*Post Truth: what is accepted as ‘truth’ – a synthetic acceptance of ‘a story’ as ‘the story’
It’s a theme this week. A friend had written to his MP to say that he was hearing one thing and experiencing another. Amongst other things, he asked why Care Homes were not provided with the tests he said they were. In précis, the MP replied telling him he was not having his experience and instead he repeated the story he wanted him to believe. Post Truth is all the rage.
Another, who had believed herself the apple of another’s eye, has discovered every sign and act she took as evidence to be proof, simply her imagination’s fantasy. He’d given her just enough to allow her to believe her dream, although she knew the facts. The post-truth fantasy had more currency than what any idiot could have predicted. She wrote the script, edited the actor’s utterances and believed her own dream. She can back up the wheres and why-fors but so can anyone who’s gone back on the fags, or broken a diet. I post-truth hack myself all the time. I can convince myself I believe my own BS.
I was trying to find out what happened to a friend who has been in a very difficult situation during lockdown. I had read her official explanation which didn’t seem authentic and later, another’s published record of events repeated the same story almost word for word, as if through its repetition it would, like a mantra, become imprinted so that, should other truths surface, those affected would choose, even then, to deny sense and believe the story they had grown used to. Post Truth – what is now simply accepted as ‘truth’ – a synthetic acceptance of ‘a story’ as ‘the story’ rewrites her story and then reduces it to one short phrase. I guess we knew this would happen. New Speak and the Ministry of Information – 1984, George Orwell warned us in advance. Post Truth is dangerous. Lies are in plain sight.
This week, Trump is using the semantics of war, evoking emotion memory in his reference to ‘the twin-towers’ episode as a ‘lesser evil’ than Covid 19 in his provocative denigration of China for a failure to alert the world to the emergence of the virus. Another claim, utterly refuted by his scientific advisor, yet still made by Donald Trump and lodged in the national image bank, is that the virus was grown in China in a lab. Whatever the facts, the associations, the Post Truth is more likely to govern behaviour than the truth. Post-truth has a terrifying power.
Meanwhile, campaigns nudge all to work from home, be a teacher, nurse and bottle washer and develop endless new skills as if nothing has changed. Everyone’s, in addition to doing the impossible from home: joined an on-line course, been in touch with long lost friends, breezed through appalling bereavements unscathed, cheered Tom and saved the NHS. The nation has tidied every cupboard, baked bread, Zumba-Zoomed and crafted its way to happiness. It’s a compelling narrative. It sells several notions: doing too much makes you happy; you are lucky you haven’t any time for contemplation; failing to get too much done doesn’t make you happy; you are a failure.
Since it is impossible, and nobody wants to be seen as a failure, and anyway the idea that we are all bearing up and doing well is a nice story, it becomes, ‘the truth’. ‘The story’. The Post Truth. It’s the tip of the iceberg but you’ll go along with it.
Unbranded truths, people suffering from nervous breakdowns as a direct result of failing to do the impossible while terrified by a global pandemic; sky-rocketing suicide rates; increasing lists of those who need essential treatment suffering; abuse and deaths by violence at home; the long list of other failures, too numerous and yet under-played to call to mind rapidly, are given a passing nod as if a rounded truth were visible to all. It is perhaps visible. It is not very difficult to dig around and find some numbers. Yet still the pervasive story, of fortitude and community becomes the much more comfortable ‘truth’, the Post Truth. We’ll be back to normal soon. Post Truth models a new version of ‘normal’ in advance of the immense suffering that will inevitably follow Covid in all spheres of life. Suffering is silenced. Argument is mute. Post Truth is dangerous.
