The Post-Truth Era is Nothing New

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about whether we’ve entered a “post-truth” era. Of course we have. It started a long time ago.

There has been much handwringing in recent weeks by progressive elites to the effect that we have entered a “post-truth” era. They stare in tongue-tied incomprehension at the election of Donald Trump and cry that there must be something heinously wrong with a society that cannot see his trail of manifold contradictions. How can it be, they wonder, that it was not possible to get through to his supporters? Some even ask if democracy is still a viable system of government. Let me answer with a brief lesson in philosophy.

For the sake of this short explanation, let us distinguish between two kinds of truths. There is truth about material matters, and there is truth about immaterial matters. (In this sense, immaterial is used to mean “abstract,” not “unimportant.”)

Our modern culture is quite at home in the world of material matters. Our adoption of the scientific method has helped us to unlock secrets of space, time, and the very nature of matter itself. It has enabled miracle cures to diseases that were death sentences to the ancients. We have machines that make it possible to speak in real time to people a world away, and to communicate across language barriers. Undoubtedly, our science will unlock even more secrets of the universe in the future. Truly, we live in a wondrous time.

But our technological advances have left us with a terrible blind spot about immaterial matters. In mastering the material world, we have come to believe that the world is solely material. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Thus, according to the reasoning of our prevailing culture, to understand our world properly, we must subject it to the methods of our material sciences. We assume that if it cannot be subjected to these methods, then objective knowledge about it is impossible. This misapplication of the scientific method has grave consequences for morality, which in a materialist worldview must be either entirely subjective or rooted solely in the material world.

In reality, it is possible to speak objectively, within limits, about immaterial matters. However, it requires a metaphysical conception which admits of such matters’ reality, importance, and knowability. Such a metaphysical conception has been the dominant view of philosophical history (and of history in general), but has been going out of fashion since the Enlightenment. To deny the knowability of objective immaterial reality is to forgo all hope of saying anything true about it.

Now let’s apply this lesson. The progressive elite does deny the knowability of immaterial reality and therefore is hopelessly handicapped in having arguments about it as well as concomitant moral arguments about our culture and our common political life. This handicap is the genesis of political correctness. When you deny the knowability of any objective immaterial reality, meaningful moral argument becomes impossible. This is why we don’t hear any meaningful moral argument in the media. Instead, we hear a lot in the modern world about people being “offended.” Politicians call each other’s remarks “offensive.” Commentators characterize opposing opinions as “offensive.” This is a comparatively new trend. This was not the preferred pejorative of even fifty years ago. Instead, pundits and commentators would use a word that seems far more intuitive. They would simply say that someone or something was “wrong.”

Wrong. It’s a word that unsettles us a little bit. Imagine yourself telling someone they are wrong. It’s bound to provoke an argument. In fact, it does the exact opposite of what calling someone “offensive” does. Calling someone “offensive” ends an argument, or more often, preempts one. It shifts the discussion entirely off the plane of rational discourse. It says, “Your point of view does not merit respect, and I will not engage it.” What this more often means is, “You do not merit respect. I will not engage you.”

For an example of this, we need look no further than recent events at the ostensibly Catholic Providence College, where Professor Anthony Esolen has suffered the slings and arrows of campus political correctness for championing an idea of diversity that situates the diversity of humanity within the biblical view of humanity’s relationship to the transcendent God. In principle, this is not a radical idea for a Catholic professor at a Catholic university. But as Esolen has pointed out, principle has nothing to do with the matter. “The aim was never rational coherence, or even a concern for the common good,” he writes. “The aim was power: to get what they wanted, to keep it, and to crush those who would question their right to it.”

We live in a culture that has eschewed objectivity in all matters not explicitly and plainly material. That is to say, our culture has explicitly rejected the notion that there is any such thing as capital-T Truth. This renders moral argument not only impossible, but actually undesirable. Indeed, a chief axiom of campus political correctness is that moral argument has the undesirable effect of legitimizing one’s opponents. One can only guess that this is because the opponents of political correctness are equipped to win moral arguments.

This also explains the collective psychological meltdown that progressives are experiencing in the aftermath of Trump’s election victory. Without an objective and transcendent anchor (or, Anchor), they suffer the existential angst of the sovereign individual. This is because it is not practically feasible to live in a world of no objective metaphysical reality. To do so without contradiction would require that we each lived in our own separate and distinct physical realities. Since this is clearly impossible, we must admit of some sovereign arbiter. And so our prevailing culture admits of the Sovereign Self. In this conception, we each, individually, have our own personal subjective truth, which we accord the status (without saying so) of Objective Truth.

From a logical standpoint, this is just as absurd as the “solution” that each should inhabit his own private universe. But from a psychological standpoint, this opens the door to validation through a norm of unqualified mutual acceptance of individual sovereignty by a sufficiently sizable community. (Incidentally, such a norm is a good working definition of political correctness.) In such a situation, when matters of truth and morality become purely subjective, it is necessary to evict dissenters from society in order to maintain the norm of unqualified mutual acceptance of individual sovereignty, else the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

Hence the word “offensive.” We do not engage things that are offensive. We do not keep rotten food, discovered in the back of the refrigerator, lying around. Its smell and appearance offend us. We quickly and decisively throw it down the garbage chute, without debate. Devotees of the word “offensive” use it for much the same purpose in would-be moral arguments. To engage with a contrary truth-claim quite literally pollutes their constructed metaphysical environment. They cannot stomach it. It disgusts them. The designation of opposing viewpoints as “offensive” thus both describes a literal psychological aversion, and serves the vital purpose of community preservation, without which the floor drops out from below a purely subjective reality. But when someone who disdains the norm of unqualified mutual acceptance—like Donald Trump—wins the Presidential election, this community is shattered and its inhabitants fall into an existential void.

