Post-Truth Society is Killing Free Speech

The post-truth era has dealt us a double blow. It has caused us to minimise both the importance of factual information and the value of individuals.

In his address to the 2016 graduating class of the University of Glasgow, Principal Anton Muscatelli condemned the rise of post-truth politics:

“[S]ome people have had enough of ‘experts.’ We are told that we live in a Post Truth era. There is an ominous trend to argue a populist line, where the value of careful and evidence based argument and reflection and the capacity to be open to contrary views, is seen as the game playing of a liberal intellectual elite, adrift and apart from what ‘real’ people think, need, and want.”

Oxford Dictionary likewise appreciated the pertinence of the concept when it chose ‘Post-Truth’ as its Word of the Year. The term conveys, in its prefix, not so much a specific time (as ‘post-war’ might suggest) but a context in which ‘truth’ has lost relevancy. The contempt and mistrust between opposite ends of the political spectrum – especially in the context of Brexit and the US presidential election when usage of ‘post-truth’ saw a significant spike – reached a boiling point that manifested in extraordinary discord.

Online social and political commentary media rose to challenge the authority of traditional news outlets. Trump inveighed against the latter with his predictably boring mantra of ‘fake news.’ Social media websites cracked down on another kind of ‘fake news,’ which had some of us wondering about the implications of censorship-lite. Heated debates blazed all across campuses regarding the validity of scientific evidence on gender or the legitimacy of groups that dare challenge Islamists. Truth and its purported relativity, or even altogether irrelevance, came under the microscope, nay, the crosshairs of snipers all across the political gamut. But how did it all start? What is the relationship between post-truth politics and free speech? And what are the interpersonal consequences of demonising that with which we simply disagree?

“Truth and its purported relativity, or even altogether irrelevance, came under the microscope, nay, the crosshairs of snipers all across the political gamut”

The origins of the post-truth era

The hysterical shift to a post-truth environment, where evidence is secondary to feelings, group values and agendas, is closely related to what author George Orwell called ‘groupthink’ in his salient work, 1984. It’s little wonder the novel is featuring ever more frequently, with its acute insight into the perils of misinformation and manipulation of language. That we perceive in it so many parallels with our own society speaks to its continued relevancy. In the dystopian world, reality shifts to accommodate propaganda, and conformity is a matter of life and death.

Groupthink occurs when a group’s values take precedence over the critical analysis of facts. It’s a matter of psychology and sociology. Many have theorised as to why this spirit is prevailing, with some arguing that technology is to blame. Despite offering us an abundance of information, technology has ironically allowed for the development of very insular environments (the notorious ‘echo chambers’) in which contrasting opinions are drowned out through gate-keeping and, even more insidiously, algorithms that present us with only the information we want to see. Media bias contributes to a vicious cycle in which people tune in to hear what they want and walk away confirmed by what they hear.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome (Image: Shutterstock)

 

With so many competitors vying for the increasingly short attention spans of their audiences, tantalising, ‘click-bait’ headlines are furthering a phenomena known as ‘tabloidisation.’ Politicians then tap into the resources of traditional and social media and exploit our human tendency to judge and suit information to our needs. They know full well to not bore us with the dry facts.

Despite offering us an abundance of information, technology has ironically allowed for the development of very insular environments (the notorious ‘echo chambers’) in which contrasting opinions are drowned out through gate-keeping and, even more insidiously, algorithms that present us with only the information we want to see.

Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School explains how the post-truth era emerges from major trends that affect our understanding of the world, including the significant gap between individual knowledge and collective knowledge, which is responsible for the difficulty in processing an overabundance of information surrounding us. “We are struggling to understand the present,” he writes, “and it is getting hard to predict the future. The result is a form of cognitive dissonance. As thoughtful beings, we like to be in control, but increasingly we cannot. So how do we resolve this dissonance? We fall back on belief – on our own intuition.” We bring our set of values (often as part of a group with which we identify) to a dilemma and cherry pick the facts to support our worldview, rather than examine the evidence and then come to a conclusion. This happens especially with issues that elicit our strongest emotions. We may very well evaluate evidence when deciding whether or not to open a business, for example, but when it comes to electing a leader to tackle terrorism or deciding whether or not to leave the European Union? We often leave our calm and collected selves at the door. Add peer pressure and pluralistic ignorance and we have the perfect ingredients for a society that is highly reluctant to change in light of new information.

We may very well evaluate evidence when deciding whether or not to open a business, for example, but when it comes to electing a leader to tackle terrorism or deciding whether or not to leave the European Union? We often leave our calm and collected selves at the door.

