Friday, December 2, 2016

"Post Truth" and how we got here.

The thing about "Post Truth" is that we got ourselves here. It wasn't some alien invasion or a mass mind control exercise. People willingly gave up looking for truth (or as it is sometimes known "the correct state of affairs").
There was a time when politicians, churches, campaigners would investigate a problem, put forward their own proposals for addressing it based on their moral or philosophical position, then try to get the population to support it. This was how trade unions and the Labour movement began and why they then formed the Labour Party - as a way of making that voice heard in parliament.

In 2016 it works somewhat differently. These days campaigners create a narrative, a story, which makes sense as a story, but often has little evidence behind it. They then try and get a "broad cross section of society", in reality usually a handful of spokespeople, to back it and then they lobby the government to introduce laws that force people to address the issue in question. This means that laws are passed that have very little popular support, so we should not be surprised when the public distrusts elected governments and looks for other solutions rather than being forced to comply with laws they do not agree with.

This strategy is used by political parties, campaign groups and religious bodies. It is much less about hearts and minds and much more about influencing decision makers, with little debate on what we want to influence them to do. A simple parable might be that Jesus, having become concerned about the money lenders in the temple, got up a petition to the Sanhedrin to ban the sale of sacrificial animals in the temple courts. He launched it a press conference with the leaders of a number of Jewish sects including Simon the Zealot (showing that this was not a partisan issue). Meanwhile, Peter and Paul arranged a meeting to brief Pontius Pilate on the issues and try and get him to support reform measures. Not a perfect example, but you can see where the early Christians would have been had they been led by "policy wonks".

A lot of decision making is now based on showing that you have a narrative and that people are buying into it.

Is it any wonder then that people have been so easily switched from believing one narrative to believing another? They were never convinced of, or committed to, the first. It was just the way things were being run. The alternative narrative doesn't need much evidence behind it as long as it meets people's immediate desires and concerns. As we have seen with Donald Trump, you can quickly renege on your populist campaign promises.

People now choose the narrative that best fits with their pre-existing values, tastes and prejudices. One way to describe the phenomena might be, to quote Adam Savage:

I reject your reality and substitute my own.

It is now possible to believe all sorts of crazy stuff because it fits within a narrative that is not itself outrageous.

Now to the reasons this has happened. I think it is partly to do with the increasing diversity of "opinion leaders". With mass communication open to the general public the ways that people receive information is changing. We have already seen how fake news websites have influenced people's thinking during the US presidential election. Governments have also used news management to influence behaviour, for example, during the handover of Hong Kong to China and during the Scottish independence referendum campaign. People are now as likely to trust a blogger or a YouTube channel as they are a newspaper or the BBC News. This means that the likeability of a given presenter or opinion leader is likely to be a significant factor in people buying into their narrative. Some of the main sources of these narratives are people like Alex Jones, David Icke and a plethora of "researchers" who speak well on phone in interviews. If you look at some of this "alternative news media" they are actually quite reliant on material originating with Russia Today and other government's news agencies, so they are not that alternative after all. I am not saying they are wrong about everything, but they are largely immature in their understanding of how mass communication works and how easily they can be manipulated into doing the opposite of what they think they are doing.

Another factor has been the dismissal of the scientific method as a way of obtaining the truth. Two examples of this are the adoption of young earth creationism by increasing numbers of evangelical Christians in the UK and the work done to rubbish climate change science. Science has gone from being the accepted way of finding out facts to a way of finding ideas which need to be presented alongside all the alternatives so people can choose their own truth.

These changes mean that politics is in a state of instability. Labour and Conservative used to be able to rely on about 30% of the vote and had to campaign for the other 20% to get a majority. Now, as we have seen in Scotland, people are willing to vote for alternatives. In England that might mean the end of Labour and the rise of UKIP, because one narrative the left has not really caught up with, and it is more of a verifiable truth than a narrative, is that the British population has generally moved to the right over the past five years. A bit like a tectonic plate sticking on a fault line until the pressure gets too much and it suddenly lurches forward a few feet, we could be about to witness further political changes that have not been predicted.

(If you want to look further at the issue of truth try John 18, even if you aren't a Christian you can't help being captivated by verse 37 and 38).