While the world obsessed over the ever-lengthening list of cultural icons who died in 2016, I think we might have missed the most significant casualty: The truth.
Like many, by the end of December I was distracted in that “who’s next?” way by the sudden sad deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. I was also kept busy with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s swan-song speech against the settlements, the Israeli government, and his tenuous hold on the Middle East reality – not to mention UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which made it almost impossible for a Jew to live in Jerusalem and pray at the Western Wall without being considered “in flagrant violation of international law.”
So perhaps I can be excused for failing to note that 2016 can be fittingly summed up in the hyphenated term “post-truth,” chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as their Word of the Year.
It is defined as an adjective: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
If truth be told, and apparently it doesn’t have to be, Oxford Dictionaries announced their Word of the Year in November, not last month, but it felt more recent to me and you can’t argue with that.
In case you were wondering, their word of the year for 2015 wasn’t a word at all but the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji, which I have yet to use. I’ve barely caught up with 2014’s “selfie” phenomenon, and I’m very concerned about where this is all leading, although relieved my frequent use of the word “I” should not be challenged.
According to their own undoubted definition, “The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team reviews candidates for word of the year and then debates their merits, choosing one that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. Language research conducted by Oxford Dictionaries editors reveals that use of the word post-truth has increased by approximately 2,000% over its usage in 2015.”
I’ll mourn the passing of the need for truth more than I mourn the passing year.
The good people at Oxford Dictionaries noted in their announcement that: “The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.’ This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).
“‘It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse,’ says Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries. ‘Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.’”
Grathwohl explains that the frequency of usage of the term spiked in June following the UK’s Brexit vote on its EU membership (Brexit was itself shortlisted as a possible word of the year) and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.
“Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time,” Grathwohl says in the press release.
The concept is obviously older than the word. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the earliest-known usage of post-truth in this sense is in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian- American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation
magazine, in which, reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich lamented that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”
Blood libels are ancient but post-truth. The UNESCO declaration negating Jewish (and Christian) links to the Temple Mount is an attempt to create a new truth. Joseph Goebbels’s “Big Lie” strategy – “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” – has met its perfect helpmate.
Post-truth, like the emoji and selfie before it, is an egocentric expression of living in the digital age, where the virtual world can create what passes for facts.
And to demonstrate post-truth’s dangers, consider the rise of its ugly stepsister, fake news. At the end of 2016, following a fake news report that Israel was threatening Pakistan with nuclear weapons, Defense Minister Khawaja M. Asif, issued a real threat, tweeting that Israel had forgotten Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.
Don’t get me started on the perils of conducting political and diplomatic discourse via 140-character messages on the social media. I have a word for it, but it’s not publishable by my dated standards.
Part of the post-truth phenomenon stems from the ease (and illusion) of being able to correct mistakes online – deleting, updating and changing your opinion via the comfort of your smartphone.
Social media are the environment in which post-truthers thrive. (I don’t know if the term “post-truthers” exists but that needn’t stop me from using it under the circumstances.)
Post-truth there can be no universal home truths. A look at some of the other terms that were considered by Oxford is revealing. Among them is: “Adulting: The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.”
If you survived the US elections, you have probably been exposed to the term “altright” defined as: “An ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.”
“Chatbot, a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet,” was new to me, although in March 2016 Microsoft launched and swiftly aborted its chatbot “Tay” on Twitter after it began to imitate its users and produce fantastically offensive tweets.
Perhaps post-truth is simply the ultimate PR ploy in a world in which existence does not depend on tangibility but on marketing slogans. As many have pointed out, Airbnb has become a giant in the hotel industry without owning a single hotel room, Uber is a major player in transportation even though it owns no vehicles, and the Bitcoin currency has coins in name only.
In the post-truth world, we spend a lot of time with our head in “the cloud,” ignoring the facts on the ground until they trip us up. I don’t think it makes it a better world than the old one, but you don’t have to take my word for it.