In my previous post, I explored the dynamics and rhetoric behind what has been called ‘post-truth politics’.
The concept still is very much on my mind.
On the one hand, I am not deluded enough to believe that concepts such as truth or falsehood ever genuinely mattered much in politics and power-play.
On the other hand, it would seem as though before there was a certain degree of shame attached to a scenario in which someone was found guilty of telling lies.
There seems to have been a time, not long ago, in which intentional misrepresentation of facts typically were expected to result in personal consequences: confidently spreading falsehoods for one’s political advantage seemed to disqualify from holding a public office, not being its prerequisite.
More recently, however, there appears to be an increasing level of indifference to such matters. It is almost as though the electorate has come to terms with, and settled for, (i) the idea that politicians lie for a living (so why be upset!) and (ii) the observation that when politicians say that they take responsibility for something it is just a meaningless phrase.
In the conclusion of my earlier post I briefly reflected on the potentially rather limited effect of deploying truth against those who purposefully and strategically spread falsehood for their political aims.
But why does this strategy seem to be so infuriatingly inefficient?
The answer to this question may lie in a fable told by the Roman fabulist Phaedrus (Phaedr. 1.1):
Ad rivum eundem lupus et agnus venerant
siti compulsi; superior stabat lupus
longeque inferior agnus. tunc fauce improba
latro incitatus iurgii causam intulit.
‘cur’ inquit ‘turbulentam fecisti mihi
aquam bibenti?’ laniger contra timens:
‘qui possum, quaeso, facere, quod quereris, lupe?
a te decurrit ad meos haustus liquor’.
repulsus ille veritatis viribus:
‘ante hos sex menses male, ait, dixisti mihi’.
respondit agnus: ‘equidem natus non eram’.
‘pater hercle tuus, ille inquit, male dixit mihi’.
atque ita correptum lacerat iniusta nece.
haec propter illos scripta est homines fabula
qui fictis causis innocentes opprimunt.
In the delightful translation of Christopher Smith (from here)
By thirst incited; to the brook
The Wolf and Lamb themselves betook.
The Wolf high up the current drank,
The Lamb far lower down the bank.
Then, bent his ravenous maw to cram,
The Wolf took umbrage at the Lamb.
“How dare you trouble all the flood,
And mingle my good drink with mud?”
“Sir,” says the Lambkin, sore afraid,
“How should I act, as you upbraid?
The thing you mention cannot be,
The stream descends from you to me.”
Abash’d by facts, says he,” I know
‘Tis now exact six months ago
You strove my honest fame to blot”-
“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”
“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,
And so he tore him, till he died.
To those this fable I address
Who are determined to oppress,
And trump up any false pretence,
But they will injure innocence.
In Phaedrus’ famous fable, the lamb answers the wolf’s falsehoods and insists on facts and science. All it achieves is to make the wolf come up with even further absurdities. In the end it gets devoured.
What good was it to correct the wolf’s falsehoods?
What the lamb – the very symbol of innocence – does not see is that the wolf does not actually care about the facts. It’s purpose is to kill the lamb for its own benefit.
The wolf is determined to oppress the innocent.
To that end it will ‘trump (!!) up any false pretence’ (fictis causis in the Latin; but can you believe the serendipity, to find this very phrase in a one-hundred years old translation?).
Post-truth politics isn’t about being stupid or just not getting it right.
Post-truth politics is about a strategy that distracts the lambs’ innocent little souls. It gives them something ultimately meaningless to play with, something in which they may feel superior and smart, blissfully oblivious of the true dangers that are going to kill and devour them.
The lamb’s only hope would have been to run away from this futile discussion and to hide or to gather meaningful support.
It took the wrong decision.
And it paid for it with its life.
Don’t be this lamb.