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What’s the opposite of post-truth? It’s not as simple as “the facts”

Two books by Evan Davis and Matthew d’Ancona explore the concept of post-truth. 

If we are living in a post-truth era, it must have started a very long time ago. The British Library recently reproduced the title page of a 1614 newsbook reporting that “a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon)” was living in the woods near Horsham, in Sussex, “to the great annoyance and ­divers slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent poyson”. The very phrase “fake news” dates from more than a century ago, and “false news” existed in the 16th century. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a 20th-century fake news meme that did far more historical damage than anything on Twitter today.

Nor was political lying invented by Donald Trump or Tony Blair, or even Richard Nixon. This is demonstrated by The Art of Political Lying, John Arbuthnot’s splendidly sarcastic pamphlet published in 1712: “The People may as well all pretend to be Lords of Manors, and possess great Estates, as to have
Truth told them in matters of Government.”

So what, if anything, is new? Part of the reason it may seem we are living through an extraordinary crisis of truth is that we have a news culture in which everything must be described as a crisis. So the cynical misinformation ploys of Brexit and Trump, in particular, are thought to have ushered in an era of “post-truth”, given the flagrancy of bogus claims such as that Brexit would release an extra £350m a week for the NHS, and that Trump’s inaugural crowd was the biggest in history (the defence of this lie by his adviser Kellyanne Conway led to her infamous use of the phrase “alternative facts”).

“Post-truth” was coined in 1992 to describe the Iran-Contra scandal and the Gulf War but the popularity of the expression has rocketed more recently, leading to its being chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as the 2016 “word of the year”. The prefix “post”, Oxford explains, means “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”. And yet everywhere the intelligentsia and the tech industry are loudly worrying about truth and how to save it. It’s as if truth, far from having become irrelevant, has shot to the top of the cultural agenda.

Of the two books called Post-Truth under review, Evan Davis’s is the more subtle and wide-ranging, written with the generous intelligence and wry humour that admirers of his broadcasting will recognise. There is a celebrated definition of “bullshit” by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, which is basically a disregard for whether what one is saying is true or not, as opposed to lying, when one knows it isn’t true and is deliberately recounting a falsehood. Yet Davis wants to define bullshit much more broadly, as “any form of communication – verbal or non-verbal – that is not the clearest or most succinct statement of the sincere and reasonably held beliefs of the communicator”. In that case, we all traffic in bullshit most of the time, and for very good reasons.

“Genuine frankness is not the norm but the exception,” Davis points out, defending the circumlocutory speech of diplomats or doctors, of people offering sympathy or encouragement, and even of politicians in some circumstances. At one point, amusingly, he even defends a piece of flowery wine writing. “This is good gibberish,” he judges, “because I think for the intended readers the material is well devised.”

On the other hand, he perceives a real issue in the popularity of a classic Frankfurtian bullshitter such as Donald Trump (whose recent “post-truths” include claims that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election and that Barack Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower office). How should a “fact-conscious person” handle the “afactual” phenomenon? Rather than attempt to reason anyone out of a false position, Davis argues, we should try to understand why they hold it. People choose to believe things for reasons of group belonging and it is not necessarily irrational for them to do so.

He also points out, cleverly, that voters are rational to judge prospective leaders on their perceived character rather than their policies – because “most of what their elected representatives have to do in office is ­react to things that haven’t come up yet”. So the best thing politicians can do is “relax”, “be genuine”, and “present themselves in a more natural way”. I guess if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Similarly, Davis takes a nuanced line on political spin. It is often a rational strategy because the media will hysterically overreact to any “gaffe” – but it can’t in the end lead people to believe things that are manifestly untrue. He recounts being asked by financiers to recommend a PR strategy to solve the City of London’s image problem. He demurred, saying their poor reputation was thoroughly well deserved, given that they had caused a global financial crisis and depression while continuing to pay themselves millions: “If you are regarded as bad and you are bad, you don’t have an image problem, you have a badness problem.”

The banks, indeed, have probably contributed in large measure to one undeniable aspect of our modern version of post-truth, which is the erosion of popular trust in institutions. Matthew d’Ancona’s book also correctly identifies the contribution to this phenomenon of the decades of effort by corporate lobbyists for the big tobacco and oil companies, which wage war on science through obfuscation and manufactured dissent. But he also blames a more surprising third cadre: postmodernists. While acknowledging that in the 19th century Nietzsche and William James cast a shady side-eye on the concept of truth in their different ways, d’Ancona thinks the downgrading of truth in our time has trickled down from the French and American academies, in the work of Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard and Rorty – “to name but five”, he writes, as though they were a homogeneous crew of conspirators.

