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José Benigno Freire, Professor of the School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

Something about post-truth

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 10:01:00 +0000 Published in Diaro Montañés and Las provincias

Post-truth seems to present itself as the logo of certain current communication, propaganda and politicking. It becomes attractive, and catchy, because relativism provided it with the proper humus, it fertilized the ground. Relativism is characterized by rejecting objective truth, and replacing it with mere affective desires; that is to say, human behavior is no longer governed by truth, duty, commitment..., now it is guide according to my opinion, my desires, my interests, my ambitions... This "egoism" covers behavior with an emotional (subjective) veneer, and this subjectivism becomes the ideal fishbowl for the little fish of post-truth to swim so richly. And it is that post-truth is always supplied in small pieces...

Post-truth appeals directly to the emotional world, and dispenses with any reference letter to the truth, to real events or facts. It appeals both to emotions and to all the satellites that awaken and ignite them: feelings, opinions, prejudices, misgivings, stereotypes, suspicions, ambitions, anxieties, dreams... And, in addition, it stirs them up and whips them up until they become the starting point and driving force behind the behavior of individuals or groups.

In order to provoke a predetermined conviction, establish an ideology or create a certain state of opinion, post-truth can affirm (or disfigure) whatever suits it, since it does not need to undergo verification of its truth or the veracity of what is real. That is why it is considered the soft brand of lie, although some language purists prefer to define it as an emotional lie. With this emotional arousal it is intended to silence -intentionally- any hint of rationality, although it is proposed in an (apparent and sinuous) rational format.

Of course, there is nothing new in the employment of lies as a procedure in propaganda, especially in the old-style populisms. Joseph Goebbels insisted that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes truth. Also Marxism: truth, lie, justice, injustice... are bourgeois concepts; in communism: if it is convenient to tell the truth, one tells it; if it is convenient to lie, one lies... Now, with the fake neus, they enjoy a more suggestive and sophisticated power of influence, and a vertiginous and universal diffusion. In this sense, Tabarnia represents a tremendously plastic and current example of how an ingenious suggestion can be transformed into a phenomenon of global interest and scope. Thus, with the same ease, any state of opinion or event, true or false, real or imagined, can be molded.

How do they achieve credibility, despite being false? I insist, because they accentuate the emotional intensity to the point of obscuring or silencing the reasons for thinking. Which is not particularly difficult, since a principle of behavior, already collected in the old manuals of Social Psychology, demonstrates that groups and groupings are driven more by the "emotional electricity" fanned by the leaders, than by reasons or ideas. This is proven by common observation: people are able to behave in group with actions that they would not do alone. Acting in group seems to dilute the responsibility staff, and reinforces common efforts.

They also employ a technique that has proven to be effective in some advertising strategies: presenting the product as a generator of some pleasant sensation for the consumer. The important thing is to associate the product with that sensation; and that sensation is used as a sales hook. Months ago, a cheese factory advertised with the following slogan: "in the production of our cheeses we do not generate carbon dioxide"; without specifying whether it was cow's cheese, sheep's cheese, goat's cheese, cured cheese or fresh cheese; however, it did not contribute to global warming! Here lies the crux of the matter: the mastery to formulate slogans, claims, headlines or catchy phrases... that gather and whip personal ambitions and social sensitivities of the moment. Post-truth too.

The new populisms wield post-truth as an effective instrument to spread their ideology. They enervate emotions to the maximum as a combustible material to extinguish ideas or facts that contradict their postulates. And they stir up the basest emotions, those that whip up indignation: hatred, rage, envy, suspicion, grudges, greed, resentment... They need to harass, blame, attack someone to disguise the utopia of their proposals. This was called vileness, in classical language; now, possibly, it would be called corruption of freedom staff.  

That smell is already stale, old. More than a century ago, Wenceslao Fernández Flores, in his "Novel issue thirteen", described how a seasoned worker agitator instructed a first-timer: put a glass of champagne on the horizon of a man who only has brandy and his heart will leap louder than the cork of the bottle.

Perhaps we could do with another "Tabarnia" that directs attention to the garb side of the emotional world, the truth, and the real facts. We would live more calmly, and peacefully.