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Scepticism & Power

Stuart Sim
Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power
Stuart Sim

Scepticism & Power
Stuart Sim
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

ISBN 978-3-030-15875-0 ISBN 978-3-030-15876-7  (eBook)

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My thanks go to Ben Hayes for all his help and advice in developing the
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the writing process, as she has done so consistently down the years.


1 Introduction: Truth Will Out? 1

2 The Post-Truth Landscape 11

3 The Pre-History of Post-Truth 41

4 Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief 63

5 Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism 79

6 Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard Versus

Jacques Derrida 97

7 ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth 125

8 A Post-Liberal Society? 139

9 Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth 155

Index 171
Introduction: Truth Will Out?

Truth: it seems such a deceptively straightforward word and concept.

It is about facts, what actually happened, what can be proved to have
happened: no problem there, most of us would think. Facts and events
can be interpreted in different ways and reported on in different ways
(as they most definitely are by spin-doctors of all political parties, for
example), and the minute we move into the process of interpretation
then some complications inevitably do arise, a point I will be returning
to frequently over the course of this book. But that we are dealing with
facts and real events when it comes to truth is not at issue, it is simply
taken for granted: even spin-doctors have to work within those parame-
ters, as they strive to direct our attention to the aspect they have decided
shows their party and its policies in the best possible light. You may see
them differently to me, they mean something very different to each of
us, yet we agree that they actually occurred, that they describe states of
affairs in the world that can be checked on. Truth is something that can
be established, and that we expect to be present in our dealings with
others; when it is not, then we find it dismaying, as if a social contract
has been broken. Then why is it that post-truth has come to play such
an important role in contemporary public life? In particular, why has it

© The Author(s) 2019 1

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

become such a widely used approach within the political world, where
the accusation of ‘fake news‘ to discredit opponents is increasingly being
heard? Surely to go beyond truth is to enter the realm of lies, and rea-
soned argument ought to be enough to overcome such a desperate, one
could even say insulting, tactic? Sadly, that does not appear to be the
case any more, and a post-truth culture has developed around us in a
very sinister way that is fast threatening to become the norm. No doubt
each generation has its own particular spectre haunting it, as Karl Marx
argued the mid-nineteenth century did with communism, but post-
truth is turning into ours, and we are struggling to work out just what it
demands of us in response.1 Guaranteeing that ‘truth will out’ is becom-
ing a trickier exercise day by day, a seemingly endless game of hide and
seek, where no sooner is one post-truth being addressed with a view to
dispelling it than another pops up to pull one’s attention away. That is
not supposed to be the way that public discourse operates.
Post-truth is the backdrop against which politics is now being con-
ducted, and that creates a large-scale problem for Western liberal
democracy, given that belief system’s emphasis on reason as the key to
improving the human condition. Reason, however, is not where post-
truth’s interest lies: persuasion by whatever linguistic means necessary
is its goal, and it has to be conceded that it has become very effective
at this technique. Too effective, in that it is beginning to dictate the
terms of political debate in various arenas, and for liberal-minded indi-
viduals like myself that is a regressive step for our culture to have taken.
It certainly does not seem to be the way to improve society and our
collective quality of life; rather its effect is to promote division and ran-
cour amongst us, generating a toxic atmosphere in the public realm,
in which even quite basic respect for other viewpoints is beginning
to seem like a thing of the past. In such a climate political extremism
tends to thrive, and that is never a good state for a democratic system to
find itself becoming stuck in. We have been there before and we know
how badly that can unfold: the days of fascism and communism, of
world war and cold war, are not that long ago. It is worrying to note
that the far right of the political spectrum is asserting itself in a way
that the West has not seen since those totalitarian theories were in
the ascendant, and post-truth has become integral to its methods, a
1  Introduction: Truth Will Out?    

