Political lies used to imply that there was a truthâ€¦. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had political power. Today a growing number of politicians and pundits simply no longer care. They are content with what Stephen Colbert, an American comedian, calls â€œtruthinessâ€: ideas which â€œfeel rightâ€ or â€œshould be true.â€Â Â Â
â€”â€œThe Post-Truth World: Yes, Iâ€™d Lie to You,â€ The Economist, September 10, 2016, p. 18 (emphasis mine)
My social medium of choice, Facebook, has been a disturbing place of lateâ€”even more than usual. A particular meme formula is appearing more frequently as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election. It goes like this:
- Photo of something outrageous (especially if it casts the candidate you donâ€™t like in a negative light)
- Headline so outlandish itâ€™s guaranteed to get attention
- Name of the source
People share these things in a blink. Theyâ€™re so juicy that you can barely resist clicking through. If you stop to read the source line, though, you might detect a fly in the ointment: it usually reads something like (and these examples are made up) downwithfilthycapitalists.org or freedomfrommuslims.edu. Many of these sources excel in making up news, distorting it to their own ends, or at least disseminating stories without any regard for their truth value.
In the post-truth culture described by The Economist, where we donâ€™t care about the facts, that makes perfect sense. But it presents a massive problem: there is no wayâ€”no way whateverâ€”that we can run a society on that basis.
So we need to care like citizens and think like journalists.
The caring-like-citizens part is fairly straightforward. We realize that without a consensus on the facts behind an issueâ€”or at least the orientation to care about the factsâ€”we cannot begin to dialogue about the wicked societal problems that are far too big for one person, or one interest group, to overcome. Caring about an issue and the truth associated with it, then, becomes an act of good citizenship.
Now, thinking like journalists. Good journalists take nothing for granted. They check and double-check their sourcesâ€”on everything. As the old saw goes, â€œIf your mother says she loves you, verify it.â€
Time was when good journalists, and the reputable media that employed them, were plentiful enough to ferret out truth from nonsense for us in many cases. Thatâ€™s not as true anymore, thanks to budget cuts, failing newspapers, etc. So now we have to be our own journalists, or at least our own fact checkers.
How? There are at least three ways we can do it, and Iâ€™ll describe them in the next post. For now Iâ€™ll leave you with one thought: when I say â€œwe need to care like citizens and think like journalists,â€ I mean everyone. Me. You. Your neighbor down the street. We need all hands on deck to work through our thorniest problems, which means that collectively we must put the post-truth trend behind us. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, â€œEveryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.â€