We are told we are entering a post-truth era. The concept has featured, in various forms, in political dialogues, in newspaper articles – including a whole page of the New York Times on the day of the presidential election – on the web and most recently in comments by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who argues that France is likely to elect Marine Le Pen because they have lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth. Surely this cannot be true.
Something, however, is afoot. So what is it? Has the human search for honesty run out of steam? Have we lost curiosity? We are awash with cynicism and scepticism. These easy virtues – if such they be – drive the sales of our press, media and comedy. There is great value in questioning presented truths. That was the essence of the Scottish Enlightenment, to doubt with courage. With courage – for if simple truths are not true then we must face the anxieties of uncertainty. If not in God, in what, they asked, do we find virtue? In science and art. Art – all arts including theatre, dance, poetry, delicacy of observing and drawing, all arts – is where we find truths. In science we find bountiful truths, no less beautiful and indeed they grow daily in number and in accuracy, gripping reality in ways unimaginable centuries ago, or even last year.
And in engineering, the practical triumph of human understanding. I am in awe every time I walk across a bridge. I drive with fearful understanding. Trains and boats I love, flights I always fear. Yet I trust the engineers who build, maintain and run these. I trust their understanding of truth.
So to the argument that we are in a post-truth era my most constructive analysis and argument is to say: piffling rot.
And yet something is afoot. How to analyse this nonsense? Many of us, I suggest, are exhausted by the amount of information we have to process. Simply to buy a cabbage we must walk through an avenue of ads, behold a plethora of best buys and two-for-ones, desist the temptation of sign-up cards and finally wonder how best to pay. That is a lot of information to process in order to buy a cabbage. I walked through the beautiful Garde Du Nord a while back with a captain of UK industry who said, of the wonderful Delft tiles, on the walls ‘Better get rid of these. The space should carry advertising'. Overwhelmed with nonsense, we lose sense, even senses.
But not the courage for truth. Hardly like Descartes, ‘I doubt therefore I am’, which was his search for the existence of God; not like Warhol, ‘everyone famous for 15 minutes’; nor even Einstein, ‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former'. It is not that we do not think, nor that we do not value truth. It is simply that our knowledge, all knowledge, is partial, flawed and slow to develop. Truth is not over. It is often over there, sometimes beyond our reach. Like a pharaoh’s tomb of which there may be many yet to uncover. Yet do we not feel joy when we sense something is true? It is visceral. Is that not true?
Some have called this an age of anxiety, notably Auden but also Google. As if there were any other. Being at terms with uncertainty, indeed with pain and death, is not to hide from truth. It is to accept it. Living is not displacement activity. It is living. Searching for truth, curiosity about truth, working for truth – these are surely central to human life? What moral purpose can we serve without such searches?
Anyway our habits are so built in, so evolved over millennia, that I believe our curiosity for truth will survive us. As a species. We inherited it from earlier species. The desert shrew even today puts up its vulnerable head and scutters around randomly looking for sustenance. Then hurries back to get out of the mid-day sun. Do we not do so today in our searches for truth?
We are, perhaps, in a post-arrogance, post-elite, era. Let us not describe that as post-truth. To describe it as post knowing-best would belittle. Perhaps pre-knowing better. An anxious state. The information revolution will blossom, even further, much further. Everything that can be known about anyone will be known, for good or ill. Truth will become of central importance. Scepticism and doubt will be vital: no approach to truth is possible without them. Folk of all ages know that. They are the weapons we use daily to ascertain truth. Sometimes to establish pathways to trust.
Overwhelmed with information, with data – whatever they are – we are perhaps in danger of doubting our capacities. Fair enough. Yet, I argue, the search for truth will go on. Daily. Minute by minute, every second. We yearn to engage with reality. There is nothing real about the notion of a post-truth era, it is a mistaken miasma. We find truth each day in art, science and engineering.
In politics, nationally, locally, organisationally, we find honest searches for truth as well as less honest ones. The endeavour goes on. The notion of a post-truth era is dystopian, unnecessary and untruthful.
Not long ago I had the opportunity in SR to question the prevailing liberal belief that unfettered immigration was a good thing. Ironically, not long after I wrote it came the reports of mass sexual harassment by young Muslim men in Germany and Scandinavia, and it appears that Mrs Merkel is now backing away from her previous liberal stance.
Again at the risk of aggressive feedback from those with opposing views, and given the appalling situation in Syria, I’d like to throw out some points for further discussion – in SR this is always reasoned. Regardless of the natural sympathy of any civilised person for the horrors in Syria and other Islamic countries, I believe it does us no good to beat ourselves up about the situation, and to respond by thoughtlessly lifting controls on immigration such that we are allowing fanatical Muslims to come to Britain and, once here, to live in what have been described as parallel communities.
I have said before that as a feminist and liberal, I am an Islamophobe – that is, I fear Islam. It is not a religion of peace – I can say that as probably one of a small number who have read the Koran in translation. Like the Hebrew Bible, much of it is a manifesto for war against the perceived unbeliever. But the majority of contemporary Jewish people have understood their religious texts as historical record and not as a sole guide for life – indeed, in Britain they and the Sikh communities have been models of successful integration.
The argument often advanced by the liberal side is that the European powers are to blame for the Middle East debacle by their carve-up of the area after the first world war. Naturally, today the whole idea of hegemony and empire-building is quite rightly condemned in the West, although sadly it seems to be having a resurgence in Russia. But this does not negate the fact that when not fighting other religions, Islam indulges in civil war within its own – and the war between Sunnis and Shias is not even about theology but who was the rightful heir of the Prophet. Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Assad – they were and are all monsters by our democratic standards, but at least they were secular tyrants, probably defending their stance on the basis that they were fighting medieval anachronists.
There is no doubt that the situation within the Islamic East is dreadful, but to take the view that 'we are all to blame’ and, on this basis, allow parallel societies to develop amongst immigrants from the area is surely at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous. Aggressive defenders of Islamic practices are promoting a culture which still valorises male aggression and despises the female, while simultaneously blaming women for male sexuality to the extent that they are supposed to hide their physical appearance. And these attitudes are becoming part of the mainstream – witness the fame of Nadia Hussein, the ubiquitous poster-girl for the redundant carbohydrate.
The problem is in part because we often appear to be joining the militant Islamists in condemning our own society. Sure, there is a lot wrong with the way we do things. I have just read SR's piece on the dragging of feet around the Bailey Gwynne report. It’s essential that vehicles like SR challenge what is wrong, in this case with Scottish society. But we should also remember there are quite a few things we get right – or at least 'righter’ than many areas of the world. We have corruption in high places, but it is often eventually exposed – witness the current revelations about sexual abuse in football. We have egotistical exhibitionists in politics – but we also have many parties who are in it as they want to achieve a fairer and gentler world. We still have narrow minded self-styled Christians who quote Biblical texts to condemn gay people – but they are becoming a minority even among their co-religionists, and as we fortunately do not live under a theocracy, they have very little power.
Individuals who claim to be fleeing from repressive regimes in the Middle East or Islamic Africa should be carefully screened to check that they are willing to embrace the values and cultural norms of the host country, which although they do not create Utopia and never will, are at least more wholesome for the majority than the theocratic tyranny of the countries they have left. And if they cannot accept these values, they should stay where they are and work together to bring about an Islamic reformation. It took us in the West several centuries to achieve some sort of balance between opposing value systems, so they had better get started soon.