As her milk teeth fell out, my daughter got into protracted correspondence with the tooth fairy. The requests for robust evidence of the fairy’s existence ratcheted up and the responses became increasingly unconvincing.
Meanwhile, her cousins – motivated by a devout need to obliterate false idols – told her that Father Christmas didn’t exist.
Plus, through a series of misunderstandings, it transpired that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real either.
So, early on, all that was behind her. Unencumbered, she went off to school to have a load of facts shovelled into her.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to know stuff, have access to information, make judgements on the basis of how things are.
But then again, these days it’s how we feel that makes things what they are, or not.
Perceptions are driving politics. I think, therefore it is.
That’s why health tourism is a thing, even if it’s actually not a thing. And why grammar schools are a good idea even though they’re not.
And resisting this tide turns out to be pointless, and the quickest way to be fatally labelled part of the metropolitan elite. So we end up bemoaning the post-truth nature of it all.
But I’m not sure that’s such a useful framing.
For a start, this isn’t so new
I can see the argument that a corner of hell should be reserved for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to ride around in their mendacious bus. But then I also remember 1992’s truth-stretching ‘Labour’s tax bombshell’ campaign (to give just one example from pre-post-truth times).
Facts are not always all that great anyway
We’ve all listened to unedifying debates where statistics are bandied about, with nobody any the wiser about anything at the end. Facts and truth have long had a strained relationship.
Plus rational fact-based policy discourse is not a problem-free notion
‘Evidence based policy’ can be a good starting point for sensible discourse, but it can also be a way to close down options and deflect attention from structural issues and more deep-seated power dynamics.
Nor is it true anyway that it’s only other people who are ruled by prejudices
I’m reminded of this study, which demonstrated confirmation bias by asking people if they remembered fabricated events. Results showed conservatives more likely to falsely remember seeing Barack Obama greeting the president of Iran, and liberals more likely to falsely remember George W. Bush on holiday with a baseball celebrity during Hurricane Katrina.
As Daniel Kahnemann has shown, rational thought requires heavy investment, and it’s always been the case that we look for short cuts in making sense of the world.
But that’s not to say that things aren’t going haywire.
Trump’s poisonous positioning and insidious shape-shifting is a horror story brought to life – but his blurry relationship with truth is only one part of the bigger picture. And in the UK the cynical ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ schtick is deeply unpleasant: here’s Jacob Rees Mogg spectacularly degrading political discourse for example – but that’s more post-integrity than post-truth.
Meanwhile, adding to the dangers, responses to these slippery insurgencies have exposed a paucity of political leadership.
Martin Luther King said, “I refuse to determine what is right by taking a Gallup poll of the trends of the time … A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a moulder of consensus … I would rather be a man of conviction than a man of conformity”.
Instead, these days, the favoured strategy is a mix of hollow expediency and corrosive opportunism. They think they are being clever, riding the tiger of distorted opinion. But that remains to be seen.
And as campaigners, we need to find ways to respond better to these shifting sands and treacherous currents.
We need to be people of conviction. We need to nail some things down and hold onto them.
We need to spend time understanding how the volatilities are playing out, and have a good take on the possible implications.
We need to make sure we are not heading towards irrelevance, that our priorities are the right ones and our ways of working are fit for purpose.
We need to think about framing, tell better stories, present more compelling narratives.
Most of all we need to act with and support the communities who are facing the consequences, now.
But also, we need to think longer term, what lies ahead. If politicians choose to misidentify the problems, and support erroneous solutions, what happens when that doesn’t address the underlying discontent?
It’s hard to see that turning out well, and we need to be ready.