strategy designed to mislead and confuse its opponents. Post-truth has

to be recognised as an ideological movement, therefore, one that is out
to dominate the public realm by undermining the accepted character
of political discourse. It is a process that goes way beyond mere spin-
doctoring: this is a take-over bid.
Liberal democracy certainly has its faults, and it must always be con-
sidered a work in progress, open to change and the introduction of
new ideas to improve its performance; but the alternative that is being
offered by post-truth is a direct challenge to all liberal democracy’s good
points. It could only lead to an authoritarian, even dictatorial, society
that goes severely against the grain of the West’s Enlightenment inher-
itance, bringing into play some of the most questionable aspects of
human nature. Working to ensure that ‘truth will out’, in some accept-
able form, is a serious business with critical implications for our society;
as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have warned us, democracies can
‘die’, and the post-truth movement definitely sets up that dire possibil-
ity: ‘Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do
things that are unprecedented in the United States – but that we recog-
nize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places’.2
Other commentators, such as David Runciman, have begun to explore
this issue, expressing the same kind of fears about the pressures building
up within the Western democratic system.3
Liberal democracy is a fairly broad church, and there are aspects of
it I would not want to defend too far. I lean towards the social demo-
cratic form of it (and the more socialist the better), where the state plays
an important role in keeping capitalist economics in rein, with a robust
welfare system in place to protect society’s weaker members, rather than
the market-driven, libertarian inclined model that has been largely
dominant in the West for the last few decades. When liberal democracy
is used over the course of my argument, it is not to be taken as implying
uncritical support for every form it could take; but even in the types I
do not care for, such as the current libertarian one, there is usually at
least a residual commitment to Enlightenment values to be noted that is
signally missing in post-truth circles. There should be no place for post-
truth within any type of liberal democracy, so liberal democracy can be
read here as shorthand for anti- post-truth. The adversary is quite clear,
S. Sim

and Levitsky and Ziblatt sound a salutary warning as to what this sit-
uation requires of us: ‘Our generation, which grew up taking democ-
racy for granted, now faces a different task: We must prevent it from
dying from within’.4 For another recent study, that means we have to be
careful not to allow ourselves to be dragged down ‘the road to unfree-
dom’ by the demagogic forces that are beginning to assert themselves so
insistently all around us.5
Situating oneself as within, but critical of, the liberal democratic tra-
dition does bring up the issue of post-liberalism, which has been attract-
ing quite a bit of interest of late. Various commentators have suggested
that is where we are now heading ideologically in the West, claiming
that liberalism’s flaws have weakened it to such an extent, that it can no
longer be relied on to provide the social or political stability we have
come to expect of it as a political project.6 There is much debate over
how the term should be interpreted, which depends to a large extent
on where one puts the emphasis—on the ‘post-’, or on ‘liberalism’?
Post-liberalism could be used to describe either an anti- post-truth or a
post-truth position, and I will be returning to the problems it poses at
various points throughout the book.

Scepticism, Relativism and Truth

Truth is currently under concerted attack, therefore, and with a very
specific political agenda lying behind the process. Those of us who still
believe in the power of reason, and want to promote it as much as possi-
ble in the public sphere, clearly have a considerable problem with post-
truth and the ideas and attitudes it is insinuating into our culture. Just
to complicate matters, however, we have to ask ourselves if perhaps we
have a problem with truth itself too, in which case the issue becomes
far murkier than it first appears. From the beginnings of Western phi-
losophy truth has been a subject of much debate amongst practitioners,
particularly the issue of what criteria could guarantee the truth of any
proposition. The concept of truth had to be based on something itself
known to be true beyond all possible doubt in order to provide that
guarantee. Some philosophers in classical Greece began to claim that
1  Introduction: Truth Will Out?    

