Almost three years ago, the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, an adjective 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.” But those of us who pine for the good old Comedy Central days of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” followed by “The Colbert Report” know that the Oxford Dictionary is a decade behind the dictionary times.
The 2006 Merriam-Webster Dictionary word of the year was truthiness, defined as a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Colbert introduced the term on air in October of 2005.
There is little doubt that we find ourselves in a world of truthiness, where fact-checking is an obsolete job description and how one feels is a better guide to what is true than anything an “expert” might have to say. Pilate famously asked Jesus “What is Truth”?—the post-fact world answer is “whatever most aligns with how you feel,” or more simply, “whatever the hell you want it to be.”
This is no surprise, of course, to anyone who has paid even marginal attention to politics over the past few years. As Donald Trump and his spokespersons make outrageously false and overblown statements on a daily basis, fact-checking sites fall over each other establishing the falsehood of many of his claims. And it doesn’t matter. Unaware that we are in a post-fact as well as a post-truth world, many people since the rise of Trump have predicted that this time the outrageous attack on facts would derail his campaign. Those making such predictions (including myself) were under the false impression that one should be held responsible for how well what one says coheres with facts. But as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski noted at Harvard University’s campaign postmortem symposium after the 2016 election three years ago,
This is the problem with the media [and I guess with millions of others as well]. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.
Or as CNN’s Scottie Nell Hughes (a Trump advocate), commenting around the same time on a Trump tweet that millions of votes—roughly the number of votes by which he trailed Hillary Clinton in the popular vote—were cast illegally, said:
One thing that’s been interesting this campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts — amongst him and his supporters — and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and there’s no facts to back it up.
Feeling the truth in one’s gut does a nice end run on the inconvenient and often challenging activity, as I regularly challenge my students to do, of earning the right to have one’s opinion. Constructing arguments, supporting one’s premises with facts, and being open to changing one’s views in the face of contrary evidence is just so damned annoying and a waste of time. As philosopher Roger Scruton notes, in the world before post-truth,
People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than most.
But I should be fair here, assuming that we have not yet entered a “post-fairness” world as well. I have said and written more times than I can count over the years that uncertainty is a good thing, that certainty is vastly overrated, and even that there are some areas of human activity (such as philosophy) where facts and definitive answers are far less important than open-ended inquiry and the conviction that the most important questions are never closed. Isn’t this, in its own way, a push-back against the importance of facts?
Even more importantly, the life of faith seems by its very nature to be immune to fact-checking. During the holiday season, for instance, conversations among persons of Christian faith often touch base with the foundational stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels. Did they really happen in the way the authors claim? Does it matter that the stories are not entirely consistent with each other, that none of them include all of the features of the nativity story that we are so attached to? What if we found out that none of the details really happened in the ways described?
In truth (!), it’s just about guaranteed that none of the “facts” of the nativity story are “true” in a fact-checking sort of way—such is the nature of ancient texts and events that occurred (or didn’t) over two millennia ago. Does this then reduce faith to a “gut feeling” in the same way that “truthiness” reduces truth and facts? On a surface level, perhaps; but on the deepest levels, absolutely not.
I once asked a class a number of years ago, “If you consider yourself to be a Christian, would it make any difference to your faith if it could be definitively proven that Jesus never existed and that none of the stories in the gospel accounts are factually true?” I received a wide range of responses, but one in particular has stuck with me. A young lady, after much thought, said “No, I would still be a Christian because it makes me a much better person than I would be if I wasn’t one.”
There is a great deal of wisdom in her comment. Faith holds the believer to a far more rigorous standard than mere feelings or even facts. Whether or not Jesus was born in a manger or Mary was a virgin when he was born is far less important than what difference the stories and teachings reported in the gospels make in ones’ life. I have often said and written that the best evidence for the truth of one’s faith is a changed life. As the blind man who is told by the Pharisee authorities that the man (Jesus) who healed him is a sinner said, “Whether he is a sinner or not I do not know but I know this—I was blind, and now I see.” That takes the issue to whole different level than fact-checking.