The Untrue Notion of “Post-Truth”

By: Imad Alrawasheh

“Post-Truth” was a term of interest and heated debate among Western journalists, researchers, writers, and politicians back in 2016. At the time, it was declared the word of the year by Oxford English Dictionary.

The term reflects a general political mood experienced by Western democracies which had just witnessed an unprecedented rise of right-wing forces in their key centers, namely Britain and the United States. In the latter, former President Donald Trump and what is now known as the far-right had gained prominence. In Britain, Boris Johnson embodied that era. It didn’t take long for the division between the two sides of the governing neoliberal alliance in the West, liberals and conservatives alike, to turn into a cultural war that ultimately amounted to the kind of violence we all saw on January 6, 2021.

In the West, “Post-Truth” refers to some sort of a turning point in the history of liberal democracy. The main argument here is that Western democracy is currently facing an existential challenge that could result, the narrative goes, in seismic changes to a governing philosophy that has always been predicated on reason and knowledge and founded on verifiable “objective truth” turning it into a wilderness of false information, propaganda, denial of science, and distrust of democratic institutions.

“Post-Truth”, with that being said, symbolizes a western truism that liberal democracy and truth have always been inseparable and only recently this inextricable relationship started facing an unprecedented existential threat posed by the “far right”.

But this imagined interconnection between democracy and truth is not rooted in reality nor history, according to Sophia Rosenfeld, History Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Democracy and Truth: A Short History.”

“Truth,” says Rosenfeld, has never been an inherent characteristic of the Western democratic system. Truth has always been and will continue to be something everyone seeks to grasp, define, and agree upon, without their attempts necessarily coming to fruition.

In the Arab world, everything related to liberal democracy seems enticing, provoking exploration and debate. In the end, the efficacy of the Western version of democracy is a truism in our political discourse too. It also represents the ultimate dream of our reform movements.

In this interview for Almurrassel magazine, I sat down with Rosenfeld who published her book in 2018 to know more about what seems to be a paradoxical connection between democracy and Truth. I wanted to step a little out of the rather prevalent romanticized, or perhaps idealized, image of democracy and know more about the complexity of the matter. This is an edited interview.

Imad– Why did you decide to write your book about truth and democracy? 

Sophia: There was a moment around the Brexit decision in England and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency when there was a growing sense that there might be a kind of right-wing resurgence in the world, that truth was sort of under assault for the first time, that Kind of anti-democratic forces were gaining power through bending the truth, which is, of course, like an old autocratic tradition, but it seemed to be a threat to democracy itself. And there was a lot of talk about whether we’d entered a sort of post truth era in which people were not only being exposed to a lot of falsehoods in the public sphere but themselves had ceased to be really concerned about whether truth was the center of public life. This was often posed in the kind of temporal terms. In other words, before, democracies had truth in the center, and now or in this moment truth is no longer is important. I thought it was important to go back and actually explore whether this was a new phenomenon or it was connected to problems that were more intrinsic to democracy itself. 

Imad– You don’t believe that we are living in a post-truth era since, as you mention in your book, truth has always been an elusive concept in democracy? 

Sophia– To a certain degree, yes. I like to thank that there are certain things that are particular or peculiar to our moment. So I don’t think it looks the same at all times and places and in all cultures. I would try to move away from some notions that before there was truth and now we’re post-truth, that we’ve sort of left behind some kind of solid agreement about truth. People have always been fighting in democratic states about what constitutes truth and who gets to say it. One of the hallmarks of democracy, in fact, is letting people fight about what constitutes the truth. 

Imad– I might get back to this, but what is the major premise or argument of your book?

Sophia: There are two central arguments, one that democracies as a whole have a very contentious notion of what constitutes truth because it’s often about fighting over who determines what, and it’s often thought that the way to actually get to the best, the closest approximation to truth is by letting people hash it out in public sphere and by there being no dogma for instance, allowing there to be free speech. That’s one premise. Truth is a combative notion in democracies. The second idea is that that this particular fight is often between a public, that broadly has a sense of how the world works, and experts of various kinds, who have different methods and different ways of ascertaining what they constitute to be true. And that when it all works perfectly, there’s a kind of back and forth between these two groups, voters and experts whether inside or outside government will come to a loose consensus about some basic principles and when it doesn’t work well. We often encounter a situation in which either experts turn away from ordinary people or conversely the public refuses to listen to experts. 

Imad: What kind of Truth we’re talking about here. Is it logical truth?

