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post-truth politics

  • Our post-truth era: facts and gut instinct

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political 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. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of "secondary" importance.

    In 2016, "post-truth" was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year, due to its prevalence in the context of that year's Brexit referendum and U.S. presidential election.

     

    It is very important to the argument I make in the second half of this essay that the Wikipedia definition of “post-truth” cited above gives “post-factual” as an alternative reading of the term. The authors-editors of the entry have understood truth as something supported by facts. That is not self-evident, because there are various kinds of truth. Scientific truth, scholarly truth are surely fact-based. But religious truth, still a major influence on American society and culture, is faith-based, not fact-based.  And artistic truth, to take another example, is highly personal and subjective; facts as building blocks play no role. 

    Politically speaking, the concept of post-truth has had a distinctly partisan flavor in the United States. It relates not just to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as stated above but to the Republican candidate in that election and to the Republican President who now sits in the Oval Office.  That is to say, the word has been instrumentalized, another fashionable concept of our day, to attack Donald J. Trump, whom its framers consider to be the embodiment of post-truth.

    Put more bluntly, Trump’s Democratic opponents and the media have been saying in effect that Trump is a serial and impudent liar.  In that connection, let us recall The Washington Post’s daily front-page fact-check on the candidate’s assertions during the campaign for the presidency and the Pinocchio caricatures that were featured elsewhere in the media. Much more ink was spent detailing Trump’s whoppers than those of his Republican peers in the primaries or than those of Hillary Clinton in the final election.

    This is not to say that such attention to Trump’s character weakness for self-serving tall stories did not and does not justify attention and severe criticism.  It was not for nothing that in his prepared statement at the opening of his confirmation hearings in the Senate, Rex Tillerson chose to stress the truth as something he would always make a guiding principle in his State Department operations, and said that from his training as an engineer, he would follow the facts wherever they led him.  It is very sad to note that once in office Tillerson’s loyalty to his boss outweighed his personal convictions and professional methodology so that he has become a willing mouthpiece for outrageous lies, as in his justification for the cruise missile strikes in Syria over alleged but unproven chemical attack by the Assad forces in Idlib province.

    Meanwhile, for anyone observing the ongoing Democratic Party led witch-hunt in Washington over suspected collusion between Trump administration personnel and the Russians to throw the election his way, or otherwise to compromise U.S. security interests, it is patently clear that the concept of “post-truth” is fully descriptive of what is being practiced in the camp of Trump’s opponents and detractors.  We have smears, slurs allegations unsupported by facts in what have become general “fishing expeditions” to find wrongdoing that fits previously prepared indictments and prepares the way for further impairment of Executive powers if not actual impeachment of Trump. No amount of factual counter-argument by the minority of experts and politicians daring to stand up to the mob on Capitol Hill aided and abetted by mainstream media counts for anything.

    However, it would be a mistake to allow our understanding of “post –truth” to be defined strictly by the vagaries of partisan politics, or to blame it on the character defects of this or that public personality. “Post-truth” is a natural concomitant of populist politics:  “facts” are produced by elites, who are by definition prepared by their superior educations for this task.  Those “facts” may and often do contradict the realities by which the vast majority of the population live. Given that the vast majority of the population also has a strong anti-intellectual current in its midst, there are ready to hand solid reasons to reject what the elites cum intellectuals are presenting to the public via the media every day.

    But there is another dimension to the current ascendancy of “post-truth” which I wish to explore based on personal experience of working more than twenty-five years in international business:  that “post-truth” has for decades been enshrined in Anglo-Saxon business culture. Its unapologetic spill-over into politics today is a side-effect of the rise of a maverick business mogul to the apex of American politics and his bringing on board an entourage of fellow moguls as described in an article of the April 22, 2017 edition of The New York Times entitled “Trump Reaches Beyond West Wing for Counsel.”

    On the basis of all the Masters of Business Administration degrees that American institutions of higher learning have granted during the last 40 years when the degree became a prerequisite for successful corporate careers, one might assume that facts and figures drive our businesses.  Indeed, at middle management levels of multinational U.S. and U.K. companies, where I spent about two-thirds of my business career, that is very much the case. The strategic business planning cycle of marketing departments in a broad range of industries typically draws the basic narrative from outside fact-based reference materials like the Economist Intelligence Unit. Moreover, big corporate investment projects presented to senior management by middle managers in Power Point or its equivalent in sophistication today are preferably defended on the basis of hard historic numbers, not back of an envelope guesses.

    However, the one-third of my business career spent as an outside consultant to the Boards of Directors of twenty or more major corporations in a broad spectrum of industries ranging from fast moving consumer goods to food and beverages to parcel delivery and even to hi-tech, showed that something very different was going on. The top managers operate in a different value system, where highest appreciation is given not to facts but to “gut instincts,” particularly when the subject at hand is not routine business but high profile projects entailing new investment or business activity.

    In my experience as outside consultant time and again it emerged that the main purpose of such assignments was to serve as a support to top management for ideas they arrived at by gut instinct rather than fact. The challenge was to overcome resistance to their initiatives from petty-fogging, fact-wielding middle management by reference to greater expertise of the consultant, who might be allowed to argue with smoke and mirrors that would never pass if put up by employees

    If I had any doubts about my suspicions regarding the rating of intuition as opposed to facts in top management circles, they were dispelled by a psychological report I received back during my own vetting for a country manager position at the world’s biggest distiller back in 1998. The report’s preparer was a Ph.D. in psychology and surely had a clear eyed understanding of corporate culture.

    His lengthy analysis of my strengths and areas for development, as weakness are termed, boiled down to one sentence:

    “Gilbert tends to be rational rather than intuitive.”

    The positives – intellect, strategic grasp, tenacious worker, flexibility in ambiguous environments, experience and knowledge of local conditions – were fine, but the nagging drawback was intuition, otherwise called gut feeling.

    I got the job,  but my understanding of which levers worked in the company and which didn’t for decisions surrounding major new projects was changed forever. With intuition one cannot argue.  As the old Russian folk saying has it:  I am the boss and you are an idiot; you are the boss and I am an idiot.

    In big business, as I saw from the inside, very often blunders which occur due to intuition-based rather than fact-based decision making can be very expensive but are rarely ruinous.  Very large companies are usually able to recoup these losses from their routine, profitable operations, meaning from the paying public, using their market strength. They then tweak the new activities over time and bring them into profit.

    The open question is how this approach to management will work out as it is implemented at the level of the U.S. federal government, both by the Trump team on one side and by those who are trying to bring him down on the other.

     

     

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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    G. Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015