A couple of weeks ago I read an article that, should I have taken it literally and all the way, would have pushed me into a depression. The article was political in nature but addressed a larger concern of our mental and cultural state—certainly in this country, maybe in the world. The author attempted to explain the jaw-dropping phenomenon of this year’s elections by positing that we live in a “post-truth world.” Yes. The world in which the concept of truth is the thing of the past.
His argument was simple, sad, and based on observation: Look at the reaction of Donald Trump’s followers to the multitude of errors, misstatements, and outright lies coming from their candidate, the author said. It appears that nothing Mr. Trump says, no matter how false, nonsensical, or outrageous, has any impact on his supporters’ devotion. The author’s conclusion was this: Now is the era of the heart to the exclusion of the head, when it no longer matters if what we’re told is factually true; it only matters how it makes us feel.
As I was reading, more than just Donald Trump’s campaign was rushing through my mind, and I realized with horror that the writer had a point. Our disregard for truth, I believe, is less often expressed overtly as ambivalence toward facts and more often as ignorance, incompetence, and indifference. This triad has been a top subject of my habitual diatribe for years, though I had not put it to myself in terms of the role of truth in our culture, and yet the article’s author has hit on something: We are adjusting our educational methods to become more skill-oriented, more entertaining, and less substantive; our young people are increasingly viewing history and geography as nothing but school subjects, entirely disconnected from them as members of the whole, culture-bearing human race; our marketing delivers very little information but a barrage of positive images—we buy, do, and even learn what feels immediately good.
I was reading and revolting against the idea, against the term “post-truth world” coined before my eyes. I remember when Stephen Colbert coined a new term that had soared in popularity: “truthiness.” This was years ago, and it was a joke then, intended to expose the malleable relationship our political machine was having with facts. “Truthiness” is something that sounds like it’s true but doesn’t have to be, something that’s, at best, fluffy around the edges. Colbert was joking to make the same point: we are satisfied by feeling like it’s true when it isn’t, and now “truthiness” is a word in a dictionary, and he’s come up with a new word: “trumpiness.” Unlike truthiness, trumpiness doesn’t have to sound true. It just has to be grammatically a statement that used to refer to facts. We watch Colbert, and we laugh.
But wait, why are Donald Trump’s statements our measurement of the society’s reaction to fact-checking? What about the outrage toward Hillary Clinton’s misstatements in her email server scandal? Millions of people declare their inability to trust her as the reason they won’t vote for her. She is a liar, they say. Is this not a sign that we prioritize truth-telling? Then I remember that many of the same people who berate Clinton for dishonesty are unbothered by Trump. “He didn’t mean that,” they say. Or “What does it matter? He’ll make America great again.”
My post today is not really about politics, but political debate brings out and crystallizes our cultural attitudes like nothing else does. I am reminded of Hillary Clinton’s one disastrous appearance on television during the primary season, when she was asked if, should she be elected, she would always be truthful with the American people. She smiled tensely and said something like “I will do my best” or “I will try as much as I can”—she hedged. And a hurricane of opprobrium unleashed upon her head, at that time contrasting her with Bernie Sanders: “She is a liar, you see? She won’t even promise to tell the truth!” Even the benevolent commentators like Stephen Colbert rolled their eyes in exasperation: “What are you doing?! When you are asked if you would always tell the truth to the American people, you say YES! Just say YES, for God’s sake! That’s what you say if you want to be president!” And not one of them stopped to reflect that her answer was the most truthful statement of anybody else’s, the most truthful it could be. Because no one always tells it like it is, especially not someone with the highest intelligence clearance. We know our leaders lie to us, and it’s only the matter of degree, intention, timing, and consequences that decides whether we become angry at them. With her wealth of experience, she knows it better than anyone, and, when asked, she was as honest as she could be. Just then, she told it to the American people like it was.
But we can’t see it. We don’t really want the facts. Some of us want the idealistic, noble but unrealistic feeling of Bernie Sanders’ euphoria. Others want the ruthless and incoherent but self-empowering grandeur of Donald Trump. These are political examples, but isn’t it the same in life? Are we really living in a post-truth world?
This idea of a truth that isn’t rooted in fact but only in the metaphor of the heart is not new, and it has a name: fiction. Such is the world of literature. This is what I do; this is what I write, so of course I find it meaningful. It’s a precious thing in itself. But the whole purpose of a book is that you close it and go out into the world to bring its meaning, its lessons to bear where reality lives. We cannot ignore facts forever, for they will sneak up on us unnoticed and kill us. As much as we might want to, we cannot live in a book. We cannot live in a post-truth world.