I’m reminded daily that we now live in a so-called post-truth world, which is a bit of an understatement in my book. The rationale for this statement usually comes back to a critique of Trump or other conservative-esque folks who people in my neck of the woods tend not to like, sometimes for good reason sometimes for ill. Well, that and there are some blatant lies that come out of the current president’s Twittery mouth. For any of my dislike for this administration and for the political in general, I’m greatly remiss to say that the post-truth world began with Trump. Frankly, I’m even more remiss to say that those who all of the sudden claim to love the truth and stand against bullshit (a hilarious but philosophically potent term) actually do. Here’s why.
Regarding the first point, it’s a pretty easy claim to show. I read a special book by Plato in all my Phil 101 courses called The Gorgias. It’s about oratory and our ability to use language either for the promulgation of a truth and goodness beyond our maws or our capacity to dominate. Philosophy, through self-sacrifical givenness to a higher viewpoint, seeks the truth; oratory, through whimsical speeches and neat little stories, seeks its own pleasure. As such, in the Gorgias, Plato, through the mouth of Socrates asks this set of rhetorical questions some 2500 years ago:
“What about the oratory addressed to the Athenian people and to those in other cities composed of free men? What is our view of this kind? Do you think that orators always speak with regard to what’s best? Do they always set their sights on making the citizens as good as possible through their speeches? Or are they also bent upon the gratification of the citizens and do they slight the common good for the sake of their own private good, and so keep the company with the people trying solely to gratify them, without any thought at al for whether this will make them better or worse? (502e)”
In other words, Plato is pointing to a post-truth world already, a world where those in power say what they want to line their own pockets rather than speak with truth in mind for the betterment of themselves and the citizenry as a whole. It’s a world where the citizens listen, so long as the bullshit being espoused fits with their preconditioned wants. All are caught in oratorical nonsense, speak with the intention of pleasing ears through delicious verbal pastries but without desire to give an actual verbal medicine in the form of truth-talk. The politicians and orators of Plato’s day were promulgators of bullshit through and through, and its people nestled it like a mother cat her kittens, and we ought to pay attention to that because Plato’s way older and deader than Trump.
Of course, if you’re not a fan of philosophy but like the Gospel, then my point’s still easy enough to make. We can just point to Pilate’s response to Jesus, “what is truth?,” a pragmatic response that exposes his willingness to allow truth to become precisely anything that will fit his political agenda.
Here’s what I’m saying. If we think that a post-truth world is a new thing, I’d say that bullshit and its manifestation into a so-called post-truth world likely forms the world in which we most comfortably live and have lived for at least 2500 years now. This world preexisted Trump (“if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it”; “I remember landing under sniper fire;” “simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction;” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”; “read my lips: no new taxes”), Of course, I say all this while conceding that Trumps rhetoric can be especially dangerous to already vulnerable groups, especially those whom we depend on for cheap, industrial farming labor. I hate that and fear its consequences, too. But post-truth is nothing new; we just want to pay attention all of the sudden. Why?
For one, a beloved and semi-worshipped form of knowledge has come under attack: the empirical sciences. Trump doubts the veracity of climate change, etc, and people are angry about that. I get it. While I think this doubt of the empirical sciences is unfortunate, I also say, welcome to the club, as every other form of knowledge has been under attack for far longer, and the only way that I think we can fix that issue is by restoring trust not only between the sciences and its grasp of the real, but all forms of knowledge and what they attend to as well. Ironically, it will take revisiting our values, especially the value of objective and critical inquiry, to restore any trust, here, and values are the things from which empiricists have detrimentally pretended to abscond for years. Even John Cobb says so.
Second, there’s pretense of an intellectual conversion of those who may have previously expressed a deep mistrust of truth claims regarding anything but those found in the sciences; they have now seen the light and desire truth in all things, especially our administrations. I’m deeply skeptical of this point and the reason is simple. The usual statements about Truth and a post-factual age don’t stem from some sort of culturally renewed, philosophical love of the truth. They stem from a political slant under the auspices of a power move. People want to silence Trump, and that’s fine. He talks way too much. But they’re willing to use statements about Truth and the pretense that we’ve “become” post-truth to do so, not as a truth unto itself, but as a will to dominate the opposition, which is, frankly, what Trump’s up to as well. Both sides are mired in a game of total verbal crapola, burying the truth and its possibility even deeper in the mud of an always-frayed western order.
In other words, we’ll continue to allow for the proliferation of bullshit once more when Trump is gone, so long as it benefits us, our agendas, and our dedications to our own worldviews. And that sincerely sucks.