Post-truth

Here’s a disturbing ‘fact’:

Facts are a small part of the truth. Much more important than the facts is the interpretation people give to the facts.
Janice Stein, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, U of T

The Toronto Star’s announcement yesterday, signalled the launch of its fact-checking oversight of federal election candidates’ claims and pronouncements. The article went on to cite Ms. Stein:

Politicians need to be motivational, need to mobilize people to do things. . . and sometimes that means shaping the narrative to work in their favour; [acknowledging that] post-truth politics [in America]. . . have made it easier for leaders to claim their own supposed ‘version’ of the facts.

My, my, my! I love prepending pretty much anything with a ‘post-’. It somehow makes it all sound so immediate, so now, leaving its predecessor to eat dust.

Having become all too familiar with the fountain head of ‘alternative facts’ over the past five years in the political arena, I was moved to consider just how universal this whole spun process seems to be. Assert something with sufficient authority and confidence, in the (immediate) absence of corrective reference, and presto. . . you have a ‘new truth’. Sprinkle liberally with social media, garnish with a bit of drama and gossip, let ‘proof’ in a warm, dark place over night (any old troll’s basement with an internet connection should do it) . . . and you have a freshly baked (or more properly, half-baked) loaf of ‘truth’.

The other piece of the Stein interview, I expect when she sensed that she may have swung a bit wide and was scrambling to correct her orbital wobble, was that ‘despite the limited power of facts, . . our democracy cannot survive without them. They’re essential for reasoned debate and worth fighting for’. I’m not sure that’s particularly reassuring. When we preface something with a ‘limited power’ rider, it does tend to undermine trust in the rest of the statement. But, in the spirit of this ramble so far, it does reflect an obvious ‘truth’.

Take Anthony Fauci for example. His relentless pleas to ‘follow the science’ (the facts) have fallen on deaf ears. He has implored any and all (above the age of 12 anyway), to get vaccinated. He has backed his pleas with the dire statistics that show what happens when one ignores science. You die! Still he is roundly challenged, even vilified, by the ‘post-truthers’ who prefer their ‘version of the facts’. This would be somewhere around 30% of his target audience.

And we’re not just talking politicians. No one is particularly surprised when a member of that group exercises his or her ‘binoral’ rights and privileges — aka, talking out of both sides of one’s mouth.

Yesterday as well (not an overly good day for ‘un-spun versions’ on a number of fronts), I found myself sitting with a small, socially distanced, contemplative group of parishioners. Our local Anglican church had re-opened its doors to the ‘real, face-to-face deal’ after many months of Zooming and streaming. This was an early morning, bare bones Eucharist which means it’s as close as we Canadians come to engaging a four centuries old practice. No music, no hymns. Just words. Time for reflection, reaffirmation. With my dozen or so companions, I recited aloud, in much the same archaic language, those elements that were voiced by adherents some four hundred years ago. And, in those quiet moments, as often happens, I was compelled to examine an essential paradox that surfaces for me. These words were a literal statement of belief, commitment, intention, even confession that, when taken literally, attach to an absolute, a fact, if you will.

If I allow myself to stay in the mystery and the emotional pull of the moment, stay in the ritual, I remain insulated from the myriad ‘truths’ that lobby against a literal acceptance of what we were all quietly intoning. The forty minutes works, becoming a meditation that simply calms and resets.

Nevertheless, I am reminded that this remains a version of a (possible) truth. A story created to an end and for a purpose. (Albeit a much less cynical and shamelessly transparent fiction than one finds in the political forum.) A story acceptable only when read as metaphor and ritual — especially when set up against those pesky little ‘facts’ (like the fossil record). One that came out of a need for an interpretation that suited the particular agendas of a particular era. Henry created the Church of England to get a divorce. Luther nailed his ninety-five points to a chapel door to piss off the papacy. Stories. . .

All this seems to beg the question: How do you solve a problem like Post-truth (or Maria, if you’re writing song lyrics)? I suppose fact-checking provides a bit of satisfaction — but frankly that’s a solution that seems to have a point of diminishing returns. Trump’s 10,000th lie was no less heinous than his 10th — but no one, by that time, seemed to even much care; and the adherents were no more persuaded by the facts. Creationists are still committed to a 5000 year old earth. The ‘Truthers’ will continue to pedal conspiracy theories. So go for it Toronto Star, if it sells newspapers.

Or perhaps, if I can presume to extend Ms. Stein’s self-correction, something radical like critical thought could be an option. Reversion to fact, rational discussion, debate, ‘slow thinking’ (I’m still beating that drum), eyes wide open (and not mind slammed shut) might allow me to continue to meditate on some early Sunday mornings — without having to reconcile the irreconcilable. I can have my truth(s) and . . .

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