Daniel Kahneman proposes, our minds – brains – response systems – are divisible as System 1 and System 2. We are under the spell of System 1, which is ‘instinctive’ and ’emotional’ even though we are much more aware of System 2, which speaks to us more slowly in logical deliberative terms. It is evident that mass-media fuels System 1’s lust for Post Truth, what it wishes were true. System 1 is reactive and fuels action, moving us to make choices and adopt beliefs, even though System 2 has been there all along arguing for reason, deliberation, truth. Even with this awareness, we will provide a reactive, rapid narrative immediately after taking almost immediate action, as if instinctively. A story that suits System 1’s objectives and seems to fit closely into System 2’s demand for reason. System 1 is useful in some ways. It defends against growth. It enables the management of people: to vote, to take part, to stay at home, to buy iPhones, to stop smoking within 3 metres of a building. In Utopia, it lets love be in charge. Sadly, in real time, it enables the perpetuation of a Post Truth construction of reality.
Its casualties of the moment are:
System 2:System 1 –
it’s unlikely system 2 will start governing dating/buying/voting choices.
Personal 2:1 Governmental –
such as my muted friend, and hundreds more, whose parents will probably die from Covid 19 in a poorly equipped ‘Care Home’.
Professional 2:1 Institutional –
whatever the truth is, my mate will probably become the scapegoat for others’ inadequacies and the post-truth-story, just like slurs against Cliff Richard and stories told of Barrymore, will live forever.
Global 2:1 Presidential –
Trump will, and I do hope not, escalate tension with China and probably be re-elected.
Another pervasive ‘truth’ of the moment is that exercising outside is good for you. I consider that a Post Truth mash up of two sound arguments. Exercise is good for you. Being outside is good for you. Don’t try and multitask. Some Post Truths start from sound foundations: science recognises exercise releases natural happy-hormones. It becomes a thing. People say it’s like taking drugs and when they stop they get down. Pounding pavements, equipped to the hilt, to dub-step-hard-rock is sold as an antidote to the blues. Movements, from Aerobics to Zumba recruit new devotees to the cult through the virtue signalling of copious Facebook posts, of Post Truth with quite a lot of truth in it. But what about the blues it promises to cure? Sounds more than sticking a plaster on it.
Uniformed joggers speed past me as I walk, quite slowly. As their hormones are changed through force, a ‘fix’, mine derive joy from reflection and sensation as I find myself reliving life again and re-examining what has become the moment’s story of my life. Sometimes this hurts as much as running but the treatment, contemplation, is homeopathic. Ineffective in that it doesn’t work except to focus attention on the source of dis-ease. Joy exists somewhere around the hyphen.
And every day it’s different – just a story as I track small changes in growth – even between pavement cracks, considering the season, and a particular flower which might dredge a memory from somewhere long ago. The shape of an ugly 60’s utility block, beautiful in symmetry and the light took me back to 1971 – Ron Freeborn’s canvases at school and Didcot Power Station and thoughts about energy, people, moments which had shaped who I think of as me. The birds, particularly at dusk make me a toddler again, before distraction drowned out sound or wanted to know the name of the bird. I found myself seeing my stance in life as built on a collage of memory, nudged by edited experience to shape a convenient history, attitudes and behaviour. Today, a squirrel, a noise its voice, something I’d never heard. I’d always seen them as rats with bushy tails and I hate rats. I cried a lot. It was refreshing. There’s nothing wrong with running but Post Truth and life stories have thrown Truth into the shadow.
‘Anxiety Disorder’ had already gone viral pre Covid. And although Post-Truth media forms foster and spread positive ideas – such as an acceptance and awareness of one’s own and other’s well-being – once Post-Truth takes charge, it does so in the semantics of illness – so that when discussions are held about mental ill-health, the phrase, ‘mental health is increasing’ is understood to mean the reverse – more people are mentally unwell.
Post-Truth slogans and making a pathology of un-ease undermines the drive to remove stigma from mental-ill-health somehow, ironically, propagating it through branding both un-wellness and wellness. Running becomes a drug. Journal keeping a habit. A remedy for the symptoms of disease in an entire system, rather than an attempt to address the forces governing life and the way it is experienced, interpreted and justified through Post Truth’s convenient deflection of responsibility to the puppet.
There is little encouragement of the expression of emotion in discussions of well-being. There is stress on knowing how you feel but not expressing it. It must be managed. Again, the polarities dominate. Health is defined as an absence of disease. Chaos. In this case, in the head. The head is recruited to govern behaviour with the promise emotions will tag along behind. Wellbeing becomes an industry, built on a 2D representation of a multi-faceted construction, diminished to become well or not well, rather than simply being. An either/or Post Truth.
Being ill-at-ease seems a healthy response to the moment. Life is a risky thing. Especially now. And there is little hope of knowing the facts about Covid 19 – or much about the future. Post Truth feeds on fear: fear of self-discovery, of social upheaval and constitutional revolution, which could well come about if Truth were allowed to put in an appearance. Yet repetitions of phrases such as ‘anxiety disorder’ offer an individual a story about themselves which becomes a ‘truth’ and a definition of a limitation. This is a Post Truth which fosters dependency and compliance.
Post-truth spin disconnects individuals from sensed lived experience.
The messages: your parent is safe; that I have commitment phobia but I love you; it’s all her fault/China’s fault/it’s because of your disorder – such messages paralyse. System 1 freezes. System 2 is denied. System 1 keeps fainting and wants a diagnosis. Truth is deep and buried. Post Truth wins.
The other way up:
Global, Governmental and Institutional investment in Post Truth produces viral un-wellness. We can’t look at that. We haven’t got time. Anyway, we don’t want to.
Although System B has been telling us we’re doing everything wrong for decades System A says, we like it like this. The rat race and the flying about the place and not really thinking about what really matters.
Or being? Hell no. I hear what you say System B, but no. We want to act as if everything is ok and prescribe drugs, and counselling and well-being courses, make it a business, establish a science even, to find out why so many people are getting anxiety disorder in the Post-Truth world. Let’s let them keep fainting and feeling like they should give up more of their agency.
The fight is on. Reactive System 1 v Rational System 2. Truth v Post Truth.
Reactive System 1 and thoughtful, logical, slow moving, rational System 2 are, as fear is the pulse driving life under Covid 19, facing a moment which might well represent a tipping point for the future. A moment of well-intended action governed by fear and a very real need for control. Yet we might surrender yet more truth. We are increasingly open to Post Truth’s suggestions, willingly submitting to agree that, although we all know the back story’s quite complex, well, you know. This is the story we’re all agreed on officially. It is what it is. Another of Post Truth’s nasty catch phrases. It is what it is. It is because we are choosing it.
A grand narrative is emerging around the usefulness of a tracking Ap, with shivery echoes of Brooker’s Black Mirror, and premonitions of a Post Truth world. System 1 is quick to respond if perhaps recently bereaved, or ill, or a Health Care worker; or perhaps saturated with distress and grief, bombarded by images, slogans, statistics; or living in or close to poverty; or finding distancing and uncertainty challenging. Yes, says System 1. Try harder. Do more. Just say yes. For the common good. Save the NHS.
System 2 is cautious and thinks back to 1980’s resistance to video surveillance systems, speed cameras, security cameras and how now people willingly submit pictures of their breakfast up for public view and Amazon knows their clay feet. No, says System 2. Come on System 1. You’re a free thinker. There must be another way.
System 1 knows that makes sense. Everything has happened really very quickly. We must do all we can and stop shopping. It’s our fault, not the supply chain. It would be nice to go to the pub. I’d love to see the kids. As much as System 2 argues that this is really serious and that before you know it there’ll be a chip in the back of your neck that tells you what you want to eat on a flat screen (attuned to what’s in glut in Tesco and your neurological-readings) System 1 argues, well we can turn it all off when this is done.
System 2 argues back. You say that about watching the telly then all they have to do is send you a text to say, ‘Best episode ever’ and there you go. You watch it and it isn’t the best ever episode but because everyone says it was, you say it is too. Post-Truth truth. You’ve got to shake it off. But you won’t.
System 1 says, I’ll think about it while I go for a run.
Exercise is good.