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It's Only The 'Post-Truth' Era If We Let It Be

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Look, we already know -- there's no point in fact-checking Donald Trump. He lies and lies and gets away with it because in the "post-truth era," we're well past the point where lying has any consequences.

The issue is not whether or not he's telling the truth anymore. The significance is deeper and more troubling: years of right-wing narratives about "liberal media" and "alternative" sources that are "fair and balanced" have turned the very nature of truth itself into contested terrain. Dear lord, there's an entire artificial ecosystem developed for the express purpose of spreading lies and polluting public discourse with bullshit. What's that sad new meme? We're in the "post-truth" era?

We've been circling around that theme here for the past few weeks. When facts aren't facts anymore, how are we to know what to believe? When words no longer mean what we think they mean, how are we even to understand each other? When we can't distinguish true from false anymore, when every bit of evidence, every observation, every analysis, every study is suspect or biased or part of some sinister agenda, how are we to make sense of things?

Forget rabbit holes. Forget corn mazes. Forget labyrinths. We're talking quicksand.

We all know about confirmation bias and self-reinforcing bubbles and all that, and I've gone on about the fact that we're not even speaking the same language anymore, and the dearth of critical thought, and how people who will dismiss growing and credible evidence of Russian involvement in Trump's ascendancy as just sore-loser speculation will turn around and believe, uncritically, that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant -- and we're still arguing about whether it's true or not? Contested terrain isn't even the beginning. Forget rabbit holes. Forget corn mazes. Forget labyrinths. We're talking quicksand.

There's a whole other essay -- probably an entire academic discipline, in fact -- to be written on how to bridge that chasm, and how to reason with people when the entire basis for reasoned conversation is so fragile (thanks, Tara, for the nudge), but right now, the concern is more immediate.

We're well past the point where calling Trump out on his lies matters. He's just the most recent and obnoxious manifestation, but there's plenty more to go round -- just think of that fake-news ecosystem. Whether social-media platforms and other content distributors can find a way to deal with it -- if, indeed, they even want to -- isn't even the issue anymore. It's not about fact-checking anymore, and it's not about calling out this liar or that demagogue or phony-content source anymore, either. This is on a whole different scale. This is about reclaiming the idea of truth itself.

So. What are we to do?

We can make the ground more hostile to bullshit, and eventually lies will find it impossible to take root.

Well, I don't want to be a total Debbie Downer, so I do have an answer. It's not easy, but it's not complicated, either. It just requires commitment. To what? To the values I've been advocating all along: open-mindedness, skepticism and critical thinking. When so much is invested in robbing us of our ability or desire to do so, resolving to think critically is the most effective means of resistance there is. Hell, it's practically revolutionary.

And vigilance. Words have meanings. Choice of words matters. When you choose to express yourself in a certain way, you're responsible for the implications. People need to be held to that. As long as the willingness to do that remains, there's hope.

No, it won't be easy. There are decades of atavistic bullshit to push back against. But if it's done firmly and consistently, we can make the ground more hostile to bullshit, and eventually lies will find it impossible to take root.


An extended version of this essay originally appeared on my own site
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