The truthiness era

by Aaron Wherry

Andrew Potter considers the nature of truth in politics.

Political leadership is a form of storytelling, and no amount of mere fact-checking will ever serve to counteract a narrative that a significant mass of the public feels in its bones to be true. That is why the most effective antidote to the poison politics of truthiness is ridicule.

It is no coincidence that the term truthiness was coined in 2006 by the comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the wildly popular talk show The Colbert Report. Along with Jon Stewart (host of the sister program The Daily Show) Colbert has become one of the most influential political analysts in America. Truth should always remain a regulative ideal of political life. Facts matter, and fact-checking is still an important function of the independent press. But in the age of post-truth politics, it is important to remember that the guiding light of reason is the satirist. The literary devices of irony, sarcasm, and parody are the mechanisms through which grand political narratives are exposed not as false, but as laughable, preposterous or absurd.




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The truthiness era

  1. But people like Ezra L. have used ridicule to spread more truthiness.

    • I agree. I don’t think “ridicule” was the best way for Potter to word that, I’d have said the most effective antidote to the poison politics of truthiness is satire.
      Humour is what makes it effective. Ridicule without humour is… well, Ezra Levant. Sun News’ ratings will tell you how popular that is.

      • Maybe, but at some level it’s all just rhetorical device. Extremists probably lie more than the middle but the devices they use to deliver that lie are likely the same. In whatever passes for the salons of the far right I am sure even now they are sharing the latest bon mots laying bare once and for all the misguided farces of being pro-choice, allowing gay marriage, science-based climate change policy or having any taxes at all (see what I did there?)

  2. Potter is your average left wing kook who compares Goebbels and Reagan and then complains about how we are moving away from truth. JFK was the first manufactured president and it’s gone downhill since then. Potter’s problem is that he is convinced there’s truth to be found. Other than a few solid science concepts like gravity or earth rotates around sun, reality is up for grabs and we all interpret things according to our own experiences and biases.

    • You seem to imply there’s a difference between Goebbels and Reagan [ IOWs truth and distinctions matter] and yet you wind up claiming everything but gravity is a matter of perception. Is this more Tonyism or are you trying to make a point?

    • If you were right, in my “reality” you’d be nothing more than a magnet of my figmentation ;)

      • We are all monkeys.

        wiki ~ The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

        • Only in your “reality”. Mine is different. You said so, yourself.

        • What I’m taking from that is if an infinite number of Tonys were sat at an infinite number of keyboards for an infinite amount of time, one of them one day would write a logical post.
          I’m still waiting for that day to come.

  3. I’m not sure about Potter’s ridicule/satire argument, even though i find his logic compelling. I’ve just spent half an hour looking over some old spitting image stuff[ doesn't seem as funny second time around - maybe nothing ever is?] Surely no one was ever lampooned so mercilessly than Thatcher or Reagan at the time [ well everyone really] yet it didn’t seem to slow either of them down or alter anything; except cause an entire generation of Brits to get their political fix primarily from that show – which isn’t a bad thing overall.
    Maybe i’m wrong though? You would have to have an absence of satire to judge whether it really affected those two in any meaningful way. And perhaps the satire is really for those who have to endure politicians they dislike, not function merely as a kind of politcal brake?
    After all in the Soviet Union there was wicked satire[ popular and unofficial] of their elites and system all the way through – perhaps it’s the only thing that kept them mostly sane in the end? Us too, for that matter!

  4. While i agree completely with AP’s big story narrative, he neglects to mention [ maybe he implies it initially?] that the form or structure of the narrative has changed considerably. There seems to be far more emphasis on defining the other guy now; much less selling of your vision. More fear, less hope. That’s obviously true of Obama this time around of course, but Romney seemed to thrive as much on fear as his version of hope too!
    On some level this has always been the case, and doubtless always will be, depending on the candidates varying circumstances. But corrosive fear seems to sell so much more readily these days, despite our endless panning of it.
    But if you think about it not even the brand of fear that Reagan and Thatcher sold in their day looked as detached from the rational as what’s on the market nowadays. That seems odd to me. The stakes are surely as big in their own way as they were in Maggie and Ronnies ,surely? Maybe , maybe not? Maybe they simply don’t care anymore; maybe they feel they don’t have the luxury of caring ? Maybe we don’t?

  5. I believe that the antidote to truthiness in politics lies in the study of the academic(s) literature On Bullsshit (Harry Frankfurt and many others). An excellent recent book for beginners is: Joe Bennett – Double Happiness: How Bullshit Works – here is the promotional description for the book:

    “Bullshit has always been with us but as a result of the proliferation of media in the last century we are now awash with it, drowning in it. It has become so accepted a part of the human landscape that bullshitters can not only make a living from bullshit and achieve power, prestige and wealth — they can even win prizes for it. Unironic prizes.

    Bullshit seems to be fundamental to human society. If we were to strip bullshit from our conversations, our televisions, newspapers and airwaves, we would barely recognise what remained.

    The aim of this book is to unpack examples of bullshit from our everyday life and lay bare the techniques behind it. These techniques are surprisingly simple.

    There are two possible consequences of this exposure. One is that bullshit will be laughed out of existence forever. The other is that bullshit will continue to proliferate. Regardless of the outcome, anyone who reads this book will at least be able to identify exactly how they are having bullshit foisted upon them, even while they continue to fall for it.”

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