The ‘post-truth’ idea should be taken with a pinch of salt, says David Robertson
We’ve had the politics of fear, followed by the politics of sneer, but now in these post-Brexit times we have a new doctrine for the chattering classes to talk about – “post-truth politics”. Within a matter of weeks this new self-evident truth has attained the status of a fundamentalist doctrine in a religious cult. What does it mean?
In the immediate context of Brexit it has been used to point out that in general those who voted Remain were well-educated, rational beings, guided by facts, whereas the plebs who voted Leave did so because they were either too ignorant or too stupid to comprehend THE truth. They were guided by their racist/anti-establishment feelings and no matter how often they were told the “truth” they did not listen because we are not living in an era of post-truth politics, where facts and truth don’t matter. One newspaper commented that although those on the Remain side “attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased”.
It’s an interesting, if somewhat self-serving idea. Of course some of the politicians on the Brexit side were “economical with the truth”. Did anyone really believe that £350 million per week would be spent on the NHS if we left the EU? Or that Britain was going to experience an invasion of millions of Turks? But the problem with the post-truth politics narrative is that it doesn’t just apply to one side. It works the other way too. Remember the promise by the now ex-Prime Minister Cameron that Article 50 would be triggered the day after the election? Or the similar promise from the now ex-Chancellor Osborne that an emergency budget would immediately be needed?
And it is ongoing. Have you heard about Regrexit, where numerous “experts” told us that many of the people who voted Leave now regretted it? A theory backed up by videos of a few people saying precisely this – not difficult to find in an electorate of over 17 million. It turns out that this too was post- (or is it pre?) truth. An Ipsos Mori poll found that whilst indeed 3 per cent of Leavers regretted their votes, 4 per cent of Remainers regretted theirs. It’s strange how those so concerned with truth neglected to report or put on their social media feeds, this inconvenient truth.
And therein lies the problem. Its not that we live in a post-truth politics, but to some degree we live in a post-truth, postmodern world, where, as the Manic Street Preachers so ironically sang: “This is my truth, tell me yours.” Except that in the post-truth postmodern world, people don’t really want to hear other people’s truths, so they just hear their own and block, defriend or ridicule anyone who dares to disagree.
There is a real concern and danger that for some people politics has become the new religion, something in which they have invested their hopes and dreams. It may be stimulating and exciting, providing a much-needed sense of wider purpose, but it is also profoundly dangerous, especially when that hope is dashed as it inevitably will be.
One can admire the tenacity, manner and politics of Jeremy Corbyn, whilst at the same time being horrified at the antics and actions of some of his more fanatical supporters. Extreme right and extreme left groups often have this quasi-religious Messianic appeal. And nationalist groups as well. When you have a predominant party within one country, in which there is no dissent, and where many people have invested their dreams and aspirations, it can quickly descend into intimidation and bullying. Just go on to one of the cybernat Facebook pages and dare to question the new political orthodoxy and see how you get on!
The problem is that this is not really about truth. It is about feeling and identity in a world where critical thinking and rational evidence have been reduced to the role of supporting actors, if they are there at all. This is a disaster for a Scotland that has for centuries been based on the Christian understanding that the heart is addressed through the mind, and not the other way round. The Scottish Enlightenment grew out of the Reformation conviction that real Christianity needed an educated populace, and that real education should be available for all, because truth matters and no one person or group has a monopoly on truth.
In a world dominated by social media, soundbite news and people looking for confirmation bias for their feelings, it is little wonder that we have entered the realm of post-truth politics. Maybe its time we engaged in some critical thinking, gained a wider perspective and returned to the reality of truth?
Perhaps like Pilate we want to wash our hands and ask “What is truth?”, thinking that agnosticism is the easiest way to go. The Christian position is different. We recognize that we need both reason and revelation in order to reach the truth. “The truth is out there” and is not seen just in series of propositions, but in a person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, the Logos, the reason for our being, the one who promised to lead his followers into all truth. Knowing this truth does not mean that we have a pre-set handed down manual of political answers for all our problems, but it does gives us a relational basis for working things out in humility and love. Know the truth and the truth will make you free!
• David Robertson is director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity