“Let’s take a look at this post-truth meme, this word of the year which the Oxford Dictionary defines as: ‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’
Now, I would argue that the mode of communication and influence that they’re describing here is, developmentally speaking, not so much post-truth as it is pre-truth. I mean, thinking that comes out of the gut, thinking that is based on emotions or hardened prejudices, this is as old as the hills. This is the mode of thinking that virtually everybody had, and it’s all they had for the vast majority of human history. If we say that human culture is 70,000 years old, and that seems to be the latest guess, then what we do know is that about 69,500 of those years – all but 500 – were spent in a mode of thinking that was superstitious, magical, mythic, based on great stories, emotional, full of prejudices of all sorts, often inspiring, still inspiring, but not yet arriving at the level of development of thinking that was brought on by modernity beginning 500 years ago and really kicking into gear about 300 years ago. And of course the great realization of modernity is that the world is knowable in its objective manifestations… [i.e., we know] that thunder is not the product of an angry god…”
The above passage comes from Jeff Salzman, an integral thinker who’s podcast I still listen to on occasion. The episode that this particular quote comes from was all about Trump and the whole “post-truth” phenomenon. I actually sort of agree with Salzman’s brief assessment here of the whole “post-truth” thing; it’s not that people who voted for Trump, watch Fox News and read websites with names like “The Liberty & Freedom Real News Report” are super duper smart post-modern critical theorists or anything, it’s more likely that their center of gravity hovers around red warrior and/or amber traditionalist stages of conscious development and that they’re more prone to appealing to thinking that is based on emotions or hardened prejudices (e.g. inherited and unexamined religious and/or political ideologies).
That said, I definitely part ways with integral thinkers like Ken Wilber, though, who was on Salzman’s show and who recently wrote some huge essay on Trump and “post-truth.” One of the long standing criticisms of Wilber (that I totally agree with btw) is that he does a horrible job writing about postmodern philosophical thought. Judging from this recent essay, this hasn’t changed much. Wilber really has some disdain for post-structrualists that he barely seems to understand, like Derrida, Foucault and Leotard; these guys are always his go-to when he wants to make his case that postmodern philosophy is all about convincing people how truth doesn’t exist. HA! Wilber writes:
“…all of them would agree on one thing, namely there’s no such thing as truth. Truth is just a cultural fabrication, and whatever anybody calls truth is simply whatever some culture at some place or time can convince people is true, but that’s it. Truth is a fashion. It’s a fad. It’s no more real than hem lengths.”
I’m decently familiar with a lot of the major themes that run through the work of folks like Derrida, Foucault and Leotard, as well as other postmodern thinkers like Deleuze and Whitehead (the latter of whom I consider to be one of the first postmodern thinkers, a constructive one), and none of these thinkers are out to relativize (in a negative way) or destroy truth; quite the contrary, they were out to contextually “relation-ize” it, liberate it, and to pluralize it. I still haven’t found another person who puts it better, or more beautifully, than Catherine Keller:
“Relation does not entail relativism, which dissolves difference. Relationality implies the practice of discernment, which means to distinguish, to attend to difference, and to exercise good judgement. Despite the binary either/ors that back us into corners, there are always more than two differences.”
Truth is a process that emerges through dialogue with plural possibilities, and this isn’t a bad or negative realization.
Like I said above, I think Salzman’s initial assessment, that what people are calling “post-truth” is more likely “pre-modern truth”, is correct. Postmodern thinking is not “post-truth,” if anything it’s hyper-truth. It’s the realization that metanarratives really are metanarratives, with an “s” on the end, as in there is not just one metanarrative that can claim ultimacy. Aside from the obvious divergence in terms of where truth comes from (in the pre-modern worldview truth is revealed by an authoritative source ((e.g. God, or God’s prophets) vs. the postmodern claim that truth is created), the other big difference between pre-modern, red and amber type thinking, and green postmodern thinking is that green postmodern types have simply moved past scientific and religious/reveled, foundationalist forms of epistemological certainty. The pre-modern post-truthers haven’t gotten this far; they have epistemological certainty all right, but it’s not informed by advanced, rigorous scientific investigation. If it was informed by rigorous scientific rationalism or empiricism, for instance, then a healthy skepticism of “revealed truth” should emerge and this sort of postmodern democratic web theory of truth would at least be on the map as far as were one logically might have to move next (don’t make me invoke the implications of quantum physics here, I’ll do it god dammit!). Look, postmodern epistemologies (at least the one’s I’m familiar with) don’t necessarily argue that all ways of knowing are equal, and they definitely do not throw away scientific empiricism or rationalism. Rather, they generally would posit that we need to always consider multiple ways of knowing (including scientific empiricism and rationalism) to better approximate the truth and arrive at a deeper understanding of the issue. Further, at this more mature stage of development one probably would not uncritically accept truth revealed to her from “authoritative sources” like scientists, religious leaders, or the Church or Fox News, but would begin to see that truth emerges through experiential relations. It’s a messy, chaotic, but often times beautiful, process. Keller gets the final word on this:
“The truth-process does not eliminate uncertainty or its chaos. It makes it visible, in order to release a livelier, more redemptive, order. But such order, like the truth it supports, cannot be imposed: it must emerge. It resembles what scientists now refer to as “self-organizing complexity,” the online order of an open system. The chaos of dissolution can become the very stuff of creation…Exposing the dissolute ethics legitimated by the abusive theological absolutes, we break out of the mirror game. We approach not a relativism of anything goes—but a relationalism of: everything flows.”
Illustration above by Zara Picken