Complexities of a ‘Post-Truth’ Era

The mainstream U.S. media claims a monopoly on determining truth, despite a very spotty record of getting it right and a blindness to the reality that there are usually two sides to a story, as Gilbert Doctorow explains.

By Gilbert Doctorow

We’re told that we’re living in a post-truth (or post-factual) era, a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, a culture that eschews a foundation of solid facts. Indeed, it is said that in this post-truth time, facts have become “secondary” if not entirely irrelevant. But who gets stuck with this “post-truth” label – and it is typically used as an insult – is not so simple.

In 2016, “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year, due to its prevalence in the context of the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election, but it’s clearly true that “post-truth” is not entirely a new phenomenon. Political lies and fabrications are as old as time and in recent years have come from Democrats as well as Republicans.

However, this Word of the Year has developed a distinctly partisan and derogatory usage in the United States. It relates not just to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but specifically to the Republican nominee in that election 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 the word’s framers consider to be the embodiment of post-truth.

This is not to suggest that Trump’s character weakness for self-serving tall stories does not justify severe criticism. It was not for nothing that Rex Tillerson, in his prepared statement at the opening of his Senate confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State, chose to stress that truth was something he would always make a guiding principle in his State Department operations. From his training as an engineer, he promised that 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 dubious claims against Syria over an alleged but unproven chemical attack by the Assad forces in Idlib province. It was also curious that the mainstream U.S. media, which doesn’t trust a word coming out of Trump’s mouth or his Twitter finger, suddenly believed his every word justifying his retaliatory missile strike on Syria – and anyone who doubted Trump was banished to the post-truth woodshed.)

Also, for anyone observing the ongoing Democratic-led witch hunt in Washington over suspected collusion between Trump advisers and the Russians to throw the election his way, or otherwise to undermine U.S. democracy, it is patently clear that the concept of “post-truth” is fully descriptive of what is being practiced by Trump’s opponents, too.

We have smears, slurs, allegations unsupported by facts, and “fishing expeditions” to find something – anything – that fits previously prepared indictments and prepares the way for Trump’s possible impeachment, aided and abetted by the mainstream media which regards itself as the definer and defender of Truth. No factual counter-argument by the few experts and politicians daring to stand up to the mob on Capitol Hill counts for anything.

Complexities of Truth

But it would be a mistake to allow our understanding of “post–truth” to be limited strictly by the vagaries of partisan politics, or to blame it on the character defects of this or that public personality. In truth, truth can have many forms.

There is, for instance, scientific, scholarly or empirical truth based on properly established and observable facts, i.e., things that can be objectively measured. There is also religious truth, which is faith-based and which is still a major influence on American society. Artistic truth, to take another example, is highly personal and subjective; facts as building blocks play little or no role.

In the political/journalistic world, facts are important, but there can be varying interpretations of those facts, i.e., divergent narratives explaining how certain facts add up or don’t add up. While there can’t be “alternative facts” – a widely derided phrase offered up by one Trump defender – there can be “alternative narratives” or, in that sense, “alternative truths.” People can see the same facts and interpret them very differently based on their life experiences, or as editors used to tell young reporters, “there are always two sides to a story.”

Often, the concept of “post-truth” – as applied in the political/journalistic world these days – depends on which side of the divide you’re on regarding populist politics. The elites like to believe that they have a monopoly on “truth” because of their superior education or status. They resent the idea that non-elites believe they can understand reality as well as or even better than the elites.

Much of the battle over “post-truth” boils down to the elites’ anger over their monopoly on defining political/journalist truth being challenged. But the “truth” of these elites often contradicts the realities experienced by the non-elites, many of whom have developed a strong anti-intellectual current and are ready to reject what the elites are presenting to the public via the media every day.

Business ‘Truth’

But there is another dimension to the current ascendancy of “post-truth” – as it relates to Trump – that I have experienced in working more than 25 years in international business. “Post-truth” behavior has, for decades, been enshrined in Anglo-Saxon business culture. It has only now spilled over into politics because a maverick business mogul has unexpectedly risen to the apex of American politics. He also has brought with him an entourage of fellow moguls, as described in an April 22 article in The New York Timesentitled “Trump Reaches Beyond West Wing for Counsel.”

And, I’m not just talking about the pitchman’s tendency to present his product as always “beautiful” and “great.” There is a tension inside the business world between mid-level executives who justify their judgments based on facts and figures and senior executives who often rely on “gut instincts” but then want some expert to verify what they want to do.

I spent about two-thirds of my business career in that middle-management territory where the strategic business planning cycle of marketing departments typically draws its 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 are preferably defended on the basis of hard historic numbers, not back-of-the-envelope guesses.

But the one-third of my business career spent as an outside consultant to the Boards of Directors of 20 or more major corporations – 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 a less rigid set of judgments based on intuition and experience. That is particularly true when the subject 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 the supposedly 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 weaknesses 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 market strength. The companies then tweak the new activities over time and bring them into profit.

The open question now, in the chaotic first months of the Trump administration, is how this approach to “post-truth” management will work out for the U.S. federal government – for Trump and his team on one side and for those who are trying to bring him down on the other.

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