The Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. That was the year when the phenomenon marked by this word affected the Western world most. It was the year of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. However, the eastern part of Europe experienced this phenomenon earlier, at least from the year 2014. For Ukraine, where I am from, the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity, which took place in Kyiv during the winter of 2013-14, became the period when the wave of post-truth rose. This wave tried to wash away the results of the Ukrainian Maidan. Now we can say that the post-truth propagated by Russia mostly failed in Ukraine. Probably, we should thank for that the antibodies to propaganda, which our society developed in the Soviet period. The other reason is our long history of co-existence with Russia, which does not leave much room for naivety. Anyways, after stumbling upon Ukraine, the hurricane of post-truth moved further to the West. It overwhelmed some countries in Europe and reached the shores of America…
Let us see how the Oxford dictionaries define the word. According to the Oxford definition, post-truth as an adjective means “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This definition counterposes objective facts to emotion and personal belief. It places the phenomenon of post-truth on the timeline of the western age of reason. Post-truth marks a low point on this timeline, where irrationality becomes a deliberate refusal of rationality. It is a post-rational irrationality, which is quite different from the irrationality that ruled the world before the age of reason. As a result, to apply traditional arguments of the age of reason to deal with this irrationality is not sufficient any more. New rational arguments should be developed to tackle the quasi-rationality of post-truth.
The Oxford definition of post-truth is concise, but not exhaustive. I would like to add to it some more features.
First, post-truth is imitational. It is a simulacrum of truth, but not truth as such. Post-truth employs instruments of rationality, such as analysis and synthesis, but turns them against rationality. That is how post-truth becomes a device of post-rational irrationality.
The natural environment where post-truth grows best is tabloids and social networks, not books, which constitute the best environment for truth. We now understand more or less the informational infrastructure of post-truth. It is built on the imitation of free journalism, whistleblowing, and free opinioning. Indeed, the TV channel “Russia Today” has become an example of blunt propaganda. The “WikiLeaks” has demonstrated how whistleblowing can manipulate and be used as smokescreen by manipulators. We know about armies of so-called “trolls” who are employed to leave comments under publications in respectful media and to post on social networks “opinions” that they receive from their curators. All these are devices of post-truth, which means that post-truth is not spontaneous–it is designed with a purpose.
Post-truth, thus, features teleology. This teleology is primarily political and geopolitical. Post-truth drives masses to use conventional political instruments, such as elections, or less conventional direct actions. Only when the political system is strong enough is post-truth diverted to elections and other conventional political instruments. Otherwise, it prefers direct actions.
Post-truth affects not only states and secular societies, but also churches. Churches embrace post-truth when they entrench themselves in culture wars or identify themselves with an ideological platform. In such cases, churches adopt and reproduce narratives that express only a part of truth. They forget other parts of truth, because those parts are inconvenient.
Post-truth affects people with resentment. It rides on the capacity of human memory to forget bad things and to keep in memory good things. People in the former Communist bloc tend to forget the Kafkaesque absurdity of ideological clichés that surrounded them. They instead become nostalgic about state paternalism. People in the former capitalist bloc retain in their memories only how safe it was without Arabs or Mexicans in their neighborhood. They forget, however, their fears incurred by the clash of ideologies, which kept masses unmovable in political blocs. These selected memories of the past, in combination with inability to deal with new challenges, produce resentment.
Resentment expresses itself in the terms of “us” and “them.” Post-truth exploits and enhances this polarization. The polarization of “us” versus “them” leads to making “them” scapegoats for the failures of “us.” “We” also extrapolate our own iniquities to “them.” We then make our judgments in wholesale, accusing groups for what only individuals can be accused of. Post-truth facilitates such extrapolations and blanket blaming. Scapegoating, which post-truth encourages, is dangerous, and as we all know, has led to catastrophes in the twentieth century.
How can post-truth be tackled? First and foremost, common sense is its fiercest nemesis, which post-truth cannot stand. Unfortunately, post-truth in most cases is legal and as a result cannot be contained by law. Its Achilles’ heel, however, is that it is expensive and often runs on the steroids of dirty money. Transparency and fighting corruption can significantly weaken it. We as Christians should be vigilant and evaluate post-truth against the criteria of the Gospels.
Hence my final question: why should a theologian bother about the seemingly political phenomenon of post-truth? I believe that post-truth is not only a political, but also a theological phenomenon. Post-truth is unchristian. Its sibling is the plain lie, with which it shares a common father. Christians, and even churches, may favor post-truth because it satisfies their own resentment about many things in modern society that can justifiably cause resentment. However, Christians should not yield to the temptation of post-truth, but should stand for truth.
Author’s Note: This publication is based on a presentation at the Conference on Christian approaches to defense and disarmament in the Netherlands on September 9, 2017.
Cyril Hovorun is a clinical assistant professor and acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.