If you haven’t heard, “post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Post-truth is an adjective 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.”
This concerns me. The Oxford Dictionary chooses the word of the year based on increased usage and relevance in society. The word has been increasingly used to in relation to the tumultuous news and politics of 2016, but the concept has been leaking into society’s understanding of truth and epistemology for decades. Are we really post-truth? Are we, as a people, really willing to embrace this value as an understanding of truth and knowledge? Have we thought through, even for a moment, the implications of what it means to live in a post-truth world?
My degree is in education, and teaching has a place close to my heart. One of the first things that I thought of when I learned that post-truth was the 2016 word of the year (other than “that’s some BS” and “sounds about right” somehow simultaneously) is the implications for teaching, both in general education and Christian contexts. I just want to take some time to briefly think through (1) why I am opposed to post-truth as a cultural value, (2) some possible implications for the formal education system, and (3) some implications for Christian teaching.
Are we really “Post-Truth”? Really?
Let’s start with an essential question: Is there such thing as truth? I would answer yes. Why? Because to make a claim that there is no truth is to make a truth-claim. You can’t answer the question without saying that non-truth is true. Logically, you can’t argue against the existence of truth without throwing out your own argument. I don’t think that post-truth is actually arguing that there is no truth, it is essentially an argument for ignoring truth. Let’s look at the definition again: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” A society that is “post-truth” is a society that ignores truth in favor of feeling. This is a product of the cultural narrative of expressive individualism. This is the view that I should be able to make how-I-feel the pivot on which everything and everybody should turn.
Here’s my issue with this way of thinking: it goes against common sense and common decency. If you know that gravity exists, but you really feel like you can fly, would it be reasonable for you to go jump off a building? No, because the truth trumps feeling! On top of that, and I’m sorry if this makes you feel bad, but nobody cares how you feel. At no point in the real world should your emotional state affect what people expect of you. If I don’t feel like working, then my job doesn’t get done and consequences arise. If I feel angry or annoyed, and I express that to everyone I interact with, you can bet that people aren’t going to be lining up to be my friends. In the real world, you aren’t rewarded or punished based on how you feel, people respond to what you do and how you act. You reap what you sow. A society that throws this out and makes everything about the intrapersonal (self and feeling) is a society that loses consideration for the interpersonal (relationships and interactions) and it loses basic common sense.
The fact that post-truth news and politics has become such a trend in 2016 is an indicator that this broader movement that has been around and building for the past several decades is becoming more pervasive and institutionalized. When an idea like this becomes such a value in the culture that it affects the major institutions (as it clearly has if you watched any of the 2016 election season), it is only a matter of time before it begins to influence the education of youth in that culture. This is because the educational structures of a culture are designed to reproduce the core values of that culture. The reason that this worries me with post-truth is that if, as a society, we are willing to ignore facts to accomplish a political agenda, then in education why wouldn’t we abandon facts to create the citizens we desire with the values we desire? (this is how communism operates btw)
When I was in middle school we had to read Fahrenheit 451. If you haven’t read it, it’s a book about a dystopian society set in a future American city in which books are illegal and burned because “special-interest groups and other “minorities” objected to books that offended them” (Sparknotes). My concern is that embracing post-truth means a degradation of the value of truth and thinking that will lead to future oppression of those who do not embrace the post-truth values. This trend has further societal implications as it compounds like a snowball that becomes an avalanche, but I want to focus on my concern for education. We severely undervalue Language Arts classes. Reading is one of the best things we can do to learn. It helps us think more broadly, creatively, critically, and is generally connected to a higher IQ (Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function). Books are the vehicles of ideas. Ideas are built on claims of truth. If we are in a post-truth society that bends to the mildly offended, then Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 might become a prophet to our society.
The American education system has its flaws for sure, but I would rather have education than nothing. As truth and facts become less valuable in the public domain, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the education system become more narrow in its ability to teach. What if history reveals actions and values that have no need to be discussed in our progressive and modern discourse? Where is the line for teaching historical facts that don’t fit the current ethic and values? A place where this can already be seen is in teaching about America’s involvement in World War II and the atomic bombs. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor unprovoked, bringing the United States into the war. The United States in response dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender. This is taught in schools as a violation of human ethics and a deplorable stain on American history because of the power of the bombs and the collateral damage of radiation. Something not taught in schools (that I only learned very recently) is that the cities were chosen strategically to destroy weapons, that the U.S. dropped millions of leaflets warning the people of both cities that the bombs were coming and to evacuate to prevent unnecessary deaths, and that the action saved precious time and thousands of lives that would have been lost in a ground battle, and redirected the U.S. attention to be able to focus of the European front which brought the war to a faster end. This does not change the fact that the bombs caused grievous physical and human damage, but we are so hung up on the aspect of it that we don’t like that we don’t even teach the rest of the facts. If this is they way we alter history now, how much more-so will we lose history if we allow post-truth to continue pervading our society?
Implications for Christianity
Here’s the thing, claiming that we’re post-truth doesn’t change the reality that truth is truth. At the end of the day Jesus is the way, the Truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is not one of many truths, He is not just true for some people, He is the Truth. Jesus is God. That is a truth claim. Jesus came and died and rose again. That is a truth claim. Mankind is sinful and in need of a savior. That is a truth claim. Jesus gives forgiveness of sin and righteousness with God by grace through faith in His work on the cross. That is a truth claim. Believing in Jesus means changing and living as a result of His person and work, and in a world that says you should just do what you feel like, that is offensive. As Christians we stand for Truth in a world that claims we are post-truth. This means that people teaching the Bible need to be confident in the authority and truth of the scriptures, and competent in defending that truth.
My hope is that in a world void of truth, where there is nothing objective and transcendent, people would find meaning and truth in Jesus. My hope is that people adrift in uncertainty and meaninglessness would find an anchor for their soul in the hope offered by the gospel (Hebrews 6:19). God is the truth, the rock, the foundation that we can stand on in a world the claims to be post-truth.