A ‘post-truth society’ has been defined as one in which ‘“objective facts” are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.Footnote1
The loaded term ‘post-truth’ is used to describe a broad stream of events and attitudes frequently perceived as a threat, particularly to science and politics. For example, the distrust of science found in a post-truth society is often seen as degenerative and destructive of democracy.Footnote2
Although it is almost a ritual to refer to the fact that the term was the Oxford English Dictionaries
word of the year in 2016,Footnote3
the elaborate characterisation differs of course from one author to another. Political scientist Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen understands the term post-truth politics as describing ‘a predicament in which political speech is increasingly detached from a register in which factual truths are “plain”’,Footnote4
while political theorist Saul Newman lists a number of what he considers typical traits—propagation of falsehoods, lies, misinformation, outrageous exaggeration and distortion of reality, and more.Footnote5
Typically ‘post-truth’ is something that is said to have gained terrain recently.Footnote6
Hyvönen sees in post-truth politics an erosion of shared facts and of common sources of information, which makes the situation historically unique.Footnote7
Political scientist Manuel Cervera-Marzal takes a very different stand arguing that those who actively use the term post-truth also thereby make claims that the world has entered a new era, which Cervera-Marzal finds ridiculous. It is built on the assumption that there was a time when political debates were marked by facts and when those who governed acted according to truth and were evaluated on the basis of objective facts.Footnote8
Other scholars claim, more modestly, that quite a number of post-truth traits are present in public discourses since long.Footnote9
Neurologist Sebastian Dieguez takes a somewhat more pragmatic position. Even if the situation is not absolutely new, ‘post-truth’ may be a useful notion in a particular way simply by making us understand a possible situation regarding the cognitive relation humans have with the surrounding world and with themselves, he suggests.Footnote10
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Another debate is the one around the relation between bullshit and post-truth. Evaluate the Implications of the “post-truth era” for Democratic Politics Paper. Hyvönen spends some time explaining the distinction between bullshit and post-truth, drawing heavily on the analyses of bullshit as discourses carefully chiselled out with much attention paid to every detail, in contrast to careless post-truth discourses.Footnote11 In this article, that kind of distinction is unhelpful. First, how do we know that for instance Donald Trump has not crafted his speeches more and in other ways than they appear. Second, in this study, I am less interested in the amount of time someone has spent preparing, or not spent preparing a public appearance, as I look into the effects and how they may be understood.
Post-truth has attracted much interest in academic circles lately, and many different projects have been shaped. Hyvönen aims at working on the conceptualisation of post-truth in order to make the phenomenon more visible and thus facilitating a deeper analysis leading to a broader approach to truth in political science.Footnote12 Political scientist Ignes Kalpokas has some affinity with Hyvönen in the way that post-truth is approached through conceptual history or history of ideas. The aim is to understand what is perceived as a shift towards post-truth in terms of ‘escapist romantic fantasy that masks the underlying reality of guilt’.Footnote13 Political scientist Sebastian Schindler is seeking to establish greater clarity regarding the phenomenon post-truth politics in relation to the implications this very phenomenon has for contemporary critical thinking.Footnote14 In the present study, the scope is a slightly different one. This essay focuses on post-truth politics, arguing that concentrating on political discourses as declarative fails to understand their performative character and their force.
A good example of post-truth politics is, of course, provided by President Donald Trump, who was for many years before entering politics a well-known public person and businessman. Of his way of working and making deals he observes:
I play to people‘s fantasies. People may not always think big of themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That‘s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It‘s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.Footnote15
The key here is that Trump tells people what they want to hear, applying what he sees as slight exaggeration, as ‘truthful hyperbole’; what he says is a bit more and a bit better than the truth but also not entirely without foundation. In Trump’s ‘post-truth’ attitude, ‘objective facts’ are less important than emotions and personal beliefs. His attitude corresponds well to many of the epithets of post-truth given above.
While Trump offers a good example of post-truth politics, there is something that interests me beyond the concrete case of Donald Trump. Rather, he brings to the fore traits in political discourses more generally; they are simply more visible in the extreme and reckless use of language in post-truth politics. In post-truth politics, people do not even pretend that ‘objective facts’ are significant—there are always ‘alternative facts’—while for instance emotions and personal beliefs are valued.Footnote16 Moreover, political scientist Guiliano da Empoli argues that in this new political landscape, political agents—like the Movimento cinque stelle (Italy), the focus of his study, or Donald TrumpFootnote17—function as platforms with no political content, no programme and no vision: they are empty.Footnote18
This overt disinterest in ‘facts’ and the programmatic vacuity of content have contributed to a crisis in contemporary society. The question addressed here is how this should be understood and how it should be dealt with. This essay begins with a brief look at an important mainstream academic reaction to post-truth politics, highlighting what most seems to upset philosophers and others. This is followed by my understanding of the raison d’être and the very functioning of political discourses, indicating that much of this mainstream reaction largely misses the point. A structuring idea of the discussion is that, in certain ways, post-truth political discourses function as political discourses are supposed to function. Then, very much inspired by a short text written by philosopher Jeffrey Nealon, I launch the idea that political discourses can be characterised as performative, in the sense of transforming and creating reality, before finally examining the force of political discourse—that which makes the discourse perform. Obviously, the work of J. L. Austin plays an important role, but it should also be clear that I have no ambition to perform an exegesis of his oeuvre. Evaluate the Implications of the “post-truth era” for Democratic Politics Paper.
The performative aspect of political discourse—that is, its transformation and creation of reality—entails that it also has the potential to transform the rules and the frameworks of the discourse itself. This has far-reaching implications. To what extent is it possible or useful to exit the conventional structures and overthrow established rules when change is sought? And what is the force driving the transformation? Questions must be raised regarding the role of intention and who—if anybody—can be designated the master of the discourse. One way of doing this is to broaden the perspective of what happens in verbal exchanges. The hearer-speaker relation is fundamental, as a double-sided relation in which meaning is shaped, and the performative force is formed. This evokes serious questions about responsibility and also about human action and freedom, although, given the limitations of space, only a few can be considered here.