Sophia: It’s very important that we don’t fight about logical truth, two plus two equals four is not really a subject of political dispute. Political disputes are almost always about what factual truth happened in the past, and what’s happening in the present. They are descriptive in a certain sense. And there are sometimes also fights about moral truth in democracies where there is a large space for freedom of religion. So in others words, less fighting about the precise dogmas inside a religious tradition and more fighting about basic questions like what constitutes a harm? What’s good for people? Those kinds of very low level of moral agreements are sometimes subject to fight as well. 

Imad: So, if truth is an elusive concept in democracies, at least, who gets to say what is true, is it authority?

Sophia: In the theoretical realm there is, as I just described, the kind of ideal back and forth between experts and a public mediated by what we call the media that will help translate in both directions: What are people saying on the street, but also what are experts saying, in the CDC or the CIA, or various branches of the government, or in the realms of business. That, however, isn’t always what happens. Sometimes, as you just pointed out, where something more of like a power-play, in which sometimes one side tries to seize power for itself. That can happen from above through political faction, and it can also happen from below through various kinds of populism. In that kind of populism a popular movement can reject expertise, or argue that doctors can’t to tell us what’s in the best interest of the public. So both things can happen. And there are examples in our moment and historically as well where disputes get bad enough over truth like when we ended up with the civil war. 

Imad: The media, ideally, is the mediator between the public and the experts. But this is the ideal. Now, the ownership structure of the media is concentrated in the hands of a few and pretty much polarized between the left and the right. Each media outlet gives you a certain version of Truth. Therefore, it doesn’t seem that this mediator is functioning the way we ideally thought of. 

Sophia: You know this is an old problem too. The two things you pointed at, the press has, first of all, always been commercial. So it has an interest in you buying the newspaper which means that it has to appeal to a public. The good part is that it’s supposed to be independent of the state and the bad part is that it has been commercial and it works to generate profit for owners. The second thing you pointed to is that because of the way its business is structured today, there has been a remarkable fracturing of the number of outlets. There are literally millions of places I could get my news from now. As a result, I can find the kind of news that fits my demographic which means that we have very siloed versions of news. Nowadays, whatever my friends red on social media will be recommended to me. That has always been to a certain degree true. So we’re, as you might say, extremely democratic. After all, in some ways, it doesn’t cost alot to produce my own news if I want to, or just circulate it. On the other hand, it also means that everybody is getting partial versions, often very siloed of any account of what’s going on in the world. 

Imad: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the concentration of the media is a new phenomenon, it hasn’t been the case probably 60- 70 years ago, 

Sophia: in the US. 

Imad: in the U.S and globally too.

Sophia: So two things have happened that seem to be contradictory: one is the proliferation of wesites. You know, they’re literally millions of websites but this happens alongside another phenomenon which is the demise of local news newspapers as well as advertising revenues. There’s been a real concentration of media in the hands of corporations that buy up local papers and then often disband them or send the same national stories to all of them. Many people think that the demise of local news has actually had a very strong effect on local polarization today.

Imad: So, one might think if truth is an elusive concept and it has always been like that, and at the same time, the mediator, the media, is highly concentrated in the hands of a few. I mean you can feel that it’s homogeneous on the left and on the right, and you hear the same story on the left and the same one on the right. Sometimes those stories are extremely contradictory to each other. People don’t seem to believe what the administration is saying, for instance, if they were right and the president is a democrat, and vice versa. That being said, one might ask: does that mean that we don’t have truth anymore?

Sophia: Certainly a big concern. So, I do admire for instance organizations that essentially do fact-checking. I think fact-checking will do little to solve the problem. I don’t think that people will be persuaded by it, but I do think it’s important to have people trying to record a precise version of what happened and I think it’s an important activity even though it’s not politically very effective. I think courts, we all think of them to be too politicized these days, but courtrooms are still important as places to present evidence or not present evidence, as in, for instance, the so-called “big lie” of elections denial in the last elections. So, obviously it has a very partisan spin to it. Nevertheless, you might say that something positive happened in that the Justice Department, the court system, we’re still able to say there is no evidence for this claim [elections fraud]. Now, it didn’t persuade everybody, I’m not saying it’s politically effective, but we do have an account now for posterity, for keeping some kind of baseline of what happened. We also still have a free press and it’s very important that free press act to underline what meets the standards of proof. 

Imad: One issue might arise here which is that the baseline of truth itself doesn’t seem to be equally credible for everybody. As you mention, people attacked the courts when the latter decided that there wasn’t election fraud. People didn’t like the decision by the Supreme Court regarding the abortion right, or regarding gay marriage. So, the baseline sources of truth: the court system, the judiciary system and the media all do not seem to be agreed upon by everybody. 