Freedom from freedom of speech

How has free speech been affected? In an annual report on the state of free speech on university campuses, 94% of the 115 UK universities assessed were found to engage in censorship of ideologies, political affiliations, literature, and even words. UC Berkeley, home of the free speech movement, is a notorious example of the way virulent passion has infused debate, along with the recalcitrant entitlement to a ‘safe space’ divested, through misuse, of any of its original positive connotations. There have been multiple instances in which genuine concerns over safety have led to speakers being banned or events cancelled. Professor Frank Furedi writes, “Who would have imagined that the original safe space motive – to explore issues in an inclusive environment – would so quickly give way to the impulse to quarantine oneself and create de facto cultural segregation?” Post-truth politics have only exacerbated the splintering of society into factions with almost tribal loyalties. Identity politics, while initially useful in shedding light on the predicament of marginalised members of society, have legitimised a separatist mentality. This mentality has, in turn, made identification with a group more important than the healthy exchange of differing viewpoints or even truth itself.

Fair weather (un)friends

Is there anything noble about stifling intellectual diversity at the expense of honest dialogue? Unfortunately, for a society so eager to ‘connect’ across a multitude of platforms, we’ve allowed clannish mentality (a product of post-truth politics) to dictate our associations. A particularly bitter election led to irreparable rifts, and social media users found justification in blocking and unfriending on the basis of political views. In one illuminating article, the writer resorts to misrepresentative arguments in order to rationalise unfriending Trump supporters, writing that she could not “remain friends with those who are directly or indirectly fuelling discrimination.” To each her own, but it is utterly insincere (and dishonest) to project a politician’s unsavoury characteristics onto all his voters, to be utterly unwilling to entertain the possibility of voting based on policy rather than the mindless North Korea-esque devotion to a cult of personality intent on subjecting minorities to unspeakable, unconstitutional practices. Come on.

Generation safe-space: the effects of insularity

Insularity has ugly consequences. The more we shield ourselves from viewpoints we disagree with, the less prepared we are to defend our own. We run the risk of becoming fragile, unable to cope with dissent. We see people as analogues of their political affiliation, not as complex, multi-faceted fellow humans whose interests extend beyond the political. When we indiscriminately and hyperbolically assign the tag of ‘violence’ to things as innocent as banter, we detract from the true meaning of violence. By creating social pariahs of those who even slightly deviate from our way of thinking, we encourage self-censorship. If our ideas are truly sound (and truthful), they should withstand even the closest scrutiny. The post-truth era has led us down a path of prejudice we swore we’d never tread again: While denouncing bigots and fascists, we’ve come to see the ‘other’ through the lens of hegemonic identities that leave no room for individuality. We’ve passed judgement without examining the facts. We’ve cried ‘Burn the witch!’ and ‘Blasphemy!’ and ‘Heresy!’ in a collective, bloodthirsty voice. In short, post-truth politics have made us medieval. Universities should be the safe spaces par excellence, where the free exchange of ideas is not only tolerated, but also highly encouraged. Academia should lead the battle to emerge from the post-truth era, not cowardly retreat into the recesses of silence, passively indulging whichever philosophy happens to be en vogue (or whichever one bullies enough).

The post-truth era has led us down a path of prejudice we swore we’d never tread again: While denouncing bigots and fascists, we’ve come to see the ‘other’ through the lens of hegemonic identities that leave no room for individuality.

After truth

The post-truth era has dealt us a double blow. It has caused us to minimise both the importance of factual information and the value of individuals. Truth, rationality, and objectivity should once again take up their rightful places in our hierarchy of values. Pettiness, divisiveness, and belligerency reduce conversations to shouting matches and have little place in a civil, progressive society. The solution lies in the extent to which we acknowledge that while we may have differences in opinion, truth can reliably serve as a uniting factor across the political spectrum. We must hold our public institutions to the same standard, whether this means subjecting our leaders and their statements to scrutiny or demanding the press be less partisan. We must avoid wilfully sharing false or misleading information. It is our responsibility to ensure that healthy discussion thrives in our traditional and virtual public forums.

Battle of Ideas takes place at the Barbican Centre, London on 28-29 October

About Sarah Mills

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Published fiction writer, poet, and essayist.

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2 comments

  1. This is so well written and there is a lot to digest. Let’s start with this: “With so many competitors vying for the increasingly short attention spans of their audiences, tantalising, ‘click-bait’ headlines are furthering a phenomena known as ‘tabloidisation.’ Yes, and this short attention span and emotional tendency towards cognitive bias, is exploited BY propagandists from the mainstream news media (6 conglomerates own virtually all media now). So, while Prof. Birkinshaw explains/suggests that consumers and their inability to cope are the ‘problem’, rather than the effect / symptom of a manipulative media regime, he may have it the wrong way round. “Identity politics, while initially useful in shedding light on the predicament of marginalised members of society, have legitimised a separatist mentality.” This is an excellent point. As is this: “The more we shield ourselves from viewpoints we disagree with, the less prepared we are to defend our own.” Nowadays anti-racists probably can’t even explain what racism is, much less present actual arguments against racism. I would venture a guess that they cannot even name one historical example of a racist and explain how his or her ideas (if they even know what those are) constitute racism. This is SO not to deny that racism is real. Rather, it is to highlight that anti-racists have become like Bible-thumpers who are doctrinaire and dogmatic, rather than thinkers who know what it is they want to defend and why. Thank you Sarah Mills for such an excellent piece.

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