Steve McGrath, December 2016
So the pundits are declaring this a post-truth world. In fact, post-truth was Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
I have a couple of thoughts on this.
First, can you believe the term post-truth is 25 years old? I figured some wiseguy/wisegirl coined it in the last year or so in relation to the 2016 presidential campaign. That’s certainly the period when the term gained currency.
Here’s the Google search frequency since 2004.
As you can see, search activity heated up quite recently.
Yet it was 1992 when Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich is credited with coining post-truth. As The Nation points out, he used it in an essay, “A Government of Lies,” about how, in his view, Watergate, Iran/Contra and the first Gulf War transformed Americans’ relationship with the truth:
We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn’t want bad news anymore, no matter how true or vital to our health as a nation. We looked to our government to protect us from the truth.
Tesich’s ominous conclusion:
We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.
Powerful idea, but I’d argue that our relationship with the truth hasn’t gotten quite that bad. Sure, the “emotions and personal beliefs” that Oxford Dictionaries mentions at the top of this post matter a lot. That’s a premise we at Brodeur have preached for years. To be persuasive, we say, every communicator – company, institution, brand, candidate or cause – needs to go beyond just telling the truth (e.g., “Millions of people don’t get enough to eat”) and make their case in a way that generates emotion (e.g., describing how hunger feels in the body), brings people together (demonstrates how we can help) and affirms values (explains why helping is the right thing to do). These things – sensations, community and values – are what make facts (the truth) meaningful.
In other words, relevance requires more than facts. But it still requires facts.
Yes, voters cast ballots for people they didn’t entirely trust. But if the truth really no longer mattered, we’d have a lot less discontent in civic life.
The truth does matter. It’s absolutely necessary to make someone buy into your brand, product, candidate or cause. Without it, you get nowhere, at least not in a sustainable way.
It’s always good to be reminded. As Steve Barrett of PRWeek says, “This is exactly the time when media and communicators need to double down on the standards of truth, authenticity, transparency, best practice, and facts that have traditionally defined their crafts.”
Agree. It’s a pro-truth world. Let’s keep it that way.