Are we living in a time of what some people call “truth decay”?
That’s the question former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani asks in her upcoming new book The Death of Truth. She describes truth decay as the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life.
To Kakutani, it’s more nefarious than that. There’s an epidemic of fabrications and misrepresentations peddled by those who want to appeal to fear or anger over reasoned debate.
Her book comes out just after the release of Orwell on Truth. That collection from George Orwell’s non-fiction and novels (most notably Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) covers topics including personal honesty and morality, freedom of speech and political propaganda.
It’s no coincidence that two books about the nature and distortions of truth have emerged weeks apart in 2018. The Orwell collection is touted by its publisher as “the perfect defence against our post-truth world of fake news and confusion.” Kakutani’s volume of essays, meanwhile, is subtitled “Notes on Falsehoods in the Age of Trump”.
The current backdrop may make both books resonate. Yet concerns about the manipulation of information, and the vulnerability of the citizenry, are nothing new. From the books:
- “We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” – Rudyard Kipling, 1891
- “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.” – Robert Heinlein, 1940
- “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.” – Hannah Arendt, 1951
- “Distracted from distraction by distraction/Filled with fancies and empty of meaning/Tumid apathy with no concentration.” – T. S. Eliot, 1936
- “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” – James Madison, 1822
- “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” – George Orwell, 1946
- “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” – George Orwell, 1949
In Death of Truth, Kakutani concludes by quoting what Neil Postman suggested in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman, she writes, argued that technological distractions (and this was before the internet) were making the information we receive “simplistic, non-substantive, non-historical and non-contextual.”
Kakutani notes how Postman compared the visions of Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. She quotes Postman: “Orwell feared those who deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
As Kakutani suggests, the way in which some leaders outrageously lie, and erode standards and trust, is an obvious crisis. There are perhaps bigger questions, like why are so many people so easily duped?
What conditions have allowed that? What can people do to combat it?
It’s important to seek and study a variety of credible sources. Especially those that counter dubious claims.
Immigrants and refugees, for example, are often characterized as people who come to take jobs that rightfully belong to us, go on public assistance, break the law and cause social unrest. Doublespeak, selective facts and outright lies can be used to make those cases.
A wonderful new ad worth watching, timed for this week, demolishes those cynical and sham arguments. It features a former U.S. President who no one considers to be a paragon of liberalism. The values that newcomers bring, and that are demonstrated in accepting them, said Ronald Reagan, are part of what makes a country genuinely great.
You get all sorts of decay when a certain amount of rot has set in. That’s true with tooth decay. It comes not just from consuming things that are bad for us, but from improper care. Same with truth decay.
In the words of an old Public Enemy song: “Truth decay/brush up on your facts/all you gotta do is check them stats.”
Happy July 1.
Happy July 4.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
July 4, 2018