In an age of Brexit and Trump, is our post-truth world heading for a system reboot?
Andrew Sheng says that as what is true or false becomes harder to discern, the corresponding shift to the right in US society will make conflict more likely
The most fashionable word following Brexit and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election was “post-truth”, roughly defined as the “cherry-picking of data to support emotive politics”. If there is no truth or objective facts, because all media is subject to manipulation, then are we living in an “alt-future”, an alternative future where there are no truths, only selective lies?
The Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels was reputed to have said that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will come to believe it.
Allow me to be brutally honest: objective truths are theoretical fictions; truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We have grown up in the age of science, in which there are, theoretically, immutable laws of nature, which we can test to verify. But human behaviour is always changing, so that observations about human nature do not conform to the laws of nature. There is always an element of uncertainty, which means that truths about human behaviour are always subjective.
We are living in a “post-truth” age because the newly elected leader of the US, the dominant global economy, is quite economical with his facts, opinions and policies, which are clearly not what we are used to under past US leaders.
Trump was elected because his electoral supporters were so fed up with conventional wisdom – that is, what is sane – that they were willing to try the insane. The establishment media and his opponent Hillary Clinton were so concerned with his inconsistencies with facts that they spent all their time attacking him. They failed to recognise that a large part of the electorate were already not listening – they wanted a change.
Living in an age of information, where we are bombarded 24/7 by massive doses of information, most of us have difficulty discerning fact from fiction. The events of the past decade, revealed by WikiLeaks and whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, have shown that fact is often more spectacular than fiction. And before our eyes, a Russian ambassador was assassinated, and terrorists rampaged through Christmas festivities. It is not surprising that we are easily fooled by small lies, white lies and big lies.
Watch: Russian ambassador assassinated (warning: graphic content)
How should we cope in this age of “post-truths”? To answer this, we need to understand what is “truth”.
Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas basically argue that truth is what corresponds to facts. But modern philosophers like Bertrand Russell reject this because the concept of truth then becomes idealised, arguing that truth must change with new facts. Some facts are verifiable, whereas lies can be proven to be false. If my experience was such that a lie worked for me, I may not believe a fact even if it is shown to me. People love to delude themselves – inconvenient truths are covered up by convenient lies.
The issue of truth or falsehood lies at the heart of human behaviour, because every day we have to make decisions on whether or not to cooperate, based on the available information.
Software specialists and management consultants recommend that we deal with information overload through the use of big data, where we rely on sophisticated computer programs to analyse data. This method has its problems. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” remains true – if big data is fed lots of faulty data, you can get misleading or even wrong results.
The Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who died last month, was recognised for his work on improving our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. In his seminal work, The Strategy of Conflict, he moved away from the idealist work on social cooperation towards the more realistic work of conflicts. In other words, life is not just about rewarding good behaviour, but also credible threats that enforce good behaviour. “Post-truths” are altered facts, employed to induce certain social behaviour. The left-leaning liberals push for “soft” incentives like rewards and subsidies, whereas the right-leaning hardliners push for “hard” incentives like law enforcement and walls to block perceived threats like immigrants.
Society has moved far more right. It is by no means clear that the institutions of checks and balances in the US can stop this trend. This means that life has become much more complicated for everyone, especially those of us in Asia, because there will be more bashing of China, Iran or whoever disagrees with the Trump administration.
We are using the language of computers more and more to communicate with one another. Post-truths can easily be further manipulated to become alt-facts, shift-news or ctrl-data. And when it gets too messy – as sometimes happens when we work on our computers – we press Ctrl+Alt+Del for a restart. Be prepared for alt-futures of greater uncertainty.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective