Living in a Post-Truth Society
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
“Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” — Abigail Adams, speaking of George Washington’s death
As I was preparing part two of our look at how we got here and how that related to so much misinformation, I spent some time looking over last year’s newsletters, and something stood out.
There were a couple of posts about the legacies we leave behind, but they each touched on the importance of acknowledging the truth and reality.
“Vainglorious leaders spend too much time worrying about their legacy. They hope to be remembered for the mark they leave on the world — for some, these things occupy their every waking moments.” (A Monumental Reckoning)
This could be why some leaders have an incentive to spread false information. To make themselves appear stronger, more valiant, or even righteous.
“What you have to live with every day, and the legacy you leave to those who care most about you is your integrity, your character, and your reputation.” (Monuments to Ourselves)
When we see alternate realities, then we have alternate expectations. We can only be united by the truth, not by falsehoods.
“If we want to build trust, if we want to inspire loyalty, we need to address the truth, as difficult as it may be. In the boardroom, the living room, or the cabinet room, we need to ensure that we’re seeing the same thing and experiencing the world together.” (The Truth Is Out There)
Without truth, we have no reasonable expectation of achieving trust. And trust is at the heart of leadership. We have an opportunity to build trust through our stories, but those stories must contain the truth.
“This is what storytellers do. They capture our common experiences and create tales that trigger emotions within us. We laugh or cry, feel shame or pride, exhibit sympathy or grief, create ideas or actions.
“We do this because stories are based on things that are discernible. Things to which we can attest. In other words, the truth.” (Why Does Truth Matter, Anyway?)
Each is worth a re-read. There were timely elements about each one of them, based on the news, but there are also — wait for it — timeless stories in there as well.
“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” — Friederich Nietzsche, 1878
Big Tech and Free Speech
The debate happening today is about the role of Big Tech with respect to free discourse. Cries of “censorship” have arisen in various corners. Should the social networks have deplatformed the president?
One viewpoint is that the right to free speech is being curtailed. Aside from the fact that presidents have been communicating to the American people without Twitter for some 220 years prior, the president still has plenty of media options at his disposal. Whining about not having Twitter is like complaining that a news network didn’t carry your speech, while others did.
One might argue that this puts too much power in the hands of a few companies. Fair enough. But all you have to do to keep your account is not violate the Terms of Service you agreed to when you signed up for it.
That’s not terribly difficult to understand.
And with a persona as influential as the president, who reaches hundreds of millions of people with his messages, it can be dangerous if he is coloring outside the lines of the law or democracy.
At that point, a platform has a responsibility to society.
Of course, they’ve had a responsibility to society all along, and have allowed a deluge of misinformation and anger to flourish. By the time we reached the tipping point on January 6, the damage had already been done.
“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell, 1933
While one could argue that truth is relative, there are certain fundamentals that we simply cannot deny—truths we hold to be self-evident.
Once we allow ourselves to exist in a post-truth society, we open ourselves up to the machinations of those who would wrest reality from our hands.
Timothy Snyder, Levin professor of history at Yale, wrote an extensive and must-read essay in The New York Times, noting that living in a post-truth world leads us into an American Abyss:
“Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.”
As you would expect from a historian, he also makes it clear that we have an opportunity to learn from mistakes and patterns from history:
“Greater knowledge of the past, fascist or otherwise, allows us to notice and conceptualize elements of the present that we might otherwise disregard and to think more broadly about future possibilities.”
I suppose the question is: where do we go from here?