Sophia: Yes. And that is kind of the problem of our times: a distrust of vetted information. You are absolutely right I think. We’re living in an era of a particularly high skepticism of what have been the traditional outlets of Truth. So, whether that’s the American Medical Association or the court system, or the New York Times, all now thought to be spinning in different ways, giving us versions of truth that suit their needs rather than something more objective. In fact, there’s some people don’t even necessarily believe that much in objective truth. But there is a sense of mistrust and at the moment, it is more on the right of the political spectrum. But if you look backwards, there are moments for instance in the late 1960s when it was the left that said, look mainstream institutions are collaborating to uphold a fake version of the status quo, they are supporting the Vietnam War, they are supporting sexist and racist practices. Skepticism came mainly from the left. Now it comes mainly from the right. I fear though that it has tipped from a kind of healthy skepticism which is a good thing in a democracy in the sense that we should question authority, to a kind of complete distrust of authority, like saying nothing the CDC tells you is legitimate, for instance. This is very different than wanting there to be sort of whistleblowers to keep institutions honest. 

Imad: Now there’s a big fight between, at least officially, democracy and totalitarianism, and we hear it all the time in the media, by the president and his administration and by most western leaders, that there is a huge divide and a battle that should be fought between democracy and totalitarianism. In totalitarianism you have one version of truth, you don’t participate in the decision-making process and most people would not believe in that version of truth. So one can argue that while it might be true that there is no truth in totalitarian systems, but there doesn’t seem to be one in democratic systems either. What do you think?

Sophia: It’s a really interesting point. When truth is systematically hijacked by authorities, no one believes anything. Instead of everybody gullibly believing the state, everybody goes about their business, as if they know that what was being said is untrue. There’s a kind of real cynicism about official pronouncements. I think I could have imagined getting to that point in the contemporary western democratic framework. I think the moment takes a slightly different form because truth has become so partisan. It’s not everybody collectively rejecting the state behind closed doors knowing that this is not how it should be. It’s a kind of partisan football instead, where different people will see, as you said, the same event from completely different lenses.

Imad: It seems that you’re not totally against truth being an elusive concept. You say in your book and in your lectures that this is fine because that’s what actually drives things forward in Democratic systems. But the moment we are living in seems even more severe, there is such an unhealthy conflict, and if we agree that it’s not much better in totalitarian systems, then what is the system that would, in a healthy way, provide truth to its people without manipulating it. 

Sophia: yeah, that’s a terribly tough question, because of course there is no such system where truth is simply going to descend from the clouds be correct but also not contested. I mean I think all things considered; the broad framework of democracy is a more appealing way of getting to the truth than an authoritarian one. Maybe we should probably agree that, you know, the authority puts you in jail for having the wrong opinion, right? That’s a sort of extreme version. I don’t think anybody really desires that, even if it would solve some day-to-day bickering. That said, I do think there are smaller things one could do around the margin that would at least make the process of arriving at democratic truth, less nasty, and maybe even a little bit less contentious. For instance, the legal framework in which social media cursed, has allowed of nobody to be held responsible for anything, at least in the US. The European law for instance is little more stringent. There are certainly ways in which one could preserve the basic idea of free speech but create more parameters, more rules of the game that might make it impossible for instance to disseminate absolute falsehoods through major social media channels. I don’t think that’s a possibility, but I think that could help. I think different kinds of education in the relationship between truth and democracy could help. I’m not saying that they’ll be cures. I’m not saying that everybody can come together on the corner and agree about everything. That’s a fantasy. But if we’re in a particularly difficult time for truth right now, we might think about what some of the reasons for that are and then how we might deal with some of those reasons. 

Imad: Do you think economic grievances and disparities between people could be one of the root causes of the severity of the problem of truth now. It doesn’t seem like the media is the only source of this mistrust. 

Sophia: I would say inequality is a big driver of all of this but I am going to say that solely economic inequality. Most politics these days actually don’t divide directly along pocketbook issues. They have to do also with cultural inequality, which I think is rooted in economic inequality. If you really want to predict in the US and in France too, how somebody voted, the easiest way to do it is by looking at their zip code and where they live more than pocketbook actually. But if you do race and you do location, and then, of course, educational level, you have a good guess, and it’s not exactly accurate of course, but it tells you a lot. There are a lot of people who feel that the world is leaving them behind so it’s not surprising that those same people are often the ones who don’t want to see change, they don’t want to see new ethnic religious or racial groups rise to the top. They don’t want to see changes in traditional values.

Imad: speaking of culture, even universities seem to be polarized and we heard some scholars talking about cancel culture and them not being able to express their opinions or being afraid of criticizing certain topics when it comes to gender, for instance. There are fears of getting called out for being homophobic, misogynist or sexist, for instance, or when it comes to vaccine where if people voice some concerns in regard to its efficacy, say, they will be immediately labeled as anti-vaccination with all of the social and psychological fallouts that follow such labeling. Do you think universities are living such reality or this is just exaggeration? 

