truthful, that even if they were wrong, they were generally not intentionally so, at least not in published works.

I might now doubt that Pym even meant for me to be satisfied with that response. Because truth is a problem. Even positivism recognizes the inadequacy of our attempts to perceive it. Post-modernism raised that doubt to a whole new level. And, in truth, we don’t even know what truth is, because there is no theory of truth that withstands scrutiny.[1] And when we use deception in positivist research, we run the risk that subjects will sense that deception, meant to prevent them from telling us what they might think we want to hear, and deceive us in turn,[2] with unassessable effects on scholarly knowledge.

But still, scholars basically rely on truth. Intellectual dishonesty occurs but is universally condemned even if it is not always identified or recognized. We need to be honest with each other and we need honesty from participants in our inquiries.

Journalists have it rougher. Particularly with newsroom cutbacks, they are under pressure to produce quantity on a short time frame. Accordingly they too often turn to so-called “reliable” sources, deemed reliable both because they reliably produce a volume of newsworthy information and because they are, really rather arbitrarily, considered trustworthy.

It doesn’t always work. People, particularly those in power—functionalist conservatives whose principal interests lie in preserving their positions and privileges relative to the rest of the population—sometimes have an interest in deception. The powerful have many points of leverage, and journalists may feel compelled to play along in order to preserve access or even just to stay in business. And it isn’t even a situation where the powerful are united in telling a single story for which they want stenographers. On any given story, different powerful people, ranging from opposing politicians to corporate executives in conglomerates that include media organizations to publishers and editors to any other powers that be all have interests that may come into conflict, even if, as C. Wright Mills suggested, they are united in their class interests.[3] Beyond that, journalists typically operate within a paradigm that assumes a basic goodness of “the system” and its underlying values, in which truth and goodness, if brought to light, may prevail.[4]

At present, our society seems divided between those who believe Fox News and those who don’t. When I was in my Master’s program, in Speech Communication, it was accepted throughout the program, even by conservative professors (Pym was one, but not the only one), that Fox was more demagoguery than news. But we now have a president who serves only those who believe Fox News, dismissing the rest of us as disloyal and other news organizations as “Fake News” (capitalized). News briefings at the White House have become like what David Halberstam described as the “Five O’Clock Follies,” defense department briefings in old Saigon (since renamed Ho Chi Minh City) whose content was trusted by editors back in the U.S. but far removed from the battlefield reality reporters saw in the jungles of Vietnam.[5]

And I am thinking of propaganda like that in authoritarian socialist regimes (for examples, the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China), so pervasive that a cynical populace simply assumes it all to be false. Those who believe Fox News have already arrived at that position in their attitudes with regard to other news organizations and the rest of us are there with regard to Fox.

I wish I could tell you where this leads. I don’t know. The sources I cite in this essay make clear that this moment is not unprecedented in any of its particulars. What I think is unprecedented is the way that these particulars have come together in a society that maybe never fully trusted news reporting in the past but certainly trusted it more than it does now. And I think those who suffered in authoritarian socialist regimes have a very different experience from those who take the name of an entire hemisphere to refer to themselves as “Americans;” I know not what they can teach us.

Further, the difference between those who believe Fox News and those who do not is a large part of the political polarization in a country that has come to resemble a horrible marriage. Neither partner trusts what the other says. Neither partner accepts the motives of the other. And neither partner is willing to consider a divorce; rather, they each insist upon attempting to dominate the other, and each considers the other a tyrant.

In such a relationship, the concept of truthfulness is irrelevant. Even when someone tries to be truthful, they are despised. Morality reduces to a matter of picking sides wherein whatever each side does is “good” because “our” side does it or “evil” because “their” side does it, regardless of what it is or what motives lie behind it.

I do not know how such a relationship continues. I think surely one partner must murder the other. And if truth is the first casualty in war,[6] it suffers a similar fate in the U.S. today.

  1. [1]Bradley Dowden and Norman Swartz, “Truth,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 17, 2004, http://www.iep.utm.edu/truth/
  2. [2]I regret I have long since lost track of my source for this.
  3. [3]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  4. [4]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  5. [5]Megan Garber, “The World Burns. Sarah Sanders Says This Is Fine,” Atlantic, July 19, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/07/sarah-sanders-russia-and-the-absolution-of-chaos/565610/; David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000).
  6. [6]Quotation attributed to Aeschylus.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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