The Trump presidency didn’t introduce the post-truth era. America has had a problem with truth for a long time.
Long before Kellyanne Conway introduced “alternative facts” into the national lexicon, Americans have been entertaining some rather magical thinking about what constitutes truth and reality. Identifying the first signs of our problem could take us back several centuries, but let’s start with some evidence found within our own recent memory.
George Bush’s chief political consultant Karl Rove once told a reporter that “(people) in the reality-based community believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works anymore.”
Yes, you read that right. Rove was snickering that anyone foolish enough to think that reality counts for anything (“the reality-based community”) isn’t going to get very far in today’s world. To Rove, only chumps would allow reality to influence their choices or opinions in daily life. I can’t answer for you, but I want to be counted in with the “reality-based community”.
Where did this cavalier attitude toward reality and truth come from?
Some first started noticing it in the ‘60’s when we were encouraged by culture leaders to “do your own thing” and “find your own truth”. Finding “one’s own truth” became a mantra for an entire generation. What’s the problem with that? Simple. We cannot have “our own truth”. Things that are actually “true” exist outside of ourselves. They are true whether we acknowledge them or not. Truth is not like opinions which are personal and exist within our individual minds. Truth is reality and is available for everyone to discover.
That water consists of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen is true; and further, it is true for all people and for all times, whether they recognize it or not. A person may not say that “my truth” calls for two parts oxygen. If he did, he would be wrong. Words count and the word “truth” is as important as any word we have.
It should be immediately apparent that the ‘60’s slogan should have been “find your own opinion” or “find your own set of beliefs”. But it didn’t, and with the wide-spread popularity of the phrase came the accepted belief that truth is a personal thing which can be altered simply by thinking it or saying it.
With the coming of the ‘80’s, American universities were overtaken by post-modernism, an intellectual black hole which first rose in France. To reduce it to its simplest form, post-modernism claims that “truth does not exist”. This influence led to a condition known as relativism, which basically says that we’re wasting our time trying to distinguish between real and unreal, true and untrue. Those concepts are relative, the post-modernist would say; they are fluid and change from person to person. In other words, we create reality. It’s not coincidental that Karl Rove, Kellyanne Conway and most of official Washington were students during that era.
It was in the early ‘90’s that many of us first heard the now prevalent “wisdom” that “perception is reality”. Had the phrase read “perception can be mistaken for reality”, we might agree. But this careless claim is in line with postmodernist thinking: nothing is true; truth is whatever we think it is; my perceptions define truth, reality doesn’t.
All of this brings us back to our current dilemma. America is badly divided. We have separated ourselves into rival cultural tribes and ideological factions and have lost the common ground necessary for communication and cooperation. We cannot even agree on what is real, with every actual reality being “spun” until it appears different than it actually is. We regularly ignore truths which reflect reality if we deem them “inconvenient” for winning an argument or creating public policy. We need, individually and collectively, to choose the long-term values of truth and reality over the short-term benefits of manipulating or being manipulated by perceptions.