How Should Liberals Respond to an Era of “Post-Truth?”

In college and graduate school I studied psychology and family systems therapy. But there have been times since then that I wish I’d paid more attention to linguistics.

It all started when I realized that when we say that we know something, we often mean very different things. Just like the native people of Alaska have so many different words for what we call “snow,” I’ve often wished that we had a variety of choices for the word “know.”

I thought about all of that today when I read that the folks at Oxford Dictionaries have identified their word of the year and it captures the current political moment better than most pundits and/or political scientists.

It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passed…

Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after the contentious “Brexit” referendum and an equally divisive U.S. presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket, according to the Oxford University Press.

The dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In this case, the “post-” prefix doesn’t mean “after” so much as it implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant…

Has truth really become irrelevant? In the case of the winning campaigns for both Brexit and Trump’s election, it would certainly seem so. How should liberals respond to that?

I can sympathize with those who critiqued Clinton’s campaign for being so adept at putting out policy positions and not as good at tapping into people’s emotions. I hear that as a desire to respond to voters and thereby, win elections. But my bigger concern always comes down to wanting to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Emotions are important. But to run with them devoid of any fact-based analysis – including an awareness of the systemic nature of reality – is downright dangerous.

One of the most important tasks for liberals going forward will be to go against this cultural phenomenon and help people understand that – when it comes to something as important as maintaining our form of self-government – relegating truth to an irrelevancy is not the answer.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.