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.