Near the close of 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the international word of the year. It means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The decision was prompted by the emotional debate over the Brexit decision and Donald Trump’s propensity for exaggeration and even outright fabrication. In brief, citizens are ignoring fact-checkers and focusing on themselves, their emotional responses and ability to identify with candidates, actions, or positions. It’s hardly a new phenomenon: Appealing to the emotions and beliefs of an audience is basically the bread and butter of rhetoric.
However, trying to build our political structures on the shifting sands of public opinion rather than on objective facts (or, that unspeakable word, “truth”) eerily resembles the tyranny of the majority first formulated by John Adams and later described by Alexis DeTocqueville. DeTocqueville went so far as to predict that should America fall, it would not be due to impotence, but rather the “omnipotence of the majority.” The rise of a political discourse centered on emotion and personal beliefs rather than principles ought to make any informed citizen pay attention.
It behooves us to continue forming ourselves in the right principles. Encountering truth in a wide variety of disciplines—political theory, philosophy, literature, and so forth—makes a man well-rounded, gives him the ability to consider issues from alternative perspectives, and helps him to resist the particularly powerful influence of public opinion when it might lead him astray. Moreover, by growing in the virtue of studiositas, we may become another voice for truth in the public sphere through civil discourse.
After a year of post-truth politics, the best thing we can do is pick up a good book.
Monica Burke is a senior philosophy major at Christendom College and president of her campus ISI Society, Cincinnatus League. Upon graduation, she intends to pursue a career in public policy and attend graduate school for philosophy.