Leadership In The “Era of Post-Truth”

“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

~George Orwell in 1984

In November 2016, The Guardian reported: “In the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year. Defined by the dictionary as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’…use of the term ‘post-truth’ had increased by around 2,000% in 2016” compared to the previous year.

Of course, the suggestion that Donald Trump, Brexit, and a new buzzword herald a new era of dishonesty in history is persuasive only to those who know nothing about history or human beings. Go back to the earliest civilisations and you will find the lie limbering up for its long journey through the ages, sabotaging every attempt at true human community. There is no post-truth era — the lie has always been the scourge of society and the nemesis of leadership.

The reality is that people who condone falsehood are in effect promoting misleadership. When a society, even one in which lies are told in every moment, repudiates its commitment to truth, leadership must inevitably suffer. Leadership is built on vision, virtue, and vigilance, all of which depend on truth; misleadership, by contrast, seeks only to deceive, control, and exploit, with an ever-lurking propensity for violence.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, Barton Swaim parades the moral confusion that gives the post-truth epithet its only relevance. While he correctly notes that American political culture pre-Trump was hardly characterized by reverence for truth, he sees Trump as different not because “he treats the truth with contempt”, but “that he does so openly, almost gleefully, as if he has discovered the phoniness of a myth that holds everyone else in check”.

Swaim argues that the “myth” was “a Protestant-Evangelical ethic of honesty that defined American political culture…”. Ignoring the fatuous implication that non-Protestant Americans were not terribly concerned about truth, one wonders whether our Washington Post scribe is conscious of the fact that the “ethic of honesty” is not only essential to the well-being of rational beings, but also to human relationships and community generally.

When he goes on to say: “We rarely appreciate how American this fixation on honesty is”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he believes his fellow citizens — or the Protestant-Evangelicals at least — have some sort of unhealthy obsession, a neurotic attachment, to the idea of honesty. Is he being honest? Does he even care? Does The Washington Post care? Sadly, the muddle-headedness has not yet run its course, as Swaim continues:

Trump perceived, correctly in my view, that political rhetoric in the US had become empty, a vast collection of platitudes and bogus phrases that bore no real connection to the truth. Everyone else pretended to mean what they said when they didn’t; Trump simply dropped the pretence. The result is a post-Christian political discourse of a distinctively American sort: blunt and self-assured and largely free of the obligation to express yourself with sincerity.”

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He then closes with this cute piece of bravado, blissfully unaware of the irony tweaking his cheek: “I find it hard to lament the quickening demise of the old honesty-based political culture. It had become cheap and false. If Trump hadn’t snapped it, somebody else would have.” In other words, the honesty-based culture had become dishonest, and Trump snapped it by being, well, ‘almost gleefully” dishonest. Does Swaim really, I mean honestly, want the demise of a commitment to honesty to be followed by an open acceptance of dishonesty? The hypocrisy that at least implicitly acknowledges the sovereignty of truth, is not as malignant as the cynicism that says there is no such thing.

A big part of the problem today, of course, is the media saturation that facilitates the dissemination of fake news, for which read propaganda, and the incessant flow of disinformation. In an insightful essay, Why the News Makes Us Dumb, written some 25 years ago, C. John Sommerville, a history professor at the University of Florida, threw a lot of light on the so-called “post-truth” phenomenon.

Defining news as “what has happened since yesterday’s paper or broadcast”, he pointed out that it is a product that inevitably has a major impact on the way people think about politics, society, science, religion, and everything else. The fact that it is a product for which commercial success has priority over truth obviously has serious implications for the kind of understanding people have of our world, and consequently, the very well-being of our civilisation.

The problem goes beyond the usual instances of bias, over-simplification, omission, hyperbole, fallacious reasoning, unfalsifiable accusations, vagueness, and bald-faced lies. It centers on the nature of the product itself:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News — more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.”

Sommerville concluded that there was no easy fix for the problem since it is the immediacy of the news, its essential focus on the present moment, that distorts reality. In a society in which the relationship people have with news tends to be either addiction or indifference, it is hard to argue with the validity of the title of Sommerville’s essay. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that so few people today read any of the history, philosophy, or classic literature that would provide them with the context and the insight that enables a proper understanding of developments.

The decline of cultural literacy over the past half century has led to a decay in the ability of people to relate ideas logically, to see things in context, and to comprehend the world as a whole. The sheer complexity of modern society and our dependence on experts, who have little understanding of phenomena outside their own fields, have made matters worse, and in the helter-skelter of modern life, few people have the time or energy to look for any meaning other than immediate needs or desires. And all this has coincided with a technological revolution that facilitates the dissemination of disinformation in astonishing ways. The opportunities for misleaders have never been greater.

As people quite justifiably grow more cynical, all leaders, from parents to teachers to business managers and politicians, urgently need to affirm the simple reality that a society that cynically trivialises truth will inevitably become dehumanised. And they need to affirm that reality every day. The quest for truth is the mark of humanity, as is easily demonstrated.

