In the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year 2016.
US election and EU referendum drive popularity of adjective............defined by the dictionary as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.
Well, there we are then, it’s official. Telling lies is the new normal, accepted if not acceptable. Morally defensible? Maybe even that. The end justifies the means. And so on.
What will we tell children? Tell the truth or each lie will make your nose grow longer? If you tell lies nobody will believe you when you tell the truth? Even if you shout ‘fire’ and there really is one and you are in danger of burning to death? (It’s called ‘putting the fear of God into children - I hope we don’t really do that to them anymore.)
When I was in junior school our teacher encouraged us to put on a play about Saint Nicholas, the one who brings good children presents while bad children are threatened with the cane wielded by Ruprecht, Nicholas’ servant. I was a bit of an uppity know-all, not only did I make up the play, I also appropriated to myself the role of Nicholas, dishing out praise and admonishments as I saw fit in my misplaced enthusiasm and infantile eagerness. Most of my fellow class mates received mild praise, a few I told off for minor (imaginary) misdeeds but for just one girl, chosen at utter random, St Nicholas, i.e. me, had a serious face, a slow and ponderous voice and the ultimate accusation: “you tell lies”.
The girl instantly dissolved into floods of tears, sobbing that she never lied, that lying was bad and a sin and that she would never do that. Teacher cradled her in his arms, trying to calm her down, saying how the whole thing was made up and not true and nobody believed that she lied. He threw me a very filthy look, told me to say sorry, to go away and be ashamed of myself for being so unkind. I was crushed, indeed feeling ashamed and guilty and very disappointed that my grand play had come to such an ignominious end. I got carried away, as they say, didn’t know when to stop.
I had accused a class mate of lying; not in a playground rough and tumble way, but seriously, on an important occasion, with teacher and the whole class being present. The poor child’s pitiful sobs took a long time to subside. The fact that I remember it so well all these many years later shows how deeply memorable the incident was, probably not just for me.
Today we know that the Brexiteers led by Johnson and Farage in the UK and election campaign Trumpism in the US have made lying into an art form; the more they lied the more people applauded them. One day after Brexit Farage was asked about that repeatedly promised extra 350 m for the NHS. His answer? Oh well . . . . .
And "post-truth" nobody holds them and their cronies accountable. The sensation is not the demise of truth but the fact that we already have a word for it. Oh Brave New World.