Take this new word, post-truth, for example. The word was selected by Oxford Dictionaries as 2016's international word of the year because the word soared in usage during the US presidential campaign. The staff of Oxford University Press and Oxford Dictionaries takes its task very seriously, monitoring the use of language to describe what is happening in our world. The Oxford Dictionary actually does us a great favor of naming things that might slip by unnoticed, and it has defined post-truth as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."
Kathleen Higgins, writing in the November issue of Nature, offers a more "earthy" definition of post-truth.
Post-truth refers to blantant lies being routine across society,
and it means that politicians can lie without condemnation.
This is different from the cliche that all politicians lie and make
promises they have no intention of keeping -- this still expects
honesty to be the default position. In a post-truth world, this
eplanation no longer holds.
In other words, one may say anything, make any claim, with no regard for its truthfulness or the impact it may have upon others. Stephen Colbert, by the way, claims to have named this absurd, immoral disregard for the sanctity of truth way back on October 17, 2005, when (acting in his comedic role as conservative commentator on political events) he used the word "truthiness," defined as "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true." Books are not to be trusted, he insists. The head must not be the deciding authority on whether something is the truth or not; rather it is one's gut because, he claims, there are more nerve endings in the gut than in the brain. (Not true, of course!) Therefore, if he feels in his gut that the Panama Canal was completed and opened in 1947, rather than 1914, then the truth must be what his gut tells him, 1947.
And so it goes. This episode by Colbert is one of his funniest, most profound, and disturbingly most prophetic. No wonder he feels he has a legitimate beef with Oxford Dictionaries. His "truthiness" was "post-truth" before post-truth jammed the media's stories during the presidential campaign.
Colbert's satirical spoof on "truthiness" helps us to laugh at this very bizarre tear in the fabric of citizenship, the shredding of mutual trust in our fellow human being's dependability. This is the bedrock of early childhood development. In order for the child to feel safe in her world, she must experience it within her body and her mind. There are patterns, rituals, promises, clear expectations, understanding about how things work and do not work. All of these in consistent behavior and speech help the child's brain learn to modulate tensions, to trust in love, and to bring into harmonic resonance the head and the heart. When this does not occur, the child, the family, and society are made vulnerable, to the point of personal and/or social catastrophe.
In his very thoughtful, moving interview of Carl Jung in 1959, only 2 years before Jung's death, John Freeman moved the conversation to consider tensions in the world between individuals, groups, and nations. Nuclear war was strongly on the mind of most thoughtful people; a mis-step, a miscalculation, a misunderstanding within oneself or between persons could lead to nuclear annihilation. Jung spoke to the tension of that moment with this often-quoted assessment of our situation: "The world hangs on a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man. ... What if something goes wrong with the psyche?"
Today the threat of nuclear war remains ever-present, even if not as central in public opinion, but the concern of which Jung spoke remains, "What happens to civilization if the human psyche itself becomes imperiled?" I realize this is a strange idea, that the human psyche might become imperiled -- sick, fragmented, irrational. The idea, however, may not be as unfamiliar to us as first thought. Consider what happened to China's people during Mao's "cultural revolution" or to the desperate German people who supported the "Third Reich," or our own people here in the deep south who found lynchings to be daytime entertainment, unlike the night-time raids that often led to the mutilation and castration of human bodies.
What happens to the human psyche in events such as these? One way to describe it may be thought of as a fragmentation between thinking-feeling-body-behavior. In other words, the unity of the human personality falls apart, making impossible the coherence of a moral center. During times of stress, especially, the "center" fails. Perhaps it is because of illness, financial desperation, hunger, abuse, but also because the human ego has been supplied misinformation while not being nurtured to experience its spiritual, humane core, or educated to solve complex problerms, or exposed to cultural and religious differences.
When I was 12 years old,, I looked forward to summer camp up in the mountains, away from the heat and humidity in the eastern part of our state. The camp's staff helped parents to coordinate transportation, leading to three of us boys riding together with a very wealthy donor to the camp. I will call him "Harry." He owned a mega-farm and dipped his hand into the agribusiness of the region, operating smoothly in the political, business community with what I might now recognize as an air of entitlement.
Harry's son, "Mike," also twelve years old, sat up in the front passenger seat. The conversation began easily enough, talking about things fathers and sons might talk about, plans after the camp, where we would be going to school next year, what we do for fun, etc. And then the idle chatter took a very strange and dark turn.
Harry glanced at the three of us in the back seat, looked over at Mike beside him, and smiling, said "Son, tell 'em what you did last week. Yeah, it was something. Mike killed himself a "ni-gra." The "ni-gra" slipped under the big back tire of the tractor Mike was driving. Killed him right off!"
I don't remember anything else. It seems the images of objects outside the back window swirled into a kaleidescope of blurring colors while some background voices made non-sensical noises. I believe I felt nauseated, awkward at not knowing what to say or do, claustrophobic with my entrapment in this tomb of death speeding down the highway. Maybe I pretended to sleep, or maybe I dissociated and "left" the vehicle. Somehow we arrived at the camp and no one ever mentioned the conversation again.
My "free-floating" sensations could be called a post-truth moment. Nothing made sense, and it did not seem to matter -- the violence, the death, the absence of any expression of empathy, the casual reference to the event as if it were some form of entertainment, no attention to the tragic cause of the "accident," no mention of what happened to the body and whether or not there were family members. As far as I know, given my state of mind, none of this was talked about -- only what seems to have been ongoing light-hearted banter in which words mean nothing. Lingering still, however, is the frightening memory of what it felt like to be suspended in a meaningless universe with no markers.
The world hangs on a thin thread,
and that thread is the psyche of man. ...
What happens if something goes wrong
with the psyche? -- Carl Jung