On Double Speak and Post-Truth

Every year Oxford Dictionaries selects a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date: the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Over the years, the UK and US dictionary teams have often chosen different Words of the Year. Each country’s vocabulary develops in different ways according to what is happening culturally and in the news and, as such, the strongest contender for Word of the Year can be different.


In 2015, for the first time ever, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a pictograph, officially called the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji.


This year, the Oxford Word of the Year is … {drumroll} … POST-TRUTH.  Post-truth is defined as a condition “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Why?  According to Oxford’s website, “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.”

What it boils down to is that facts and hard data have become far less persuasive in today’s political environment than lies or perceptions of truth.  Ronald Reagan often confused his former career in Hollywood with the reality of his presidency, and thus was known for telling a few tall tales.  Reagan’s Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, once said, “If you tell the same story five times it’s true.”

Hannah Arendt, writing in 1967, presciently explained the basis for this phenomenon: “Since the liar is free to fashion his ‘facts’ to fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations, of his audience, the chances are that he will be more persuasive than the truth teller.”

In the past few weeks, threatened and angered by the fact that Hillary Clinton actually won 1.5% more of the popular vote than he, Donald Trump tweeted:

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”.  — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016

While there is absolutely no basis in fact for such a claim, when questioned by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway said, “He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behavior. When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”  But, president-elect or not, it is still a lie.  But, in the world of post-truth, if enough people believe it, it is as good as a fact, right? Not that it would have ever worked for President Obama, but …

Along those lines, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, during the “post-mortem” at Harvard University that I mentioned in a previous post, said “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.” So, now there is no difference from tales told after a few drinks at the local pub, and what the president of a nation tells the citizens?  Welcome to the new world, folks!

So, facts have become meaningless?  Or can be ‘altered’ to fit what a given person wants the facts to be, rather than what they actually are?  One analyst argues that “What matters now is not whether his fraud claim is true. No, what matters is who believes it.” 

I have referenced George Orwell’s iconic novel, 1984, written in 1949, but apparently I am not alone in seeing parallels between today’s political climate and the world of which Orwell wrote.  The Washington Post writer Margaret Sullivan says, “It’s time to dust off your old copy of “1984” by George Orwell and recall this passage: “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”” In the novel, Orwell casts a world in which the state is daily changing historic records to fit its propaganda goals of the day.  I suspect we will see plenty of this in months to come.

Given the post-truth politics of the next administration, it is more important than ever that people think before believing, research the facts before blindly following.  And it is imperative that the mainstream media learn from the lessons of the past year and a half, assess their own behaviours and motives, and do a much better job of fact-checking and constantly calling out the lies, or post-truths.  A seemingly vast majority of citizens, it has been proven, will not take the time and trouble to question those in power, or to verify what is said, but will blindly believe whatever comes out of the mouth of their chosen leader, at least as long as he tells them what they want to hear.

To end with a bit of humour, here are the other words that made the shortlist for Oxford’s 2016 Word of the Year:

adulting, n. [mass noun] informal the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.

alt-right, n. (in the US) an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content. Find out more about the word’s rise.

Brexiteer, n. British informal a person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union.

chatbot, n. a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet.

coulrophobia, n. [mass noun] rare extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

glass cliff,  n. used with reference to a situation in which a woman or member of a minority group ascends to a leadership position in challenging circumstances where the risk of failure is high. Explore the word’s history from one of the inventors of the term, Alex Haslam.

hygge, n. [mass noun] a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture):

Latinx, n. (plural Latinxs or same) and adj. a person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina); relating to people of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina).

woke, adj. (woker, wokest) US informal alert to injustice in society, especially racism.

8 thoughts on “On Double Speak and Post-Truth

  1. I really don’t think it has changed that much — in degrees, perhaps, but folks have always accepted as true those claims that fit nicely with their belief-sets, even very bright people. I have written about this for some time now. It’s just more wide-spread now and more discussed. It’s time to remind people that there is truth and falsehood and the two have nothing whatever to do with what we find comfortable!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jill, we are in a new era, but it has been building for awhile and it took a man who has little regard for the truth to show everyone how to leverage non-truths to his advantage. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” over five years ago, so he saw it then. But, the master of all of this is not The Donald. The master resides in Moscow. Aa a KGB trained operative, he has seen the elegance of planted stories in social media. He is doing it as we speak in Germany to influence their election, just as he manipulated ours.

    It appalled me that even Republicans in Congress cited a news report from sketchy resources that took climate change data out of context and said the global temperatures are falling. I used to assume that Congress had access to better information than we did, but several years ago I learned the fallacy of this belief.

    We must be hyper-vigilant in this post-truth age. And, to correct Kellyanne Conway’s remarks that is what Nixon said and he was a crook and would have been impeached.

    Thanks for the great post, Keith

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

    In all fairness, though, Trump’s veracity of what he says on a bus can be vouched for by many!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Orwell also used the word “newspeak” to describe those words invented to persuade, “deliberate exercises in doublethink.” It’s really not new. It is just more widespread — thanks to the entertainment industry and N
    “News” programs that worry more about selling their sponsor’s products than in informing people. An, of course, liars like Donald Trump. Lewandowski’s comment is a revelation. We no longer should take people “literally,” i.e., take what they say with a grain of salt and simply go with your gut feelings about how that person makes you feel!

    Liked by 1 person

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