Sophia: I would have said before that universities were not so implicated. So for instance during the Trump years it was really the media, journalists, the press that bore the brunt of the sort of attack on their political correctness, or wokeness. Now, in this moment, it has really become schools and universities, especially universities. Actually, this is why Ron DeSantis in Florida was so concerned with making a conservative version of the public education system in that state. Universities are being attacked from outside for a kind of political correctness or wokeness. But I think universities are basically just reflecting the polarization around truth and knowledge that is in the broader public sphere. So, there is both an effort to push back against right-wing versions of Truth, like “the big lie.” But also, as you say, some version of a kind of cancel culture in which there’s less tolerance for a diversity of viewpoints precisely because questions of how we state what the world is, descriptions of the world have become so political. Universities are there not immune from the other winds blowing through our culture at all. Now I do think there’s an exaggerated sense that people are so sensitive at universities that nobody can say anything in any classroom and it’s just a walking nightmare to be a professor. I also think they’re like most myths, there’s some truth there.

Imad: Is this more about liberal democracies than any other versions of democracies? Is this issue of truth more about Western democracies where the governing systems are often controlled by two major parties, like in the US, and most of western Europe, and where those two parties are often divided between left and right while getting more polarized and the gap between them is ever-expanding which results in their constituents, on both sides of the aisle, becoming somewhat enemies to each other, disagreeing on almost everything. 

Sophia: I think it’s a larger phenomenon than that. Of course it’s more acute in places where you see parliamentary democracies or democracies that are unusual like the US. But if you look at Brazil, India, these are outside of Europe, outside of the West, so to speak, and they are, however, definitely seeing a kind of illiberal democracy arise in many of these places sometimes through a kind of right-wing take over, sometimes by changing the judiciary system, it can vary. I think it’s a problem democracies as a whole are facing. 

Imad: Do you think the issue of truth is a crisis for democracy? 

Sophia: I do. I do think it’s a crisis for democracy. I don’t think it means the end of democracy. I think it would be premature to say that democracy has run its course. I don’t see any better alternative emerging on the horizon, but I think a combination of factors has created a somewhat perfect storm. One of them is technological and social media, but that’s not it at all alone. And another is the legal and economic framework around social media, and I think that’s important and you pointed to the consolidation of power in the corporate media. Another is growing global inequality. And the sense that many of the problems we face at the moment in the world are so large and seemingly intractable that our existing national governments are simply incapable of finding good solutions to them and that would include things like global warming. When you put a number of these factors together, I think you do get a sort of combined crisis. So, I don’t think social media alone, for instance, constitutes a global crisis. I think it’s just one more factor in a combination of things. 

Imad: I have the last two questions, the first is about an article you published in The Nation where in the title you posed an interesting question: if the United States has ever been a democracy. I’m interested in hearing your answer to that. 

Sophia: It has had democratic leanings, and democratic aspirations, I think, but thoroughly a democracy? that’s hard to say. I mean, we are pretty particular in the moment where we’ve always had a racialized culture for sure. Even with the end of slavery, it’s very hard to imagine the US as a level playing field or a land of equal opportunity for people of different backgrounds. We have various built-in institutions that keep us from being too popular, like the senate for instance, that are kind of organized precisely to keep popular rule at bay. The amount of money in American politics makes it largely oligarchic. I don’t think every citizen has equal representation, if one of them can make a million-dollar contribution to the Republican party or the Democratic party and another can’t, that certainly changes the sway those people have. So I think you might describe it as an unrealized democracy. What I was trying to stress in this article is that in the beginning, even democracy wasn’t really the ambition, the ambition was something more like a republic of landowners. Nobody imagined that every person voting. In the eighteenth century, women didn’t vote, people of the Native Americans didn’t vote, black people didn’t vote and poor people too. So that said, there were aspirations to greater equality and liberty than it existed in previous state. A right-wing version of this would say American doesn’t need to be a democracy, it never was. That’s not how I see things. I see things much more as a first attempt to imagine something that was both somewhat democratic but looks stable and that meant rooting things in property-owning heads of households. That has evolved but we haven’t ever fully achieved or realized democracy. You might even say democracy is always aspirational, it’s always a work in progress. 

Imad: You mentioned that democracy in the 18 century was scary, why was that? 

Sophia: It was thought of as a mob rule, anarchic. So, if you went back to the ancient writers on politics, democracy sounded like anarchy. Like letting the totally uneducated people who thought to be self-interested with no knowledge of politics run things. It sounded like a crazy idea. Only in the early 19th century democracy starts to get a more positive connotation. 

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