“A great truth wants to be criticized not idolized” – Friedrich Nietzsche
In order for something to be recognized as significant and carrying weight, of a cultural relevance that seems to make it common knowledge, it needs to be added to the dictionary. ‘TMI’ was added to Merriam-Webster early in 2016, ‘meme’ in 2015 and ‘unfriend’ in 2009, along with a variety of other words like ‘selfie’, ‘networking’ and ‘emoji’ over the years. On November 8th, Oxford Dictionaries presciently proclaimed the word of the year as ‘post-truth’, defining the term as “‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Yes, personal belief, those idealistic and sometimes unreasonable little narratives we tell ourselves that aren’t necessarily supposed to leave the bathroom mirror or our diary, and hopefully don’t follow us into a place where emotional tidal waves are better left behind. It goes without saying that our emotions have a huge implication on the way we live our lives, whether we decide to scream at our boss or kick a vehicle that nearly runs us over, but when they are the current that determines the flow of the river – for a subculture, a country or an entire continent – a dangerous precedent has been set.
The point of an objective fact is to find an indisputable point from which to begin an argument. While an angle, to be representative of journalism, should be aligned with a collection of facts, whatever truth is arrived at must be removed from emotion in order to have relevance across the board. Unfortunately, in a social media-laden environment where the Internet has relegated what’s real and what can be fact checked to a position of less importance, finding and defining objective truth becomes an issue.
Author and educator Neil Postman did not live to see the rise of social media, but he studied the impact of media and television on culture, stating that:
“Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”
With numerous reports about the proliferation of fake news that appeared following the United States election, it seems the prominence of disinformation that Postman speaks of is quite common. However, while it is foolish to believe an opinion devoid of fact simply because it appeals to us personally, it is equally foolish to expect that only the media, an elected official or the President are responsible for holding our institutions and democracy to account. Most of us cannot deduce the facts without a source, whether it’s Facebook or The New York Times, but we are responsible for the resources we utilize, how deep we are willing to dig and what we are prepared to question.
Elements of the media have long received criticism for sensationalism, biased reporting and a lack of solid facts, but it is one of the few institutions that is capable of highlighting the facts, and how this serves a society should not be negated. If thinking critically is a necessary feature of democracy, it stands to reason that the ability to question and deduce is a daily democratic act, one we can renounce only when we renounce our right to democracy all together. Unfortunately, in abiding solely by personal belief without the requirement of digging or questioning, we are confined to a post-truth world boiling in an emotional stew of disconnectedness.
“Nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate,” states the fictional anchorman Will McAvoy on the now-concluded HBO show, The Newsroom. But, in a world where post-truth has been proclaimed the word of the year as if it deserves the title, how does one arrive at a well-informed electorate? Is democracy simply a matter of filling in a ballot? Or must one be prepared to determine the difference between the facts and those that give the appearance of them? Surely, the real truths can stand up to the questions.