Journalists in a post-society and returning to untruth
Jonathan Jones asks if anyone cares about Van Gogh’s drawings in a post-truth world.
Post-truth, post-9/11, postmodern, post-industrial, post-everything in our post-society.
Who do we trust anymore? In a whirlwind of upsets, unpredictability, and unsettlement, the world is at edge in post-truth. At least Oxford Dictionary’s “post-truth” as the word of the year was no surprise. But the rise of populist rhetoric, distrust of anyone in power, and general heightened insecurity have drawn scrutiny from the philosophers for centuries. And the truth is nowhere to be found.
Through the democratic forces that give agency and a playing field for any soul who chooses to engage, the news drives discourse. The mass media, with all it offers to love and hate, has evolved from newspaper stands from writers to an amorphous, ever-consuming ghost which infects all parts of society. And, through Trump, Brexit, and everything else, the discourse has had a tough fight. The post-truth world might be less about figuring out right from wrong, but what right and wrong really mean anymore. It’s no longer the case that the right answers to problems will appear when we find solutions, but, rather, result from understanding the role of subjectivity, validity, justification, certainty, and other epistemic values that give color to the truth. With these shades and hues that taint the blacks and whites, the post-truth world becomes a bit more understandable. Or at least, a bit more entertaining.
Journalism might not be dead, but it’s tough to say where it’s going to go. The few who have turned to those who think about the big questions, it’s not so clear. But asking for answers from philosophy was never meant to be easy. Philosopher Charles Taylor hopes everyone can restore their faith in democracy. Diplomacy analyst Franz-Stefan Gady wants more philosophers in the Pentagon. One might also turn to the witty, easygoingness of Hume or the lighthearted disdain for mass media of Nietzsche for inspiration. Gady even goes so far to say, “In the post-truth world, victory is a delusional fancy, as was the case in Iraq, but the philosopher would have insisted on defining a military victory in war in clear and delimited terms predicated upon immediate and enduring peace as the only logical metric for defining success on the battlefield.” Such a thorough, deliberate course of thinking only brought upon by the philosophers would give the world a much-needed voice of reason or sigh of relief through whatever happens. And it’s more than just a simple matter of being trained in Hegel and Kant or doing well on philosophical essays and standardized tests, but a reflective and much-needed manner of intellectual growth that every soul desires.
And surely there’s a battle going on inside everyone and everything in the world to not only make sense of the world but to find truth in a post-truth world. In my time working at the Indiana Daily Student for the past three semesters, I’ve found myself at ends with meaning. As many members of our staff shared personal experiences with sexual assault over Twitter, we took a bold move but risked integrity and objectivity to expose a greater harm. The way a reporter decides what to call a story and breath life into his or her own experience. And this raises a concern. Breathing life into stories we can’t touch might just be what’s wrong with journalism. Reporting unprovable anecdotes in sob stories, especially in the trite, contextless realm of social media, presents these existential struggles. But there might be a better way to look at it. In communicating an experience with assault this way, the journalists do not ask the readers to weigh in on their personal moments. There are no vendettas, malice, or personal agendas to get revenge on nasty ex-boyfriends. Rather, the meaning of the story comes from virtue of the reader imagining the journalist’s scenario. The reader adds a truth in his or her personal subjectivity of what sexual assault is like (much like Kierkegaard’s “Truth as subjectivity” claim), and, through an understanding of the values and experience at play, we bring light to this greater problem. The sharing of sexual assault stories becomes a sentiment-based movement that avoids the pitfalls of the “court of social media” while giving enough detail to make a statement. While it doesn’t truly overthrow the ambiguity and distrust of post-truth stories, it shares a lesson to understand people have been through, reconciling uncertainty with experience.
This post-truth approach to something as fragile as a sexual assault story gives the reader, however detached and disillusioned he or she might be, a connection. One voice is a pebble in the ocean, but many become a crowd.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote in, “The Crowd is Untruth”,
The crowd is untruth. And I could weep, in every case I can learn to long for the eternal, whenever I think about our age’s misery, even compared with the ancient world’s greatest misery, in that the daily press and anonymity make our age even more insane with help from “the public,” which is really an abstraction, which makes a claim to be the court of last resort in relation to “the truth”; for assemblies which make this claim surely do not take place.
Where does the public go? The minority who speak to uphold the truth find themselves at odds with the crowd. Meandering through the messages of today require attention to these limits, lest we lose the battle on truth.