So, it’s official. Truth is dead, and facts are irrelevant. Well, at least that’s what the media would have you think. Oxford Dictionaries has selected ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year, inspired by campaigns in both the UK referendum on the European Union and the Presidential campaign of President-elect (I know, I know) Donald Trump.
The dictionary defines 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.
That’s not to say it’s a new concept. The word has been in use for at least the last decade, and could as easily be applied to Tony Blair’s assertions that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction as Trump’s claims that all Mexicans are rapists and criminals.
2016 was, of course, unique in the term moving from the periphery to the centre of political discourse.
The same could also be said for another word which made the word of the year shortlist, ‘alt-right’. Here’s the dictionary definition if you’re unclear:
(in the US) 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
The alt-right, as we’ve seen in recent months, have adopted the post-truth candidate as their spokesman, and claimed his victory as their own.
What I wonder is, do these words actually describe any new phenomena? Or do they just normalise extremist views caused by the magnification of a 24-hour news culture and self-serving social media feeds?
I mean, before the emergence of the word post-truth, wouldn’t we have just said that Trump’s claims that ‘Obama founded ISIS’ and ‘George Bush did 9/11’ were lies?
Granted, perhaps accusing a politician as a liar is hardly newsworthy, but describing these claims as examples of post-truth discourse seems to provide some level of acceptance to the fact that politicians will knowingly lie. And lie in the hope that by the time the majority of people realise they’ve been misled it’ll be too late, and they’ll have already become so outraged by the claims that they’ve chanted ‘lock her up’ for months on end, and crossed their ballot on polling day.
What about the alt-right? The young white male demographic, lurking in forums and creating memes to be shared amongst like-minded people. They may be ultra-conservative, but so far, so new, right? Racism adapting to the 21st century, hidden away in forums without fear of retribution.
Sure, until you actually look at their views. Though they range, there’s a general flavour of aiming to preserve white civilization by promoting white supremacy, race hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, and anti-feminism. Nice bunch of chaps, I know.
The thing is, didn’t we already have a way of defining extreme right-wing white supremacists? Aren’t these people just neo-Nazis who know how to create memes of Pepe the Frog? Isn’t using the term that these people have used to define themselves just aiding them in hiding the extremity of their views?
Perhaps not. Perhaps we’re yet to fully understand the breadth of use that post-truth and alt-right can offer us. Maybe in the post-modern era of likes and shares ever more outrageous lies and extreme views will become normalised through continuous media consumption. Maybe they won’t, I’m not one to speculate. Not too much, anyway.
What I do know is it’s a sad indictment of the direction the world has gone in 2016 that the two words I’ve been talking about are not only two of the most influential words of the year, but two of the most instantly recognisable. It all seems a long way away from where we were 12 months ago, anyway.