Every moment of every day, all around the world, mistakes are made, many of which cause great suffering. People become victims of mistakes in medical diagnosis and in the operating theatre, pilot error, misjudgments that cause road accidents, failure to meet specifications in buildings and public works, flawed assessments of mental health patients, violent offenders, and terror suspects, misappraisals of health and safety standards, faulty evaluations of business principles, prospects, and processes, misguided public opinion on serious social issues, and so on. And how do we fix mistakes?

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Mistakes can only be discerned and corrected if objective truth exists, and can be known by human beings. Objective truth has nothing to do with having a detached or impersonal attitude, nor anything to do with established opinion, which is more often than not just plain wrong, as for example in the enthusiastic support given to Stalin by western intellectuals. Objective truth simply means reality as it is, independent of the minds of people who may or may not be conscious of it. “I am hungry,” is a subjective truth i.e. it corresponds with my inner feelings. “A tornado can destroy a home,” is an objective truth i.e. it corresponds with external realities.

Understanding what truth is turns out to be easier than sceptics and relativists would have us believe. Josiah Royce, the American philosopher, wittily described a liar as “a person who willfully misplaces his ontological predicates.” It’s as simple as that — using ‘is’ when you should be using ‘is not’, and vice versa, is to tell a lie. As Aristotle explained, truth is nothing more than correspondence with reality, and telling the truth is just telling it like it is.

Sadly, the modern world rejected Aristotle’s common sense, and came up with five alternative theories:

  1. The Pragmatist Theory contends that truth is what works. This is obviously nonsense — we have the words ‘effective’ and ‘practical’ for ‘what works’, and if we make ‘truth’ a mere synonym for these, we lose the means to express the rational concept of ‘corresponding with reality’.
  2. The Empiricist Theory holds that truth is what we perceive through sense experience. But there are things we sense that are not true e.g. illusions, self-delusion, and mirages. Sense experience must be backed by intuition, judgment, abstract reasoning, and reliable authority.
  3. The Rationalist Theory says truth is whatever is capable of rational proof. But the claim is self-refuting — one cannot prove that truth is confined to what can be proved. Indeed, Gödel’s Theorem showed that even some mathematical propositions are beyond proof.
  4. The Coherence Theory sees truth as simple coherence or harmony within a set of ideas. This collapses when it claims truth for itself, but for no other integrated sets of belief. And there are many sets of ideas built on untrue foundations e.g. Marxism, Freudianism, positivism, etc.
  5. The Emotivist Theory believes truth is based on the feelings of the individual. In a narcissistic age, this idea is obviously popular, but it is, of course, absurd. Feelings are often based on untruth e.g. misplaced anger, shallow sentimentality, irrational fear, and racial animosity.

All these modern attempts to make truth something that it is not were foreshadowed in earlier times, because rational animals not only seek the truth but also invent lies. The theories all fail because they necessarily presuppose the common sense definition of truth. Each one claims truth for itself i.e. correspondence with reality and declares the others to be untrue i.e. lacking correspondence with reality. And you cannot contradict a statement made by someone else unless you believe your own position stands on objective truth i.e. it corresponds with reality.

If the conflict between truth and untruth has been a constant in human affairs, what credence should be given to the ‘post-truth’ idea? The word itself is misleading and merely adds to the moral confusion that afflicts the modern West. It suggests that truth is a thing of the past, without considering the obvious implications for relationships, justice, science, education, and everything else. But its implicit warning is justifiable because of the aggravating factors peculiar to our times.

Over and above the highly intrusive technology that enables the instantaneous dissemination of fictional realities, and the contemporary obsession with news as entertainment, there are two additional factors that leaders need to dismantle. First, the pervasive belief that people can define reality for themselves i.e. that we make our own truth. And secondly, political correctness and politicised public institutions and corporate entities that daily violate the freedoms fundamental to humane society.

Of course, these intimidating citadels of cynicism are highly fortified, and very few people will try to dismantle them. Yet that is precisely what leaders at all levels must do. These very factors explain why civilised discussion has become all but impossible in any of the proliferating channels available, and why confusion and hatred contaminate policy debates on issues like climate change, immigration, law and order, education, healthcare, the financial crisis, and geopolitical calamities.

There is no post-truth era, because truth is always there, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not — the truth about Aleppo, the truth about Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Samsung, the truth about the European Union, the truth about Flint, and everything else. The question is what will we do about it, and the answer to that is the test of leadership. The fact that issues like these remain unresolved makes the truth of the global leadership crisis scream for action. But no one is listening.

Who today pays any attention to the wisdom of the great Martin Buber?

“The lie is our very own invention, different in kind from every deceit that the animals can produce. A lie was possible only after a creature, man, was capable of conceiving the being of truth. It was possible only as directed against the conceived truth. In a lie the spirit practices treason against itself.”

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