The recent crowning of “post-truth” as Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of the year for 2016 poses questions for all educationalists about what we think we are doing.
Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, post-truth has been around since 1992. But a spike in usage coinciding with the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election as US president saw the word selected by the lexicographers as the one that best captures the “ethos, mood or preoccupations” of 2016.
But it doesn’t. Post-truth is an adjective. We think of adjectives as describing how things are. Yet the popularity of post-truth is a perfect illustration of how the world can be remade through being redescribed. Words are a fundamental means by which we understand what is happening around us, and they can bewitch us into all manner of errors.
A popular retort to the victorious Brexit and Trump campaigns has been: “Lies, lies, you won on lies.” Luminaries of the academy have denounced politicians for telling fibs. They have chided journalists for not telling it as it is. Some have asserted that the losing sides were just as mendacious as the victors. But this all misses the fundamental point. The problem is not misinformation, or lack of correct information, or the irrelevance of truth, or a disregard for expertise, or “anti-intellectualism”. Nor is the problem that voters were insufficiently “objective”, or excessively emotional. It is far worse than that.
People knew only too well what they were voting for, and they did it anyway. They went for the tired old demagoguery of rousing popular fears and resentments about people different from themselves. The rest was just a sideshow: a game of silly numbers on buses and other blatant lies that no one, in truth, paid much attention to.
“Post-truth” is doublespeak that risks contributing to what George Orwell called “the defence of the indefensible”. It threatens to mask the problem of people who resent equality. But, worse than that, it obscures the good news that the young rejected the politics of resentment and prejudice. And, as educators, we have a duty to them to call out the beguilements of language by which a grim world will seek to settle itself upon them.
We must think carefully about what our educational institutions should be like if they are to reflect and promote our students’ clear-sighted bravery. We can set a good example ourselves, thinking about what kind of role models we want to be. We can, for example, boycott “manels”: male-only speaker events. We can also consider the what and the how of our teaching. This is not about improving “information literacy”: it is about encouraging students to think for themselves, to engage in self-scrutiny, and to be empathetic.
The other good news of 2016 concerns how very narrowly inequality prevailed. Indeed, Hillary Clinton won the popular US vote by some stretch. But we shouldn’t forget those who backed the old world at the expense of the new. Beyond the academy lies the wonderful world (somewhat under the cosh in the UK) of continuing education and popular humanities of various kinds. A diversity of people engage in different ways with that world, and intellectual sorts who work in it can look for ways to inspire people to get past their fear or resentment of progressive social change.
One place to start might indeed be to offer some insight into the power of words. According to Orwell, “a man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
But the process, he says, is reversible – and this is a requisite step if we are to have any kind of regeneration. So we should set the young an example by overcoming our lazy uses of language and refusing the use of ready-made but miscast phrases like post-truth.
Oxford Dictionaries’ president Caspar Grathwohl “wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time”. But if we don’t want to live in a world of virulent inequality, we must not let that prophecy be realised. We must get into the nitty-gritty of what matters to people when they vote. Evidently emotion comes into it – it always has. The crucial point is that when people vote from the heart, their hearts should be in the right place. It is a matter of having the right emotions: a passion for justice and for everyone’s right to a good life.
This is certainly no time for despair. For, as T. S. Eliot wrote: “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”
Sandy Grant is tutor in philosophy at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge.