I was recently discussing with a friend, Tony, a controversial news story in which a high-profile official had been accused of burying bad news, and Tony commented: "I don't think in good conscience you can criticise something that you think is fairly normal practice. How do those two things marry up?"
Post-truth is a misnomer. What we mean is post-critical: when normal is accepted as unchallengeable, even and especially when normal is morally complicated. The only streetwise response to a new norm that seems morally questionable is a knowing shrug denoting a comfy blend of indifference and wry detachment -- I know it's fucked-up, but hey, that's the way it is. It seems a dumb to fight a losing battle; far more savvy to stay cool and keep smirking.
The truth has not become more elusive; it must remain, almost by definition, always fiercely contested, challenged again and again, proving itself by its resistance to sustained attack on all sides. What has changed, thanks to the internet, is our access to this multiplicity of arguments: reams of 'evidence' available at the touch of a few buttons for whatever contention you're striving to support. Establishing a solid position has never been easier and never been harder: this is a defining paradox of our age.
Every day, we are exposed to an onslaught of conflicting evidence, claims and counterclaims. Much of it is noise and advertising: lies peddled to try to keep us compliantly consuming. What is required is not less information but more critical thinking: better filtering of fact from fabrication, cannier detection of bias and agenda. Identifying and calling out hypocrisy and bullshit is our task, our civil responsibility, but it demands huge effort. Mustering the energy requires a driving force, a motivating principle: we have to hunger for truth and pursue it with famished determination -- not in spite of uncertainty but because of it.
Our motivating "want" according to Albert Camus, writing at the height of world war two, is to make sure that violent force is never again considered right "unless it is serving the mind":
"The task is endless, it's true. But we are here to pursue it." Camus knows that this is a mission-for-life, never accomplished; we remain fallible. "We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find the few principles that will calm the anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish, that's all."
If we have lost our appetite for truth, or become too impatient to toil for it, it is perhaps because we have forgotten the devastating power of lies. As we sat around the family table at Christmas, the conversation inevitably turned to Brexit. I suspected Uncle Burt (let's call him) may have voted leave, since he had posted something softly nationalistic involving white cliffs and English fields on Facebook in the days following the referendum, so I asked him. No, he said, he had never voted in any election, muttering something fuzzily anti-establishment about not wanting to appear on the electoral register. But trouble is coming, he said, and he was sure because he could sense rising antagonism towards Muslims. "This is what I mean," he said, flashing me on his phone a picture of a baying mob bedecked with the Cross of Saint George.
I'm fairly certain Uncle Burt is not a bigot; he was not arguing in support of the forces which he sensed were growing ever angrier. He was not making any argument, he was airing a gut feeling; he didn't need hard evidence. Nothing he said was rooted in first-hand experience: he had not personally (offline, in the world) witnessed any example of religious or racial tension or trouble. Why give voice to a mere hunch, and why the hint of relish? -- the trouble when it came, his tone seemed to imply, wouldn't affect him, and so the prospect, if anything, slightly titillated him.
"You are not a facist, Uncle Burt," I responded, "but this is how fascist movements operate, by scapegoating a minority group as a locus for generalised discontent, turning uncertainty into resentment, hatred and violence." Turns out, invoking the holocaust at the Christmas dinner table is not in the spirit of the season; it was time to serve dessert. There's always some sweet distraction -- perhaps it was ever thus.
Writing about the lead-up to world war two, my late grandfather recalls a sense of national complacency upon hearing, in 1938, that the government was preparing to roll out universal national service in time of war. "The world's heart had stopped beating as it stood by, as if petrified, and watched Hitler's defiant announcement on March 13th that the Federal State of Austria was dissolved and that that country was now annexed to the Mighty German Empire." He, my grandfather, does not pretend that he was any less complacent than the rest: "I, like millions of others, preferred to ignore the ominous rumblings of distant thunder. I was still living in the sunshine, and the storm would not pass my way."
His RAF bomber was shot down on August 29th, 1940, and he was detained in POW camps in Germany and Poland for the next four years and eight months. I cannot speak for him -- he died in 1980, two years before I was born -- but I suspect that both "living in the sun" and "distant thunder" took on new significance after 1945.
How loud a thunderclap would it take now to crack our protective blanket of ironic, anaesthetising detachment? Would we see the storm coming, or would it be too late even by the time we began folding up our deckchairs?