Without trust, there’s no need to assess truth – why leadership behaviours matter
Dictionaries don’t often make headline news, but Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is an annual exception – an easy attention-grabbing article that can congratulate itself on seizing the zeitgeist. If newspaper columnists and web editors felt an ironic chill climb their spines as they reported this year’s winner – post-truth – it was probably their relief that the acronym ‘MSM’ (MainStream Media, almost invariably used derogatorily) wasn’t selected instead. Oxford’s definition, however, is worth pondering:
post-truth (adjective) Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Before 2016, we weren’t strangers to being urged to ‘believe’, usually in the context of believing in something so vigorously that it would come true. Quite often, the context was celebrity. (As the Guardian pointed out recently, this has also been The Year of The Snowflake, and of delicate princesses of all genders.) 2016 has, as with so many things, turned this power of belief on its head. Believing now trumps – and what other verb could we use? – empirical fact. Forensic science be damned, evidence is now a thing of the past.
Looking back as the year draws to a close, it seems reasonable to ask if this really is the year of ‘post-truth’ or if this is a symptom of something deeper – that this is the year of ‘post-trust’. In one of the year’s most notable quotes back in June, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared in a Sky News interview that:
“[…] people in this country have had enough of experts.”
There was a context, of course: the divisive EU Referendum campaign, in which dismissing all expert opinion may have seemed a quicker route to sealing an argument that presenting a counter-case, but quotes have a habit of resonating even when they’ve been shorn from their original setting. But in courting feeling, emotion and opinion over fact, we run a risk of undermining not just experts but facts themselves: disbelieving something is not the same as disproving it.