A New Kind of Political Lying?

Bending the truth vs. breaking it

A term has come to light that describes the current political climate: post-truth. It describes a culture that relegates facts to a secondary consideration, mere distractions from more important things like emotional appeals and shallow talking points.

Big political events in the English-speaking world (like Brexit and the election of Trump) have brought it to the fore. It was voted Word of the Year 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries.

In brief: some claims were made during the Brexit campaign that the facts plainly disagreed with (like “grossly” overstating British contributions to the EU, claiming the UK doesn’t control its own borders, or Turkey’s ‘imminent’ joining of the EU), and some promises were made before the vote only to be dumped before the ink on the ballot papers had even dried (the extra 350 million for the NHS being the most infamous). Meanwhile, Trump’s relationship with the truth reached unusual levels of notoriety.

In these cases, whole communities of fact checkers didn’t dissuade a lot of voters from embracing the people who lied. Pointing out the facts didn’t sway the results. Hence the observation that we seem to be living in a post-truth culture.

But is this new? Post-truth implies that we once lived in a society where facts were of primary importance. Some might dispute that was ever the case.

“Oh, wow, you found a politician that lied? Big story! In other news: bear defecates in forest.”

Yes, the political class has long been lampooned for its relationship with the truth. Propaganda, public relations, spin and so on. Is there really anything different here? Do we really need a new term like post-truth?

I think we do.

Whether or not it’s quite the right term, I think it describes something important: there’s a difference between the business-as-usual trickiness with the truth and outright lies. Let’s call it the difference between fibbing and lying. Fibbing is telling half the story, taking quotes out of context, or cherry-picking facts. A fibber bends the truth; a liar breaks it. To fib, you have to accept that truth exists in the first place. A liar doesn’t even care whether truth is real or not. Their beliefs are as good as your facts.

I’ve personally been aware of the more brazen brand of lying in other contexts for several years now. Just a couple of examples I’m aware of:

  • Journalists have described how Putin’s regime churns out seemingly senseless and constantly shifting lies. The net effect is to keep any opposition constantly off-balance and challenge the notion that there really is such a thing as truth.
  • Organised anti-science campaigners release a steady stream of statements contradicted by scientific fact. Journalist Peter Hadfield, who puts a lot of effort into refuting claims made by anti-vaxxers, anti-evolutionists and climate change deniers, says that trying to correct them is like playing whack-a-mole.

This kind of lying requires special recognition. It puts those of us who value truth on an unequal footing. With the force of political power behind it, it can have dangerous effects on people leaving them frustrated, disoriented and untrusting.

What’s more, the wall of reality will hit eventually.

After all, it’s one thing to say you’d like the UK to try and stay in the Single Market. It’s quite another thing to claim the UK can be a member of the Single Market and drop freedom of movement when the Articles of the EU say precisely and unambiguously the opposite. What happens when those who bought that promise learn it’s not going to happen?

It’s one thing to cherry pick the evidence for climate change and make it look like humans aren’t the main cause of it. It’s quite another to say climate change is a lie invented by the Chinese. What happens when the wall of climate change reality hits?

This article was written for 4K Byte Size, a series of articles that are a maximum of 4,096 characters in length.

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