It’s an annual ritual for the Oxford Dictionaries. Every December, it announces a word of the year, one which signals “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year.” In 2013, it was ‘selfie’, in 2014, ‘vape’ (vapour produced by an e-cigarette), and in 2015, ‘emoji’. Last year, the choice – quite appropriately – was ‘post-truth’, a term defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Citing its own research, the Oxford Dictionaries revealed that the usage of ‘post-truth’ had risen by 2,000 per cent in last 12 months, particularly the phrase ‘post-truth politics’.
Indeed, in 2016, politics in the West changed and so did political communication – in the shadow of Donald Trump’s election campaign and the European Union referendum campaign in the UK. Extreme exaggerations and direct falsehood led to emergence of fake stories and conspiracy theories online; willful and offensive provocation online or in print; and a certain skepticism and even denigration of expert opinion. “One worry is that public figures are happy to assert facts that are simply not true, or to talk about alternative facts,” Evan Davis writes in the opening pages. “The other fashionable concern is that fake news stories (i.e. lies) are shared across social media before anyone notices that the original source is far from reliable.”
Evan Davis, a broadcaster and an economist, terms all this as bullshit and reveals that this kind of non-factual talk and communication goes much further than 2016. It was in 1980s that the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt published an essay “to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” Eventually, it was published as a book On Bullshit, and one of its arguments was that a bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” Hence, according to Frankfurt, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
As example, Davis cites oft-quoted, pre-election statement of US President Donald Trump wherein he said: ‘Don’t believe these phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 per cent unemployment. The number’s probably 28, 29, or as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 per cent”, a grossly over-estimated number by any account. But as Davis explains: “A statement might paradoxically create a favourable impression even when ludicrous, by demonstrating a concern with an issue that matters to target audience.”
Similarly, Tony Blair peddled a lie that Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq, had amassed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In doing so, the former British Prime Minister had used tricks of modern communicators to persuade people to support a war. “For some of his critics, he was deliberately misleading. For others… he had misled himself and arrived at a false certainty of the case he was making.” Whichever the explanation, in hindsight not only an entire generation of Iraqis and large part of ancient Iraqi civilization were destroyed in the Iraq War due to this scandalous exercise in deception and misinformation, but the War itself fuelled the growth of so-called Islamic terrorism.
So why do people listen to lies and accept half-truths? According to Davis, the idiom of traditional politicians across the West has become rehearsed and defensive; the old language of politics has worn out. That’s why millions responded to the mendacity of Trump and Brexit campaigns. “In practice,” Evan Davis writes, “we evidently are quite happy to believe untruths.”
Apart from politics and politicians, Davis offers anecdotal examples from the world of advertising, PR and corporate in his endevour to develop a general theory of bullshit. For him, the companies devise CSR programmes more to boost their public image than to enhance the public good. Here he cites the example of Enron Corporation which had generous CSR programme and had even won awards before it imploded in 2001. “It is no wonder that there is a degree of cynicism about the whole notion of CSR,” Davis writes.
Similarly, the case of 99p pricing of products. Davis calls this ‘psychological pricing’ and quotes a survey of product advertisements in American newspapers which revealed that almost a third of the quoted prices ended in the digit nine, much higher than any other digit! Consider, for instance, the price of a car being quoted at £9995 and £10,000. Certainly the former looks lot lesser that latter even if just £5 separates the two. “Psychological pricing… is the technique for dressing up a price of £10,000 to make it appear less than £10,000, when in fact it is materially the same,” Davis
Davis calls this ‘psychological pricing’ and quotes a survey of product advertisements in American newspapers which revealed that almost a third of the quoted prices ended in the digit nine, much higher than any other digit! Consider, for instance, the price of a car being quoted at £9995 and £10,000. Certainly the former looks lot lesser that latter even if just £5 separates the two. “Psychological pricing… is the technique for dressing up a price of £10,000 to make it appear less than £10,000, when in fact it is materially the same,” Davis explains.
So what’s the future for human kind in this post-truth world? Davis realistically accepts that mendacity and nonsense are here to stay, and that myths and exaggerations will continue to be used to influence and manipulate us. But in the long term, the truth will be out. For some reason, Davis has faith in the “cool-headed honest-hearted media” which can positively intervene to anchor public discourse in sense and truth. Davis feels that the best media “can do is to get on with its job as honestly and effectively as possible.” While it is nice to say that human race has once again to cultivate the respect for truth, it’s rather difficult to accept that media will be our redeemer in this post-truth era.
Author: Evan Devis
Pages 347; Price: Rs 399