Quid est veritas? What is truth?
‘The truth’ has become a special feature of this election, mainly by way of its absence from some of National’s campaign plays - specifically the deliberate muddying of the waters on income tax and the non-existent hole in Labour’s numbers conjured up by Steven Joyce. Despite a long parade of pundits, media and politicians attesting to the lack of truth in many of National’s claims, it seems the mud stuck just enough to drag Labour down from the heights it was riding after Jacinda Ardern assumed the role of leader of the Party.
The apparent lack of consequence for telling lies has led some to talk about the era of post-truth politics finally being upon us here in Godzone. The counter point to that is that politicians have always lied and this is nothing new. The bending and stretching of truth and the ‘means to an end at all costs’ approach to politics could just be overlooked as part of playing the game. For all the questioning of Bill English’s integrity, he has still been universally praised for playing a blinder; the resurrection and rehabilitation of Bill English is indeed something of a political coup, apparently safe from too much questioning about ‘the truth’.
Philosophers have wrangled with the idea of truth for millennia. The question appears in John’s Gospel with Pilate asking Jesus ‘What is truth?’ in response to his statement that he is ‘witness to the truth’. In Plato’s Republic, he goes full ‘A Few Good Men’ on us and suggests we can’t handle the truth, introducing the concept of the noble lie - the deliberate propagation of a myth or untruth by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda.
Have we been necessarily pacified by a noble lie, just as the Greeks were, for our own good?
Plato suggests the citizens of his time are too swayed by theatre and emotion and are not invested, nor able to handle a universal standard of objective truth.
But what about the citizens of our time? What has been our relationship with the truth over the course of this election campaign? Are we complicit players in a post-truth political climate? For every noble attempt by Paddy Gower or Dame Anne Salmond to highlight the lies, there will have been a thousand social media posts or conversations that further entrenched some deeply held fears and concerns, and therefore the acceptance of our own convenient truths. Or is this just the game? Lies as justifiable strategy. Have we been necessarily pacified by a noble lie, just as the Greeks were, for our own good?
I wrote an earlier piece for Newsroom on National’s switch to attack mode during this campaign and their ‘Let’s tax this’ ads. While they haven’t been delivered an outright majority and we can’t be sure whether Labour’s high polling was ever a sustainable and winnable reality, you can’t doubt that the attack route taken and its relative success is enough of a reason to add a conversation about post-truth politics and its implications to our political discourse.
Post-truth politics is defined as: a culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. It challenges the idea that interpreting political speech through the prism of truth is a fruitful exercise and it challenges us to contemplate the existence of a truth or many truths. In 2016, it was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year because of its heavy association with the Trump campaign and Brexit.
Whether or not it is a new phenomenon or part of a long history of political game-playing is a score that won’t be settled in this column but there is little question that some of the drivers associated with post-truth politics are now very real forces in shaping truth in politics. The filter bubbles we now occupy through our prolific uptake and use of social media and the enormous amount of media created to feed the 24-hour news cycle have led to the rise in partisan environments online. This only serves to polarise us further, reinforcing our biases and reducing our capacity to empathise with others and negotiate our differences at a basic human level. That is problematic and that needs countering.
The loss of some of the minor parties means it is vital that we make more of an effort to find each other and be able to both interrogate and understand our differences.
One of the highlights of this campaign for me was attending The Nation’s multi-party debate. For the first time I saw the real value of the smaller parties and the brilliance of MMP in giving voice to more diverse points of view. It was an electric atmosphere, a broad church gathering with room for all and a shared sense of pride and ambition for New Zealand. The beauty and fire of Marama Fox in person was revelatory and while the Māori Party didn’t exist to serve as an educative force for Pākehā, I came to see why the party was so important in helping us understand the truths of others.
That it is lost, for now, is a tragedy.
Whether there is or ever has been such a thing as universally objective truth in politics, we are now more likely to live and move in circles that serve to reinforce our own beliefs, truths, fear and prejudices. The loss of some of the minor parties means it is vital that we make more of an effort to find each other and be able to both interrogate and understand our differences.
Now, more than ever, it is incumbent on us to perforate our own bubbles. Instead of seeking the objective truth, bringing new people to our own tables to understand their truths might be the best counter to whatever reality we now find ourselves in – post-truth or Plato’s Republic. Quid est tu veritas?
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