The Post-Truth Era

Daniel Lee 
Eleanor and Wayne Chiu Associate Professor (Theological Studies)
Director of Center for Faith & Public Values

 

The term “Post-Truth” was found in some political commentary as early as the 1990’s. However, it was not until two public opinion polls with far-reaching impact held in 2016, namely the mid-year Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election at year-end, that this term was more publicly mentioned. The two events not only marked the rise of the new tribalism in Europe and the United States, but also attracted much attention from all walks of life by the way public opinions were shaped. For example, the pro-Brexit group launched a massive bus advertising campaign, falsely claiming that the U.K. sent £350 million to the EU each week. On the other hand, fake statements and misinformation that emerged during the U.S. presidential election were innumerable. Donald Trump is arguably the most untrustworthy president of the United States. As of today, nearly 70% of his statements have been verified and categorized as from “mostly false” to “pants on fire”.1 The term “post-truth” spread like wildfire and frequently appeared in the headlines of various media and newspapers. It was even named the Word of the Year for 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries.

Believe It or Not -- Who Cares about the Truth?

Prejudice, rumors, nonsense or lies are certainly nothing new. The prefix “post” of “post-truth” does not mean there was a “higher amount of truth” in earlier generations. Rather, it only refers to a cold indifference towards the truth in modern society. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, it is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”2 In other words, in public affairs, modern people seem to put less and less focus on the truth. Instead, they tend to adopt comments that are closer to their current mood and that are in line with their position. And what’s most worrying is that even if there is enough evidence to refute a certain statement, the propagandists will still be unmoved and fearlessly boast: “Take it or leave it. Everyone believes anyway.”3

Jacques Ellul, a French law professor and sociologist, reminds us in his classic work of dissecting modern propaganda that when discussing propaganda, people tend to confine their problems to a group of strategists who makes use of mass communications and social psychology techniques to guide, instigate and manipulate the people, whereas the people seem to be completely passive victims.

However, Ellul pointed out that propaganda can never create something out of nothing. It actually follows the needs of modern people and reinforces the modern condition.4 That is to say, the fact that propaganda can exist in a certain form is because it satisfies the collective aspirations of modern people. And what are these aspirations? According to Ellul, they are our obsession with technique.5

Indulged in High Efficiency – Voluntary Slavery?

To Ellul, “technique” means more than just gadgets and machines. It refers to “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”6 Since the Enlightenment, our society has developed towards a fully “technicised” direction, relying heavily on the means and methods provided by various techniques. All areas of human life have been systematized and operationalized so that everything can operate with maximum efficiency to yield the greatest effects. Ellul stressed that technique is not value-neutral, or up to the user to decide whether it is good or evil. On the contrary, when a man uses technique, his inner world and even his outer life will be completely reshaped by it. Scientific technique, governing technique, socio-psychological technique, techniques of monetary control, mass communication technique and other techniques have intricately constructed a milieu that dominates the order and values of modern society. Efficiency is no longer an option, but a necessity imposed on all human activity.

In order to achieve the highest efficiency in political, social and economic mobilization, modern society combines mass communication with mass psychology to develop propaganda.7 Ellul added that right from the beginning, the aim of propaganda was not to inform the public, but to form the desires and actions of the public. However, it was not a totalitarian government that first developed and made use of this technique, but commercial adver tisement in a capitalist society:8 A set of disseminat ing methods that can influence the most target audience within the shortest period of time, arouse the strongest consumption desires and bring forth collective consumption behaviors. It does not rely on calm and collected thinking and free will, but on conditioned reflexes and all types of “myths”, such as “progress”, “happiness” and “virtue of labor”. Unfortunately, the modern society will pay a high price for being indulged in efficient techniques.

Shatter the Myths – Discipline in Life

Living in the world constructed and projected by the propaganda, the personality and soul of modern people will be alienated, losing the understanding and connection to the real world and the true self. Language is no longer an instrument of the mind for exploring the realities of the world and exchanging ideas, but a heap of symbols evoking feelings and reflexes.9

Is there a way out of all this grimness? According to Ellul, modern society must fulfill five conditions in order to break through this predicament. First, man needs to become conscious of the enslavement and alienation brought about by the technological society. Second, man must destroy the myths about efficient techniques and de-sacralize their holy prestige. Third, in practice, man must try every effort to keep a certain detachment from it, submitting it to other determining factors like spiritual or human factors. Fourth, the ability and effort of reflection should not be confined in the academic technique, but become the daily disciplines of every man. Fifth and the most difficult condition, technicians and those who try to post the technical problem should engage in the dialogue. Through solemn confrontations, they can seek to break through the closed system and authoritarianism of technique.10

Hong Kong society’s pursuit and addiction of high efficiency are no less than those in Europe, where Ellul resided. So what does this mean to our faith community? We could choose to follow along, “technicise” even our faith and exalt efficiency, neglecting the patience needed for authentic communion. But shouldn’t we be relying on the Lord who truly “sets the captives free”, so we can plough deep in the five conditions listed above and hold fast to them, as we strive to be the salt and light of the world?

 

 

1. “Donald Trump’s File,” Politifact (https://www.politifact. com/personalities/donald-trump/); accessed 22 Aug 2018. 
2. “Word of the Year 2016 is…”; available from Oxford Dictionaries website (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/ word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016); accessed 22 Aug 2018.
3. Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018) 1–16.
4. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Vintage Books, 1973) 88–117, 138 –160.
5. For Ellul’s discussions about “techniques”, refer to Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); “The Technological Order”, in Technology and Culture: Proceedings of the Encyclopedia Britannica Conference on the Technological Order 3, no. 4 (1962) 394–421.
6. The Technological Society, xxv.
7. Propaganda, 121–138.
8. The Technological Society, 363–365.
9. Propaganda, 163–187. For discussion of the impact of propaganda on the society and politics, refer to pages 193–257.
10. “The Technological Order”, 409–412.

 

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