Let’s be honest, we all tell lies from time to time. For most of us they’re usually of the small, white variety, often employed to save ourselves from embarrassment or to avoid hurting another’s feelings. Used in appropriate moderation little lies oil the cogs of social interaction, reducing the potential for awkward situations or unwanted friction. Yet mistruths come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from those everyone tells to the gargantuan whoppers amplified by media platforms to a genuinely global audience. According to the Toronto Star, between his inauguration in January 2017 and May 2019, US President Donald Trump made 5276 false claims. However, they don’t call them lies explaining “we can’t be sure each and every one was intentional. In some cases, he may have been confused or ignorant. What we know, objectively, is that he was not telling the truth”. It’s surely scant reassurance that the most powerful man on Earth may be inadvertently dishonest due to his own stupidity. Whether he knows or not, how has human society reached the point where leaders such as Trump and Boris Johnson can lie with impunity, while much of the electorate simply shrug their shoulders and continue to support them?
Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith believed that inner virtue played a vital role in economic activity, and that social institutions such as family, school and church were essential to cultivating positive values. He also reasoned that such groups acted as a key moderator of undesirable behaviour by providing negative, dampening feedback to an errant individual. Central to the success of this cyclical mechanism was the individual’s desire for social approbation and the preservation of his or her good reputation. Around 150 years later French sociologist Emile Durkheim used the term ‘anomie’ to describe a society in which there are no shared values, norms of acceptable behaviour or agreed ethical standards to be upheld. In anomic societies individuals are free to do as they wish, while the absence of shared values leads to a breakdown of community bonds. The result is a rejection of self-regulating ethics, while ‘minding my own business’ becomes our overarching ethos. In 1982 social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling revealed their ‘broken windows’ theory which perfectly illustrates the effects of anomie. Picture an empty building with a few broken windows. If they are left unrepaired there’s a strong chance that more will soon be smashed and, if no remedial action is taken, the building may be eventually be broken into or set on fire. Alternatively, repairing the windows quickly signals that someone cares enough to do so, which actually reduces the likelihood of further vandalism. In the post-modern world we have become conditioned to keep ourselves to ourselves, to live and let live in the name of liberty. Yet this collective ambivalence has opened the door to a post-truth world where moral pluralism and ultimately anomie reign.
The evidence strongly suggests that moral standards being enforced via negative feedback actually encourages self-control and social harmony, yet our reluctance to interfere has effectively invited every charlatan and snake-oil salesman out there, onto the centre stage of civic society. If we don’t care that our leaders consistently tell lies, and we accept that there will be no sanctions for such behaviour, is it any wonder that the example they set seeps much more widely? If we also allow a false equivalence to be claimed between genuinely expert assessment, on matters such as climate change, with subjective novice opinion, we automatically undermine our ability to ascertain the truth. The recent ruling by the UK Supreme Court that the Conservative cabinet acted illegally in proroguing Parliament was met with the response that, while Johnson et al ‘respected’ the Supreme Court, they thought their judgement was wrong. Yet if the rule of law is to have any meaning in a liberal democracy the unanimous verdict of its most pre-eminent judiciary in the highest court in the land is, by definition, right.
Our underlying anomie often manifests as fear. Without shared values we easily fragment into tribes, taking a competitive approach rather than collaborating or co-operating. In the absence of social cohesion as our collective goal, aligning around the truth becomes a lost objective, replaced instead by a desire for group superiority over the ‘other’. Winning the argument becomes all that matters, not whether we’re actually right or wrong. Alternatively our anomie may manifest as individual apathy. Disillusioned by the tone of discourse and excused from active participation by our ‘laissez-faire’ outlook, we simply opt out, unwilling to put our heads ‘above for parapet’, either because it’s too much effort or from fear of causing offence and being ‘shot’ by a rival tribe. When truth becomes a casualty of war, society has broken down to such an extent that vultures, vandals and vagabonds will invariably appear, only too ready to pick the bones of the vulnerable and the gullible.
So how do we know who to trust in a post-truth world? Although we must respect and trust the rule of law, we shouldn’t place too much faith in it to protect us. Those who are minded to do so will invariably find ways to subvert justice. While ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is an essential tenet to uphold, the damage may already be done by the time it is applied. It therefore remains the case that by far our best cognitive tool for spotting charlatans is evidence-based reasoning. Truth, and any notion of a society built upon it, suffers when we lose this essential ability and there is much evidence that it is rapidly atrophying like an unused muscle. Yet, its core principles remain very simple. Pay far less attention to what someone promises to do in the future, focus on what they have done in the past. Leopards rarely change their spots. Don’t simply accept their proclaimed values, look for evidence of past behaviour which has been consistent, over time, with such proclamations. Seek testimony from others with personal experience of the individual across a range of sources, situations and timelines. Integrate both quantitative and qualitative data, using logic and reason to draw your conclusions but without ignoring the valuable insight provided by intuition.
Yes, evidence-based reasoning is much harder work than simply assuming positive intent or accepting what you’ve been told at face value. It requires time and genuine cognitive effort. However, in our post-truth world it’s the only way to protect what’s precious to us.