Yes, the “often incomprehensible” work of the postmodernists, he thinks, is where the rot set in. For “if everything is a ‘social construct’, then who is to say what is false”? D’Ancona asks this plaintively, as though there can be no answer and so the premise must be false. But of course there is an answer: the people who are to say what is false are the people who have acquired the generally acknowledged and demonstrated expertise in judging which social constructs are more or less accurate in making predictions about, say, the operation of machinery. And this has always been how things have worked. It does not entail that we are doomed to a chaotic free-for-all.

The underlying difficulty of today’s polemics about post-truth is that many well-meaning residents of the reality-based community are talking as though it is ­always obvious and uncontroversial what is a “fact” and what isn’t. And yet the very idea of a fact is a social construct with an origin. (As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written: “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a 17th-century invention.”) Facts are fuzzy and changeable; in scientific practice, matters of truth and evidence are always at issue. The best scientific theories are social constructs. Whether they should be taken as accurately describing reality is still an unresolved debate in quantum physics; and, as the biologist Stuart Firestein has written: “All scientists know that it is facts that are unreliable. No datum is safe from the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools.”

Some of our most eminent scientists ­argue that too great an obsession with facts can obstruct progress. The Nobel laureate in physics Frank Wilczek has wittily adapted Stephen Colbert’s comic coinage “truthiness” for his own concept of “truthifiability”. We should worry not so much about whether an idea is true, Wilczek advises, but whether it is “truthifiable” – whether it can inspire further creative research that would otherwise be shut down by overly aggressive and hasty fact-checking.

By contrast, we should not be surprised if the naive positivism espoused by aggrieved liberals who insist on a simplistic portrayal of “the facts” and “the science” does nothing but reinforce the lines of tribal warfare. As Davis rightly observes, “judgement almost always plays a part in our decisions as to what is a fact and what is true”. Trump voters are surely as well aware as anyone else that we all must take most facts on trust – I, for one, have not experimentally verified the idea of anthropogenic global warming – and understandably feel patronised by opponents who deny this is the case. Indeed, to the extent that experts are telling them to shut up and prostrate themselves before an immutable version of the “facts”, they are right to have had enough of experts.

None of this is to deny that the spread of deliberate misinformation and lies is a grave problem. But what should be done about it? A few weeks ago, Facebook took out ­advertisements in the British newspapers offering advice for users on how to spot fake news: “Be sceptical of headlines”, “Investigate the source”, “Check the evidence”, and so forth. This might look rather like a buck-passing cop-out from a giant corporate ­vehicle of fake news that has always denied it is a publisher, but news consumers do have the power to distinguish good from bad, if they are minded to do so.

In any case, fact-check websites aren’t going to be trusted any more than the “mainstream media” by the suspicious or conspiracy-minded, and any attempt by industry or government to establish a kind of institutional truth police will soon fall foul of the reality that truth often comes in shades of grey – quite apart from the idea’s rather unflattering totalitarian aura.

Both Evan Davis and Matthew d’Ancona agree that it is we, the audience, who have the greatest power to push back the tide of fake news. Davis ends his book with the sunny prediction that this peak in the historical graph of public bullshit will pass, as others have done before it, and d’Ancona makes the sensible suggestion that children should be taught methods of source evaluation and sceptical analysis, or what is sometimes seen as coming under the umbrella of “critical thinking”.

I would add that you could even go so far as to make philosophy compulsory in schools, as it is in Brazil. After all, philosophy actually has a branch of study that specialises in issues of truth and knowledge, called epistemology – which is why New Scientist magazine rather sweetly called a few weeks ago for more epistemologists to wade into the public debates.

Whichever tools they choose to employ, it is up to readers, in the end, to decide what they are going to believe. And it has always been thus. The same principle applies both for the news of the horrible dragon in 17th-century Sussex and for the latest unsourced meme on social media: caveat lector (“reader beware”). There never was a golden age of truth, and it’s a good thing, too. 

Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It 
Evan Davis
Little, Brown, 368pp, £20

Post-Truth: the New War on Truth and How to Fight Back 
Matthew d’Ancona
Ebury Press, 176pp, £6.99

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”