Tuesday 23 October 2018

Ugly populism, and rationality threatened by emotion? THE POST-TRUTH ERA

The subject of Evan Davis' book on Post-Truth came up earlier this year on this blog and on November 11th we will explore his ideas more fully.  Not everyone will have read the book but it will be presented to the group prior to a discussion.

The expression 'post-truth' seems to have arisen in 1992, though George Orwell would tell you that there was a strong premonition of the phenomenon as far back as the 1930s ('Looking back on the Spanish Civil War', 1942). According to Matthew D'Ancona, 2016 was the year which definitively launched the post-truth era. The word was Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year in 2016, defined as short-hand for 'circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief'.  

The Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition "The Future Starts Here" and among the exhibits is a leaflet produced for the 2016 referendum.  It carried the NHS logo - though it was neither produced nor sanctioned by the NHS - and it encouraged people to vote Leave "to help protect your local hospital".  The curators of the exhibition have headed the leaflet as 'post-truth propaganda'. 

Hot on its heels seems to be the concept of 'fake news', which handy term seems to allow anyone to say anything for political ends without fear of being shown to be wrong: the facts will just be dismissed as 'alternative'.  Lord Hall of the BBC said recently that the expression has "given street cred to mass disbelief".  He said: "It threatens people everywhere.  For democratic government to be legitimate, it needs not just the consent of the people, but their informed consent." 

Another scary word is 'disinformation', which Pope Francis has described as 'snake-tactics' (referring to the serpent in the garden of Eden), "that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments".  Not just in politics or on social media but even at the heart of academe, fears have been raised that the quest for truth is being undermined.  Earlier this year, British universities were challenged by a pro-Brexit MP to reveal the content of their lectures, lest a good word might have been said for the anti-Brexit case.  George Orwell must have felt distinctly restless in his grave. 

Matthew D'Ancona, a former editor of The Spectator who beat Evan Davis to it with his own 2017 book, Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back is worth quoting in this context: 
We have entered a new phase of political and intellectual combat, in which democratic orthodoxies and institutions are being shaken to their foundations by a wave of ugly populism. Rationality is threatened by emotion, diversity by nativism, liberty by a drift towards autocracy.  
What this all adds up to is a basic mistrust across our society and D'Ancona argues that 'powerful counter-narratives' will be required to defend the truth. Some  have hoped that these false narratives will be counteracted by a deeper, powerful narrative (Bishop Michael Curry offered one such at the royal wedding in May) so that we can somehow counter the destructive culture of post-truth.  What would be your counter-narrative? 

Do join us on November 11th at Wychwood Library as we discuss this topic along with two others suggested by books which participants will bring along and introduce (see previous post, below). 

Sunday 7 October 2018



Wychwood Circle started out as a monthly discussion based on some agreed reading and occasionally we return to that format. This time, as a departure from the norm, we are selecting several books and inviting people to come and present them - which we hope will nevertheless give rise to some interesting discussion. For those who prefer to come forearmed the 3 books under discussion will be the following - click on the title for a description and/or review: 

The author is Franciscan priest (with more than a passing knowledge of psychologist Carl Jung) and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation Richard Rohr.
Described by Huffington Post as 'timely, riveting, enlightening and necessary', the book is by American-Iranian Reza Aslan

by economist, journalist and broadcaster Evan Davis.

Intimate knowledge of these texts will NOT be required.  Someone will describe the main ideas.  But you may wish to dip in ahead of November 11th in order to be as well informed as possible. 

Wychwood Library 7pm - 9pm November 11th 2018