Recently, Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth to be International Word of the Year, 2016. The fact is (irony intended) our relationship with the truth has always been problematic. Even stories told with a good will as an honest attempt to relate an experience are partial and limited in their point of view.
The problem gets worse however when the art of storytelling is deliberately subverted by individuals and institutions to mislead the unwary. In the economic sphere, we call it fraud and when eventually the bubble bursts as it usually does, perpetrators like investment advisor Bernie Madoff and Jeff Skilling of Enron are called to account.
For most of my lifetime, for a politician in the western world to be caught in a deliberate lie would be grounds for resignation or dismissal. But as both the EU Referendum and the US Presidential election showed, this is no longer the case. I have my own view about the probity of individual politicians, but that is not my point here. I am far more concerned by the direction in which democratic politics as a whole is moving.
Demagoguery and populism (pandering to the lowest common denominator) have always been the shadow side of democracy and only a healthy respect for the truth can keep them at bay. Unfortunately, respect for the truth in some quarters is not just unhealthy but apparently at death’s door. Coincident with, and perhaps consequent upon the explosion of social media, the distinction between truth and lies, honest reporting and fake news, information and misinformation, is increasingly disregarded in favour of viral memes and fictions masquerading as truth – pretences that create their own reality.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) presciently explored this phenomenon in his classic work Simulation and Simulacrum. He suggests that we can look at the increasing distance between images (or stories) and underlying reality as a hierarchy from representation to simulacrum, thus:
- Representation: the reflection of a profound reality;
- Trace: masks and denatures a profound reality;
- Void: masks the absence of a profound reality;
- Simulacrum: has no relation to any reality whatsoever.
If representation is an attempt in good faith to signify or reflect an underlying reality, then a simulacrum might best be described as a fiction that believes itself to be real. In between these extremes, “trace” and “void” represent attempts to erase aspects of an underlying reality from a discourse either by using neologisms and abstract language to obscure a subject or by treating it as though it doesn’t exist.
This is not some obscure epistemological argument. In a world in which truth no longer matters, nothing matters because we can’t trust the meaning of anything. Or as Baudrillard put it:
It is the whole traditional world of causality that is in question: the perspectival, determinist mode, the “active,” critical mode, the analytic mode – the distinction between cause and effect, between active and passive, between subject and object, between the end and the means.
For a more detailed consideration of these issues, see Chapter 15 of my book Telling the Story: The Heart and Soul of Successful Leadership. I also recommend Christian Salmon’s excellent Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind.
The picture at the top of this post shows Jean Baudrillard posed in the costume of Morpheus in The Matrix, a well-known sci-fi movie that challenges our perceptions of an apparent reality that is entirely fictional.
Of course, it’s a fake.