This, undeniably, presents a burden for the Christian. The Christian must live in a world in which opposing truth-claims oppose him for the sake of their very survival. They cannot leave him unmolested, because their existential foundations require universal assent. Thus, they seek to bully his religion (and all of its attendant moral values and truth claims) into solely the private sphere of his life. Christians know this, and that is why many of them gave Trump their support.

When the prevailing progressive culture denies the reality, importance, and knowability of truth about the immaterial, it pits itself in a struggle for survival against anyone who believes in objective transcendence. This is the root and purpose of political correctness and it’s why so many voters were willing to look past material contradictions. In the final analysis, we do live in a post-truth era. We’ve lived in one for a very long time.

The Fake News of Our Private Lives

When we let our lives be more communal than private, we lose the parts of ourselves that are most our own.

It was the invention of the newspaper, among other things, that helped to collect large numbers of individuals into coherent groups, aware of and thinking about the same events and grappling with the same issues. This was useful in the creation of national identities and nation states, and is still particularly useful in the facilitation of democratic self-governance by a well-informed populace. The Internet, and particularly the social media, have enlarged and democratized this demos-forming mechanism, both for good and for ill. Much has been made, of late, of the phenomenon of those who intentionally create and distribute misinformation—“fake news”—for the sake of making a profit. A great deal has already been said about this, and about the community-forming effects of the Internet more generally, and much of it has been said with more insight than I can muster. At any rate, discussing this is not my present purpose. It bears mentioning, however, because my present purpose is very much akin to it.

The first week of January is traditionally a time for reflection, and many of us are looking back on the past year. We human beings might reflect on a day, or a week, or even a month with a certain measure of nuance and judgment. Yes, Tuesday may have been quite difficult and frustrating indeed, and that project we’re working on won’t seem to come together. But, on the other side of the ledger, we saw some very good friends for dinner on Sunday, and received a bit of good news from our family. These are the ups and downs of daily life, and almost all of us can see them for the mix of good and bad that they are when we look at them up close.

When we look at them at a distance, however, we see them in much broader strokes. It is not possible, or perhaps it is simply not usual, for us to see the daily ups and downs when we look at a much longer period of time, such as a year. Our minds look at a year much like they look at an impressionist painting, taking in the larger picture, but ignoring the individual spots of color that make it up. The spots of color are there, but the artist wishes for us to see the whole rather than its parts. The artist wishes to create, in short, an impression. And an impression, unless we are very intentional about it, is about all our minds tend to make of a year.

But a year is not a painting. A painting is made by a painter, and the painter intends for it to convey something in particular. When a throng of people go to a museum to see a particular painting, there is but one painting, made by one painter, conveying one particular subject. Each person in the crowd may bring a particular perspective to the painting, but they are all reacting to one painting, and all or most of these reactions will fall within a given range of typical responses to the painting.

A year, on the other hand, is not fully and truly something we all hold entirely in common. I had a 2016. You had a 2016. Our brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, each had his or her own 2016. Parts of it, we all shared. But much larger parts of it were very much unique to each of us. Each of us painted a 2016. Or, if you will, a single divine Painter collaborated with each of us to paint a 2016 so vast and so intricate that none of us can see all of it.

And yet, despite the multiplicity of individual 2016s (or the vast and incomprehensible intricacy of the divine 2016), it seems to be the general impression that this past year was very bad indeed, and this is why I began with a discussion of newspapers, the Internet, and social media. For just as we are informed about the substantive (or not) issues of our common life through these channels, so too are we also informed about the emotional currents that accompany these issues. Here is where it is easy to have our lives hijacked and reduced to only a bit part in some other human being’s narrative.

The truth is that the issues of our common life make up, for most normal people, only the smallest portion of our lives in total. The vast majority of each of our lives takes place in our own private spheres, with our individual families and friends, our own likes and dislikes, our great passions and pet peeves—in short, our own unique ups and downs of daily life. Communal emotional responses are healthy and normal, but they are healthier and more normal when we have them with communities we personally know. Shocking public events can make us share them with strangers, for a time. But to have them delivered to us in viral videos and memes would seem to artificially expand the community, artificially prolong the experience, and—most suspect of all—artificially direct the bulk of our emotional responses away from our own individual private spheres. They can become the fake news of our private lives.

None of this is to minimize the sadness of, say, losing a childhood hero. But when we let our lives be more communal than private, we lose the parts of ourselves that are most our own. And so do those near to us. We are not fully ourselves, fully unique, fully alive. Rather, we become like a painting in which the artist paints only in certain colors, and eschews the rest of the palette.

So, yes, this year is just about over. And doubtless there are parts of it each of us would rather had been different. But let us make one of our new year’s resolutions to pull our heads out of the Cloud, to live more fully in our own lives, to be most fully ourselves, to cherish our unique loved ones, to share our hearts with those most close to us, and to be most fully the unique persons God created us to be.

St. Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” Best wishes for a happy, hopeful, colorful, and fully alive 2017.