Post-truth is that slippery slope in which objective facts influence public opinion less than emotions and personal beliefs. An area in which reality gives way to sensations, intuitions, emotions and, of course, to media, political and social manipulation. In this field, relativism triumphs while the limits between truth and lies are dangerously blurred.
However, it is not a new phenomenon. Long before we spoke of post-truth or even conceived that concept, Hannah Arendt had already referred to defactualization, which would be the inability to discern fact from fiction. In 1971 she published an essay called “Lies in Politics,” which she wrote – somewhat outraged and disappointed – just after came to light the Pentagon Papers on the Nixon administration and its handling of the Vietnam War.
She then said: “Our daily life is always in danger of being punctured by individual lies or torn apart by the organized lying of groups, nations or classes, as well as by negations or distortions, often carefully covered up by mounds of untruths or simply dropped into oblivion”.
Defactualization, the risk of turning facts into opinions
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the devout communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist,” Arendt explained.
Of course, “That distinction does not erode overnight, but rather emerges through, among other things, continuous lying: ‘The result of a constant and total replacement of the lie by the factual truth is not that lies are now accepted as truth and the truth is maligned as a lie, but the sense by which we orient ourselves in the real world, and the category of truth versus falsehood, is destroyed.”
Arendt is saying that defactualization occurs when we lose the ability to distinguish reality from construction, true from false. In fact, the philosopher establishes an important differentiation between truth, which corresponds to and reflects reality, and meaning, which is relative and shaped by our subjective interpretations, which in turn depend on beliefs and can be manipulated.
She explains that “The need for reason is not inspired by the search for truth but by the search for meaning. Truth and meaning are not the same. It is a basic fallacy to interpret meaning in the context of truth.”
Certainties live in the realm of meaning, not truth. The very notion of “alternative fact” is a concept that generates certainty at the expense of truth. Political propaganda and social manipulation are often based on this manipulation of certainties.
Arendt believed that this is why it is so easy to fool the masses. Actually, “Falsity never conflicts with reason, because things could have been as the liar says they were. Lies are usually much more plausible, more attractive to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing in advance what the audience wants or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with an eye toward making it believable, while reality has a disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.”
That is, many times the desire to have certainties and handles to cling to in situations of uncertainty becomes the ideal breeding ground for the growth of “alternative facts” that give way to lies. These falsehoods serve a function: they make us feel comfortable. They give us security. They remove dissonance and allow us to get on with our lives without overthinking. Without questioning things. Without feeling bad.
“Under normal circumstances, the liar is overcome by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how big the fabric of falsehood that an experienced liar builds, it will never be big enough to cover the immensity of reality”, Arendt pointed out.
However, when a war breaks out, we experience a pandemic or we go through an economic crisis, the “normal circumstances” that Arendt referred to vanish to make way for a high level of uncertainty. In this condition we are more vulnerable to manipulation because we tend to prioritize the search for certainty over the truth.
We are more likely to believe those “alternative facts” that someone tells us because it saves us from the hard work of seeking the truth, taking responsibility and facing consequences. Therefore, for Arendt, defactualization does not occur in one direction, it is not a lie imposed from power but a consensual falsehood between those who are unwilling to engage in the critical thinking work necessary to get to the truth, who are unwilling to change their personal agendas, step out of their comfort zone, or abandon pre-existing beliefs.
“Alternative facts are not simply lies or falsehoods, but speak of a significant change in the shared factual reality that we take for granted […] Their corrosive force consists in turning the fact into a mere opinion, that is, an opinion in the merely subjective sense: an ‘it seems to me’ that persists indifferent to what it seems to others”. Reality is stripped of the facts to enter the field of what is debatable and manipulable.
As a final point, Arendt warns that there is a point at which this defactualization turns against us: “The point always arrives beyond which the lie becomes counterproductive. This point is reached when the target audience of the lies is forced to completely ignore the line between truth and falsehood in order to survive.
“True or false ceases to matter if your life depends on you acting as if it were true. Then the truth that can be trusted completely disappears from public life, and with it the main stabilizing factor in the ever-changing affairs of men.”
Arendt, H. (1971) Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers. In: The New York Review.