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Understanding Post-Truth Political Language|Swagat Baruah

Swagat Baruah

It is a well acknowledged fact that politicians are supposed to be professional liars, even better than actors, and that they must have a grand appetite for criticisms. Anything otherwise would ensure a political doom.

Amongst the absurdities of 2016, which were in surplus, the one that really stood out and will continue to stand out as a fascinating fact for the forthcoming generations, was Donald Trump being declared the winner of the 2016 US Elections, defeating an evenly less favoured but not equally disliked Hillary Clinton. The 2016 elections was marked by an emerging ‘post-truth’ politics, the word ‘post-truth’ also being declared the ‘word of the year 2016’ by Oxford Dictionary, an era marked by political debates based on rumours and hearsay, an increasingly dangerous reliance on social media for news and appealing to the disturbed emotions of the masses which can be argued, has been going on for many years in politics. Post-truth meaning a political era where public opinion is framed largely on emotional and personal appeal rather than on facts and objective reports and ‘policy truths.’ This is disturbing since it might go on to be the greatest 21st century political threat, like communist dialect was of the 20th century.  But unlike the communist dictators of the 20th Century, who placed heavy reliance on language as the primary means of deceit, going to the extent of using punctuations to further government propaganda, the post-truth era sees politicians departing from the heavy reliance on language, rather they deny language, they deny everything, and they seem to thrive in their tactics of denial. In the recent 12th January confirmation hearing of the incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he was asked various questions, his opinions on various affairs the United States is engaged with to which he had only one answer- “I’m afraid I don’t have enough information to comment on that issue.” He took it to a shameful limit which made him look like an accused who has been tutored to answer everything in negative to the prosecutor’s questions. He even tried to plead ignorance to the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, a fact which has, over the time, become a ‘Saudi Arabian feature’. If this is the ‘information’ he has on the state of affairs of an important ally like Saudi Arabia, can he be expected to have an understanding of the diplomatic affairs of his country? Or does he expect that his denial will result in an annihilation of all the problems that now infect the world?

George Orwell laid great stress on the proper use of language in politics by disengaging oneself from the use of all political dialect and technical jargons, in order to not deceive the people but to give them information on the issues. To summarise his essay on the use of political language and his thoughts on the same, I’d say that leaders should use words to reach people and not escape them. His classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ came as a strong criticism against the government’s use of language as propaganda, mainly attacking the Communist dialect. But the 20th Century Communist governments mainly exercised power by withholding and suppressing information. I primarily focus on the Communist governments because they ‘heavily’ relied on it unlike the American and other democratic governments who relied on mainly ‘anti-communist’ propaganda. The American government’s propaganda has been, till date, the most efficient because they finally managed to topple the Soviet Union and sell their so many senseless wars to their citizens. A propaganda can be said to be efficient only when the government has completely managed to convince the people without leaving even the smallest rooms of shadow, that an issue never really existed. Hence, language played a great role in the 20th Century affairs of a nation.

With the advent of the age of social media, misinformation has reached great heights plus at a greatly aggravated speed. In a recent study conducted by Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer, a majority of US adults(62%) in 2016 get news on social media and another 18% often rely on social media for news apart from other media. Considering this and keeping in mind the alarmingly exponential rise in fake news on social media (a fact currently in admittance by the Facebook CEO himself), the world stands constantly threatened by exposure to an abundance of fake news and misinformation. Assuming the above statistics to be true, a news with a clickbait headline saying “Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump” would be read by around 198 million Americans, in a country where 70.6% of people identify themselves as Christians. This would and did in fact lead to a massive impact in the minds of the people before the elections and, in a split of a second sway millions of Americans to support Trump, leading Americans to a highly probable political apocalypse.

The Post-Truth era leads us to question truth and not lies, to question facts and not interpretations, to question the apparent and not the concealed. The Post-Truth political language is spoken keeping in mind the Nietzschean maxim- “There are no truths, only interpretations.” Politics which leaves people constantly suspended between truth and falsehood, questioning the possibility of truth itself, denying the existence of truth only replace it with malicious falsehood. An era where one can murder with words and get away with it, where political discourse has shrunk to mere repudiations and mud-slinging debates, where emotions race high and the intellectual sits in the cafe, muddled in the disarray of information and his constant struggle to reach dissect an issue into truth and falsehood. Post-truth politics will see an all time low for ‘intellectuals’ but at the same time create a vacuum which can be filled and must be filled by them only, to invoke rationality, to command the deranging moral and sentimental servitude of the masses towards their governments. A leader in this age stands to gain the most out of everything by denying everything, that a problem doesn’t really exist, not that the problem might have been exaggerated or that there might exist counter arguments against it, but that a debate doesn’t even arise because they put the very issue’s existence into question. It is not a question of the existence of God, or the evolution of the human beings, or other metaphysical questions as such, it is denying trending topics and news, denying the existence of widely researched issues which currently threaten mankind. Although post-truth politicians don’t stress on making the political language sophisticated, (rather, they try to equate it with layman’s language) they do however stand to gain the most by appealing to the masses in the social media language. But hasn’t that been the point of Orwell? No jargons, no technicalities, no words which might mislead? Yes, and has Trump done exactly that? Yes, he has done more than just that. He has argued on the stage like a 10-year old kid reading out his essay on “If I were elected as the US President.” He used his limited knowledge on the state of affairs to appeal to the masses’ limited knowledge on the same, giving them trivial arguments, making lofty promises, and the masses were convinced in the end, that he is the one.

So we have departed from political correctness and  political and specifically Communist dialect which Orwell made a strong case against, we have made a swift departure and have arrived at an unexpected destination. A rather vague place with bland prospective, asking questionable questions- What is the Truth?

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