It’s been a rather shocking year for politics. First, the UK decided to vote itself out of the European Union. In the aftermath (actually, before that), the remain campaigners accused the leave campaign of lying. Leave were told to stop using several key strategies, one of which was the claim that the UK sends £350m every week to the EU.
We Now Live in a Post-Truth World and Everyone is Equally Guilty
That figure was never true and many people voted to leave on the basis that it would go to the NHS. The following day, and in the weeks and months that followed, many key pledges (on NHS funding, on immigration) were broken, or at the very least claimed they were never made. Many people experienced “Bregret” (regret at voting to leave). Remain campaigners were called “Remoaners”. Both of these were contenders for word of the year as they only appeared in the summer and now I see them every day.
Jump forward to November. Donald Trump wins the US election to almost everybody’s exclamations of shock, the second of two major political shocks. He too made several key promises in the run up to the election that he has since told the American people he could not honour or didn’t really mean. It is perhaps with no great surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary has chosen post-truth as its word of the year.
What is Post-Truth?
According to the OED, use of the word rose a massive 2000% in 2016. That means for every one person who used it last year, 2,000 use it today. They define post-truth as:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Therefore, people are less concerned with the actual facts than they are with whether they appeal to their ideological or political sensibilities. We can single out the EU Referendum vote and Donald Trump’s election, but I think this is something that has been going on for several years. It’s a problem of “identity politics” (another new term for me this year) and it is just as common on the left as it is the right. Most people do it. Most people are guilty of auto-sharing and accepting what is presented because it is in their newspaper, website or blog of choice.
Post-truth is about appealing to the emotions of the reader, knowing full well they won’t check it before sharing it. Here are some examples you may have seen:
- A story about a Muslim woman who refused to serve a soldier because he “murdered her fellow Muslims”. Stories about this have cropped up in Australia, the UK, Canada and the USA. Not one of them has been verified
- Pope Francis forbids American Catholics voting for Hillary Clinton. Not true, never happened. This week, Facebook was criticised for inventing it
- Any story with the words “natural cure”. You’ve seen the memes on Facebook, no doubt. An image of a substance that is any number of thousands or million times more “effective at killing cancer” than chemotherapy.
- Continuing stories about Barack Obama having been born in Kenya despite having produced two birth certificates
- Any article on “The War on Christmas” implying that it will be cancelled because of this or that group
- Misuse of the world “chemical” as something harmful and dangerous. The water we drink and the air we breath are both chemicals
As you can see, neither political left nor the right are guilt-free with this. No matter how enlightened we think we are. People simply want to experience an echo chamber of their own beliefs. Penn & Teller do a great example of this at a rally to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide. They use post-truth tactics and loaded language to get people to sign a petition to ban a scary chemical.
The OED Shortlist
Post-truth may have won in 2016 (in more ways than one) but it was selected from a varied and interesting shortlist.
- Adulting – the process of being an adult.
- Alt-right – a description of an element of the right wing political group, generally seen as reactionary, and rejecting all mainstream media
- Chat-bot – A computer programme (usually on a website) to simulate talking to a real human. Usually with a chat head and the comment “How may I help you today?”
- Coulrophobia – Not a new word, but due to the influx of clown trolling, its use has gone up. It’s fear of clowns
- Glass cliff – a new one on me. This means where a woman (or usually a person of ethnic minority) ascends to a high power position. We could say Barack Obama did this in 2008
- Hygge – Another new one on me, I heard it just two weeks ago. It comes from Danish and describes cosiness or comfort
- Latinx – a non-gendered term for a person of Latin descent (another new one on me)
- Woke – obviously not a new word, but the political meaning is new on me. Apparently, it means a person with privilege realising it and wanting to persistently announce it to the world