My Take

Post-truth has always been part of politics

The politics of emotion become particularly pronounced in deeply divided societies, and we in Hong Kong know all about that

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 12:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 7:55am

The Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year. It is used as an adjective, primarily in political situations in which objective facts are less relevant to swaying public opinion than emotional appeals.

The most common usage is the phrase “post-truth politics”, which has frequently been used to describe the contentious Brexit vote in Britain and the US presidential election. A common feature shared by both is the revolt of many voters who have a profound distrust of elites and experts. An example of post-truth politics is Donald Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax. Casper Grathwohl of Oxford Dictionaries thinks post-truth could become “one of the defining words in the era of Trump and Brexit”.

I am not so sure. Unless you are really gullible and naive, it seems to me politics has always been about post-truth rather than truth. You want someone to tell you the truth, go to a philosopher, a scientist or a priest, unless, of course, they too have a hidden political agenda. A politician is the last person you go to for enlightenment.

In any case, we already have a word that antedates post-truth and serves as an even better sign of the time: truthiness. It was chosen as the 2006 word of the year by Oxford’s American counterpart Merriam-Webster.

‘Post-truth’ named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, in the era of Trump and Brexit

It was widely attributed to US comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert and is defined as “the quality of believing claims one wishes to be true, rather than those known to be true”. As a word, truthiness is more whimsical and less pretentious than post-truth. By its very spelling, it has the appearance of truth, but not really. It not only covers the same ground as post-truth, but more. It is thanks to many people’s “truthy” tendency to make judgments based on intuitive feelings – “from the gut” – rather than on logic, evidence and examination that post-truth politics is possible at all. If something feels right, it must be true.

Truthiness and post-truth politics become particularly pronounced in deeply divided societies where spontaneous social consensus and conventions have been broken or rejected. Facts, arguments and statistics are used with little regard to their truth value but more as political weapons.

Those two words may be English, but we in Hong Kong know all about the kind of politics they describe.