I was first introduced to the notion of ‘mainstreaming post-truth’ when I read Emma Pike’s 2016 article for Open Democracy, which was a ‘call to arms’ if you like, for centre-left progressives. She was right to be worried then and her foresight into an appreciating global situation of social division, the rise of a form rhetoric which relies on a ‘denial’ and ‘repetition’ strategy and the growing close-mindedness of a world which is more accessible than ever, is particularly daunting.
Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, The Guardian, using an ONS study, stated that Britain’s total wealth had grown to an approx total of £14.6tn. In terms of economic social division, such growth resulted in the ‘wealth among the richest 10% of households increasing almost four times faster than those of the poorest 10%’. Such figures reflect the growing economic divide between Britain’s richest and poorest. The CPAG published figures interpreted from the DWP and The Institute of Fiscal Studies which highlighted the impact on the UK’s children. Such statistics are derived from figures regarding households with a Below Average Income, and the number and percentage of people living in low income households. Thus, the staggering reality is that in 2018-19, there were 4.2 million children living in relative poverty in the UK. That figure represents 30 per cent of children, or nine in a classroom of 30 (CPAG). More pertinent than ever, is the analysis that children from Black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 45 per cent are now in poverty, compared with 26 per cent of children in White British families (CPAG). The CPAG also state that work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. 72 per cent of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works (CPAG).
The truth is, it’s now more crucial than ever to face up to this stark reality. No amount of political spin should distract us from the fact that these children, along with their families, are not simply statistics to be dismissed or swindled. They are not and should never be a number which is too often dismissed because of the old ‘it’s not personal to me, I don’t see it, I don’t know anyone who is in that situation – and therefore, it doesn’t exist’ excuse. The skeptics might attempt to debunk such catastrophic figures with useless debate on the ambiguous definition of poverty – be that relative or absolute. Yet, these exchanges simply hinder any meaningful attempts at societal progression. The bottom-line is that this shocking reality, brought to life by the work of organisations such as CPAG, is far from good enough. No one should stand at the despatch box and turn away from the responsibilities of reality. Accepting the truth is the only effective way of even beginning to strike change.
Yet Child Poverty is merely one category that makes up a larger cohort of people who are neglected by today’s society. According to Crisis.org the complexity with beginning to quantify homelessness is that most homeless people are not able to show up in any official national statistic at all. They state that “Government street counts and estimates give a snapshot of the national situation. The latest figures showed that 4,751 people slept rough across England on any given night in 2017 – a 15% increase compared to the previous year, and more than double the amount in 2010” (Crisis.org). The stark reality is that whatever the Tory government argue, who or what they blame, the numbers are up under their administration. Any attempt to defer responsibility or blame is not only exemplar of the ‘denial’ and ‘repeat’ rhetoric, but a catastrophic failure of duty – a neglection of the core principles of moral society.
Brexit was a predominant catalyst for the augmentation of ‘post-truth’ policy. An argument that even the most ardent Brexiteer can’t even effectively communicate. Take back control from what? Of course Dominic Cummings knew that the nothing slogan for the Leave campaign ‘Take Back Control’, was exactly that – a nothing statement. What is true, is that Brexit normalised the political echo chamber of lies and deliberately misleading statements. The normalisation of such lies opened the door for the division we see today. Whatever side of the Brexit debate you argue for, we cannot deny the existence of lies and deliberate mis-truths in both camps.
But what does this type of post-truth campaigning mean for 20th-Century political atmosphere ? Pike argues that,
“We cannot continue to do politics in the UK or the US in a way that puts misinformation at the heart of major democratic decisions. If we continue to let that happen, the far-right will be given a golden ticket to further entrench existing social divides and dismantle the efforts made in our lifetimes towards creating a more progressive society.”
She is absolutely right. If we allow misinformation to grip onto either side of the dialogue at hand, the arguments should become redundant, useless and simply wrong. Yet, what we are seeing, like in the case studies above, is the politician’s ability to swindle truths towards a necessary semantic which fits their position. Something which should be not only indefensible, but impossible to do. President Barack Obama, in his keynote speech on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth provided the most effective analogy I have heard to date. Obama said in 2018 that,
Through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it would be possible to arrive at a basis for common ground.
And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things that I didn’t have to lecture about. You have to believe in facts. (Laughter.) Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate. (Laughter.) I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, well, it’s not going to work, you can’t get everybody to cooperate, or they might say it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution. At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies. (Cheers.) I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is. I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. (Laughter.) If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, I don’t know what to – (laughter) – where do we start?
Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, “Oh man.” Now they just keep on lying.
As always, Obama’s knack for effective and efficient oration is staggering. But what can we learn from him?
Well listen, let’s not make this more complicated than necessary. Don’t proclaim ‘the elephant’ when faced with a challenge. What use is that? A square has 4 sides, it always has and it always will. You can’t and shouldn’t try to convince anyone otherwise. The UK as it is, far too often propagates a borderline mis-truth rhetoric. Something that if we are not careful, could easily fall to the divisional levels of Trumpism. Let’s learn from the US election. Trump’s whole campaign focused too heavily on fabrication and misinformation. Oh the irony in watching the man who labelled the whole media, ‘fake news’, literally spread fake news to soften and even attempt to reverse the blow of losing the election to what Trump himself said ‘was the worst democratic candidate in US history’.
What we should be aware of is that such rhetoric does absolutely nothing to benefit society today. The Brexit slogan might have helped sway the vote to the Leave campaign’s favour, but it did and has done absolutely nothing to benefit the UK four and a half years on. The Brexit idea was based on the over-optimism of the nationalist, the neglect of complex policy and propaganda that was deliberately intended to deceive and divide. How good it was of Boris Johnson, to deliberately divide society with misinformation, to then bid for Tory leadership and PM under the slogan ‘re-unite the country’.
Child Poverty, which we have seen even more in the spotlight thanks to the good work of Marcus Rashford, needs practical action to give the children what they deserve. There’s no-good in using the ‘denial’ and ‘repetition’ strategy or the ‘elephant’ idea to push it aside. It’s not party-political, it’s basic morality. Whether homelessness is easy to quantify or not is besides the point. If the UK approaches the problem half-heartedly then nothing will be fixed. We need information, guidance and ideas: not mis-information, lies or any useless attempts to spin the statistics, the facts, the truth. Without these necessities, in any instance, we cannot progress in any meaningful way.
My hope is that PM Boris Johnson is quick to reject Trumpism or any kind of ‘made up stuff’. I hope that political statements such as Priti Patel’s ‘20,000 more police officers’ don’t go unchallenged. I hope Covid and the truth isn’t politicised in the same way any useful dialogue on child poverty or homelessness has been. Emma highlights that democracy is at stake and again, she is right to do so. If we want to create a decent world for our generation, then it must be one that finds basis in the truth. And as Trumpism and the mis-information of Brexit has shown, lies create unnecessary, unfounded and dangerous social division. Let’s not fall into that trap anymore. We’re better than that. Democracy has stood for thousands of years, let us not be the generation to hang it out to dry.