By the end of this article, I will have convinced you that this is the best article you’ve ever read. You’re gonna give me the biggest clap. It’s gonna be huge. You will all be absolutely convinced that I’m the best. Me.
My job today is to persuade you about something.
Years ago, I would have had to:
develop a logical argument
build a fact base
present my arguments in a coherent and structured way, and
convince you of the merits of my case.
Nowadays, apparently, I don’t need to bother with any of that.
I can just make things up, even tell outright lies. I can ignore logic, appeal to your emotions, berate my opponents, and still win.
How? Because we live in the ‘post-truth’ age.
‘Post-truth’ was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016.
It refers to an era in which ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appealing to emotion and personal belief’.
In other words, anything can be said when trying to persuade people.
In a post-truth world, Donald Trump didn’t lie when he said his inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s. To use the term coined by Kellyanne Conway, he presented ‘alternative facts’.
Only in a post-truth world can Pauline Hanson and others call climate change a sham when overwhelming scientific evidence points the other way.
In November 2016, Pauline Hanson visited the Great Barrier Reef and declared it healthy, knowing full well that 1,000km to the north, 80-100% of the reef had died from bleaching.
By wearing a wet suit and swimming among the healthy reef, she presented a blatant falsehood.
As Daniel Moynihan, advisor to four US Presidents, although not Mr Trump, said, ‘everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts’.
At one level, post-truth, and the ‘alternative facts’ that go with it, is somewhat amusing, an entertaining distraction.
However, its implications are much darker and much scarier than normal political lies.
In what used to be normal political discussion, politicians are called out for their lies, and are held answerable and accountable. That places limits on what politicians say and do.
In a post-truth world, however, no-one is held to account for anything.
At its best, acceptance of ‘alternative facts’ leads to bad policy and poor government.
At its worst, accepting the lies of politicians is the first step towards totalitarianism and dictatorship.
What makes a post-truth world possible?
The media bears some responsibility. Poor journalism that doesn’t accurately report these lies is part of the problem. A media industry that seems to have given up trying to be objective and impartial.
Think Buzzfeed, Fox News, the Russian government.
But most critically, post-truth is possible when people lack the ability to question and challenge.
When people can’t construct, or critically assess, an argument.
When people lack the concentration span to look beyond memes or 140 character tweets.
When people can’t distinguish between real facts and fake news.
Our challenge is to do the opposite. To continue to push back against lies and half truths. To hold our leaders accountable.
To use facts and logic. To think critically. To analyse.
As George Orwell once prophetically wrote, 70 years before the post-truth era:
‘If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.’
(This article was originally a speech presented at the 2017 Year 11 Mount Scopus College Baron Snider competition. It won first place.)