How did post-truth happen?Posted: December 5, 2016
I will preface this post by apologising for its elitist, condescending tone. I understand how unhelpful it is to metaphorically look-down at Trump supporters, and that part of the reason they are Trump supporters is because people like me looked-down on them for so long that they are now revolting against elitist snobbery. But I don’t see any way to discuss this issue in a way which doesn’t fit the elitist narrative. And besides, I know most of my audience probably fit this elitist mould just as much as I do. It’s important we know why the parallel anti-expert-post-truth world Trump created is so attractive to his supporters if we’re going to defend against it in Australia, so although I’m sorry for the condensation, I don’t apologise for the discussion.
Today I want to look at the post-truth social and news media echo-chamber which managed to put Trump on its shoulders, carry him to a pedestal, and place him unquestioning atop of it. Now that this raging machine have put their man in their White House, they have not stopped their effort to defend their King. They have not put down their keyboard, content at their victory, assured that they have been vindicated in their opinions and are now happy to go on their merry way helping Trump to apparently ‘make America Great again’. No. They’re still busy either crowing about their victory on social media (the popular line seems to be them mocking liberal tears), or attacking their King’s opponents. As a movement, they’re still working hard to ensure that everything Trump says and does is protected against fair scrutiny by the giant wall of anger and resentment Trump very cleverly built around himself and whenever anyone dares to criticise of even question Trump, his keyboard supporters pile on as a unified army.
This post-truth world might just be the scariest part of Trump’s ascendancy. That is why I think it’s important to take a closer look at how it came to be.
Every individual tweet which includes news about the US election has responses that perfectly represent the two polarised camps that have formed in the post-truth world. Those who argue with facts, and those who argue with stubborn opinions that are cemented in stone. It is not fair to characterise these camps by saying the stubborn camp sided wholly with Trump, and the facts camp with Clinton, because that is a simplistic analysis which isn’t fair or helpful. Either way, it only takes a cursory scroll through the two types of tweets to see exactly how dangerous the post-truth community has become. The reason for this is because they’ve learned to be cynical and untrusting of what they term to be ‘elites’, to the point where they latch onto a conspiracy and without any critical analysis of whether their opinion reflects reality, they whip up a fire-storm of hatred against the elite which is completely impervious to reason or attempts to contradict it. Here is an example.
Jill Stein, leader of the US Greens, who is currently heading a campaign to raise funds for recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan tweeted this comment, complaining about the cost and bureaucratic headache of organising the recount (a statement which is, ironically, very anti-establishment).
Now look at some of the responses to this tweet, and note how many shares they have received in appreciation. Quickly, a conspiracy theory has flared up accusing Stein, and in turn, Sanders, of raising funds for the recount which they are then going to apparently keep for themselves by committing fraud and therefore deserving to, just like Hillary, be ‘locked up’.
I know there have always been, and probably always will be, conspiracy theorists on the internet. But Trump supporters have turned conspiracy theories from a fringe game to a mainstream electoral movement.
I have no doubt that many of these people have every justification for distrusting the establishment government and what they see as a ruling-elite. They feel they let them down. They have seen their jobs disappear, their towns lose all sense of community, they’ve been sent to unnecessary wars and America hasn’t lived up to their expectation of being the land of opportunity. But, and this is where I’m going to receive howls of ‘you’re an elitist and part of the problem’, there is also a problem here with these people’s ability to reason and to critically judge information. This problem occurs when they bypass a healthy cynicism – a necessary second-look at establishment practices – and instead jump straight to angry, stubborn cynicism, mistrust and hatred for only those they disagree with to come up with, frankly, quite nutty campaigns that are illogical and self-defeating.
