We live in a post-truth world. We are now so accustomed to lies, half lies, fantasy and complex convoluted mixtures of all those things that I don’t know if we have any idea what the truth is any more.
The recent Brexit vote has crystallised this for me. There were truths there. There was information on levels of immigration from inside and outside the EU, EU financial arrangements, and the effects of EU legislation on national sovereignty. These were drowned out by shrill angry voices screaming lies, misleading half-truths and catchy slogans. People didn’t want to hear sensible reasoned arguments – they just wanted to howl their frustration to the world.
It’s not just Brexit, though. We’re now so used to politicians lying to us that we accept that this is a normal and unavoidable state of affairs. We’re lied to by the media, by celebrities, by our friends, our colleagues.
Social media in general is a platform for dishonesty. Facebook is a lie. Instagram is a lie. Snapchat is a lie. We lie about who we are, we lie about what we do, we read well curated, beautifully shot lies from our favourite celebrities who peddle the ultimate lie: that we know them and they are our friends. And our real friends lie to us, the ones who aren’t celebrities. We all know that. We know that we and our friends are choosing careful pictures of our lives to show the happy moments, the “lifestyle magazine” moments, the bits that demonstrate that our lives are fun, successful, meaningful, whatever. Even though we know that we are editing our lives there’s a part of us that still believes that the people we follow aren’t editing theirs.
I’m not sure how many species can tell lies. I think you have to be intelligent and social to lie. I don’t think dogs lie. I don’t think cows lie. I’m not sure about chimpanzees. You have to know what’s true, what your audience is expecting and thinking, and what the impact of lying will be. And the fact that we believe things so readily says to me that maybe as a species we plan our lives and societies and friendships and relationships around an expectation of truth. Some kind of truth. Some kind of agreed reality. I know there’s always being social fibbing, oiling the wheels, distorting the truth, fishermen’s tales. But it’s so much easier online. It’s so much easier when you have access to a media that has developed amazing techniques for convincing people, for drawing them in.
So what we do now? Because I think one of the reasons for the whole Brexit mess was that there are a lot of people who are feeling lied to and betrayed by the people they have elected to represent them. And now it seems a lot of people are feeling lied to and betrayed by the media and by crusading politicians who will say anything to win an argument and are happy to turn around within 12 hours of a referendum and say “I never said that. I might have implied it. I might have suggested it. I might have sat on the bus with it written all over the side. But I never actually made a commitment to that.”
That’s very clever in a sixth form debate. I’m not sure how clever is in the real world. And I’m not sure where we go from here. I’m hoping that those people who were howling with frustration at our political system will go on howling loudly. I’m hoping that that anger will translate into some kind of action about this messy, 19th-century debating society that passes for a political system in our country. But I’m not holding my breath.
The Brexit thing scares me for my own election cycle in the US. Donald Drumpf lies one minute and denies it the next, and most of our so-called Journalists are letting him get away with it. What happened to challenging people on the facts? One thing the constant invasion of media makes easy is fact checking – one can roll back tape/media and point out, “You did indeed say that.” Edward R. Murrow is rolling in his grave, I’m afraid. And anyone who challenges Drumpf gets exiled. I cannot remember a time I was this worried about the outcome of an election.
I think your comparison to a sixth form debate very much sums up what just happened. The referendum campaigns were akin to a debating society face-off, with arguments founded on spin and the power of persuasion rather than substance. While Farage and Gove might have actually wanted the UK to leave the EU, I’m not convinced Boris Johnson did, I think he saw it as political opportunism to forward his career. None of them believed the vote would go their way, hence their panic and swift exits, leaving the country in a shambles.
Someone described the pro-leaving leaders as dogs who had caught a car they were chasing and then had no idea what to do with it, when the results came in. I’m American too, and I feel pretty much the same way as bnzoot about our circus here. I am interested by you comments about lying, about which species can lie. I also can’t help thinking of the crazy, disjointed, trivial media, and quazi-news shows that are really about pop-culture and selling us things. Just a huge bread and circus sort of deal. I wonder what you think of Teresa May? I haven’t heard much about her here in the US, until just now. Whatever happens I wish you all the best. We certainly do live in interesting times.