I say illogical because it’s just ridiculous that these people believe that Stein and Sanders are going to raise funds for a recount and then give up on the recount so they can scamper off with the profits. That’s just not going to happen. Even if you believed Stein and Sanders to be so corrupt that they would want to steal this money, there is no logical process by which the money can be transferred from the recount fund into Stein and Sander’s bank accounts. To believe it could happen is beyond cynical and is instead dangerously gullible. What this gullibility also reveals is that the mistrust and disrespect shown to experts of any kind, who are thrown in the elitist bin along with anyone else they deem to have wronged them, has extended to a mistrust and disrespect for facts. Experts provide facts, experts are wrong, therefore facts are wrong. And any person with a keyboard has an opinion worth believing, as long, of course, as you agree with that opinion. See why I’m scared?
I say self-defeating because, actually, there is no harm done to Trump supporters through the vote recount campaign – it’s not their money, it’s come from donations from people who support the recount. And you would think all Americans prefer to be sure that their election system is not rigged, as Trump complained it was for weeks on end. The rigged part, apparently, they only agree with if Trump says it, not one of their opponents. In actual fact, there are many elements of the American political system which do, justifiably, make it feel like the elites, the rich, have rigged the process in their favour; but the irony of all of this is that Trump is one of those elites who had serious power in the electoral process through his donations to both sides of politics, and regularly used this power to benefit his business interests, to give himself more power, to the point where he had enough power to run for President by saying the whole system is rigged. We need a stronger word for ironic.
Although you might think I’ve finished with my elitist put-down, unfortunately, I haven’t. The post-truth world didn’t happen by accident. I’ve read thousands of words during and since the election which try to explain the demographic and value-driven voting behaviour of Trump versus Clinton voters, and there is one that stood out to me. Perhaps it stood out because it was a fact which fitted my preconceived opinions – which are the best types of facts don’t you think? This one was a pretty credible fact though, if we’re having a debate about which fact is better, which we’re not because we are trying to deal with a post-truth world where facts are apparently the enemy. Anyway, back to my arsenal of facts. This one is from credible-big-data-pollster Nate Silver, who found that education levels were a bigger predictor of voting behaviour than income. Silver suggests that the catch-all term ‘elites’ may actually just be a proxy for people with a post-high-school education. He says the Trump voters were much more likely to only have a high-school education, whereas Clinton voters were much more likely to have a post-high-school education. Again, this might just sound like I’m putting Trump voters in the ‘too stupid to vote’ category, but I’m not doing that. I’m trying to help. Honestly.
What do we learn at university or in vocational education? Apart from learning a specialised set of skills to set us up for a profession that requires particular expertise which is particularly useful in a post-globalisation world where manual jobs are disappearing. Apart from learning to respect our peers and teachers for their contributions in specialised fields, to respect their expertise, their experience, and their imparting of useful facts. Apart from all that, we learn how to think. We learn how to reason. We learn how to critically assess information and to draw rational conclusions. Every assignment, every class, every discussion at post-high-school level builds these competencies. These competencies are, sorry to sound elitist again, a massive asset in life. To be able to see real events happening in front of you, and to question them, to think about them, to recall past events and compare them, to make reasoned and eloquent arguments about what you think, and to do this in a civil and productive way, is important, not just to individuals but also to the success of whole societies.
The post-truth world, if it has any of this type of thinking, doesn’t have nearly enough. Where a debate between people who hold different, informed positions is healthy, rejection of facts from experts because expertise and experience are deemed to be automatically untrustworthy is not. Where cynicism is healthy, stubborn-unthinking-partisan-cynicism is not. So, as much as I know this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky when we need a much quicker and easier fix for the post-truth world, really, the answer is more accessible and better education for all.
Those who feel left behind by the establishment, who hate that they’ve been left behind, aren’t going to be convinced by your reasoned arguments that they’re voting against their best interests when they are unable to assess the information in front of them and draw logical conclusions. When they’ve wedded themselves to Trump and they believe everything he does is wonderful and everything his opponents do is corrupt and immoral, they’re not going to be convinced to listen to your point of view, to your rational analysis of why they are mistaken. Your dot points of facts is going to bounce right off them. This is not about Trump supporters being dumb. This is about them being uneducated. You want to make sure Trump doesn’t get elected again? Then educate the masses. Not just the privileged people who can afford it.