no such criteria would ever be found, that instead we were trapped in

an infinite regress: whatever it was that guaranteed the concept of truth
had to be guaranteed by something else in its turn. It was a process that
could never end, meaning that at best there were only degrees of truth,
or perhaps just beliefs of a greater or lesser degree of usefulness. How to
determine what that degree was each time around constituted a vexing
problem. This was the position of classical scepticism, and it has con-
tinued to be a powerful argument right through to the present day, one
that cannot easily be dismissed as mere philosophical game playing. As
one of the leading scholars in the field has put it, classical scepticism
still poses some of the subject’s ‘most cunning puzzles and most obdu-
rate problems’.7 Truth, in other words, was to be treated as a relative
rather than an absolute concept—with all the difficulties that brought
in its train.
Many contemporary philosophers have adopted that stance of rela-
tivism, arguing that language is too imprecise to guarantee the truth of
anything we say; therefore ‘truth will out’ by no means applies across
the philosophical spectrum either. That is the claim of followers of
deconstruction and the work of the French poststructuralist Jacques
Derrida, for whom meaning was to be considered in a constant state of
flux, altering subtly from statement to statement over time—and from
participant to participant in the process of discourse. As Derrida put it,
meaning never attained ‘full presence’.8 ‘Such is the strange “being” of
the sign [the combination of the signifier and signified; that is, of word
and concept]: half of it always “not there” and the other half always “not
that”’, as one of Derrida’s translators, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, puts
it.9 What you thought your statement meant, and what your listener
thought it did, could be very different indeed, therefore, and so on
down the chain of communication. Truth under such a dispensation is
a variable quality, never anything fixed, or at all fixable; it keeps shifting
around, regardless of our intentions, and it can never reach the state of
being beyond all possible doubt. We may well want to be truthful in
our utterances, but language will undermine us every time around: that,
for deconstructionists, is just the way discourse works, and we have no
choice but to accommodate ourselves to that. The implications of such a
position for politics and ideology are quite alarming, in that apparently
S. Sim

we can never aspire to absolute truth in our value judgements in those

areas. Certainty of knowledge would seem to be an unattainable desire,
a mere chimera.
Take this line of argument to its logical conclusion, and no value
judgement can have any greater claim to validity than any other: we
simply have no way of deciding between them logically. If all truths are
relative, then how do we know which is the best one to pick? Does that
notion of ‘best’ even mean anything in such a context? Or if usefulness
is to be the criterion, then useful for whom, and why? It could just as
easily be useful for the evil-minded as the good. There are, as the post-
modern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, amongst others, has pointed
out, ways round this impasse such that we have at least some ability to
discriminate between the usefulness, or otherwise, of value judgements.
Lyotard being a relativist himself these are mostly pragmatic in form,
but sufficiently robust nevertheless to merit support, and I will be ana-
lysing them as they appear in works of his such as Just Gaming in due
course.10 Value judgements, after all, will still demand to be made, scep-
ticism notwithstanding; they are unavoidable in social life, the stuff
of daily existence where we are constantly having to choose between
courses of action, weighing up the likely consequences of doing so in
each case. For the relativist, however, they can never be defined as any-
thing other than ad hoc, and that is not likely to be enough to satisfy
the majority of the public (including much of the philosophical profes-
sion, too, it should be noted), who believe truth to be a more stable
phenomenon than that. The alternative would have to be that we are all
making it up as we go along, which to most people is a disturbing state
of affairs, turning discourse into something more akin to anarchy. Who,
or what, can you trust under those circumstances? Under a post-truth
regime that is becoming increasingly complicated to determine as well.
Scepticism, and its contemporary variants, remains an irritating pres-
ence in the debate over the nature of truth, in that it is extremely dif-
ficult to disprove its arguments conclusively. Truth really is, as sceptics
keep insisting, a far more problematical concept than we tend to assume
it is. Scepticism is very persuasive on that point, although it is an essen-
tially negative form of philosophical critique. What scepticism cannot
do is tell you how to make value judgements with any great sense of
1  Introduction: Truth Will Out?    

confidence, which is probably what most of us wish to know when con-

fronted by a moral dilemma, only what prevents you from doing so or
renders any decision you do happen to make open to question. For the
sceptic, there is never any ultimate guarantee to resolve the process. This
would appear to play into the hands of the post-truthers, and in cer-
tain respects it does; yet various distinctions have to be made between
their position and that of scepticism, and that will be a key concern over
the course of my argument. Even if we accept that everyone interprets
information in a different way, according to their own personal interests
and concerns, how can you interpret a ‘truth’ that was invented? More
to the point, why should you ever be required to do so? ‘Fake news’ is
now a flourishing industry on the internet (which of course makes it
a very attractive prospect to advertisers, whose contributions will keep
sites up and running as long as readers are accumulating), and it is by
no means clear as yet what the best way to respond to it would be. Can
prejudice ever deliver reliable value judgements when it comes to criti-
cal political issues? Or when it comes to complex issues of ethics? There
is a philosophical problem with the concept of truth, with what it is
and what we want it to be, but whether post-truth fits anywhere on the
spectrum between absolutism and relativism is a far more contentious
matter. Is it just a type of truth, or a far more devious entity than that?
There is much to discuss, therefore, and much ground to be cleared,
before we can address how post-truth can be countered; how it can be
exposed for the very serious problem that it is rapidly developing into.
It feels as if something fundamental has changed in the public realm,
and changed for the worse. For that reason truth needs defending, and
that is to be the aim for the rest of this book. There is far too much at
stake to allow post-truth to dominate the political stage and dictate the
character of debate: ‘truth will out’ only if this take-over bid is shown
up for the very significant danger it poses to democratic ideals and the
liberal way of life (again, taking that notion in a broad sense). It is our
very own spectre, and it has to be confronted and exorcised, the sooner
the better. Wherever you place yourself on the liberal democratic spec-
trum at the very least you know what you are opposed to, what you do
not want to happen politically, and where you do not want society to
go. That is what I intend to explore.
S. Sim

1. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the
Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this
spectre’; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
[1848], ed. Frederic L. Bender, New York and London: W. W. Norton,
1988, p. 54.
2. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History
Reveals About Our Future, New York: Viking, 2018, p. 1.
3. See David Runciman, How Democracy Ends, London: Profile, 2018. See
also Yascha Mounk, The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in
Danger & How to Save It, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
4. Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, p. 231.
5. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,
London: Bodley Head, 2018.
6. See, for example, John Gray, Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political
Thought, New York and London: Routledge, 1993.
7. Jonathan Barnes, The Toils of Scepticism, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1990, p. ix.
8. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference [1967], trans. Alan Bass,
Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978, p. 279.
9. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Introduction to Jacques Derrida, Of
Grammatology [1967], trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore,
MD and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, p. xvii.
10. Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming [1979],
trans. Wlad Godzich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Barnes, Jonathan, The Toils of Scepticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1990.
Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference [1967], trans. Alan Bass, Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1978.
Gray, John, Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought, New York and
London: Routledge, 1993.
1  Introduction: Truth Will Out?    

Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History
Reveals About Our Future, New York: Viking, 2018.
Lyotard, Jean-François, and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming [1979], trans.
Wlad Godzich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [1848], ed.
Frederic L. Bender, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1988.
Mounk, Yascha, The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger &
How to Save It, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Runciman, David, How Democracy Ends, London: Profile, 2018.
Snyder, Timothy, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, London:
Bodley Head, 2018.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, Introduction to Jacques Derrida, Of
Grammatology [1967], trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, MD
and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
The Post-Truth Landscape

Post-truth has turned into a critically important factor in ­contemporary

life, therefore, and it gives every impression that it will remain so for the
foreseeable future. It furthers the aims of the unscrupulous, and these
types are much in evidence in the political arena at present, becoming
ever more skilled at manipulating the public through the multitude of
media formats now available to them, and constructing a formidable
power base in the process. Post-truth has never been so well served on
the communications front as it is now, where messages can be instantly
transmitted and received by a vast audience, all of whom are then able
to pass them on to their own social network thus even further extend-
ing their reach. There is a market and it is expanding rapidly, drawing
more and more disaffected individuals into it as both producers and
consumers of a steady diet of post-truth, fake news, and just sheer prej-
udice. The rumour mill has always been a factor of our social existence,
but it never before featured the efficiency of its online version: post-
truth plus speed makes for a powerful adversary. Just to compound
the problem, a recent study published in Science magazine, using data
provided by Twitter, reported that fake news travelled around the net
much faster than real news did, being retweeted far more by receivers.1

© The Author(s) 2019 11

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

As one of the article’s authors put it: ‘False news is more novel, and peo-
ple are more likely to share novel information’.2 Truth-value does not
seem to come into the equation when novelty enters the scene, as the
unscrupulous will be delighted to hear: the result being what one com-
mentator has referred to as self-perpetuating ‘networks of ignorance’.3
Critical thought is being swamped by this phenomenon at present, and
is largely being discounted by the disaffected anyway, since they are
innately suspicious of intellectuals and what they represent, preferring
to go with gut feeling instead. The latter is part of human nature, and
all of us respond to it, and act upon its promptings, at many points in
our life (sometimes wisely, sometimes not). Whether it is acceptable for
it to play a dominant role in the political process is a far more conten-
tious matter, however, that demands some very serious thought.
The situation we now find ourselves in has been neatly summed up
by Angela Nagle, who has bemoaned the fact that, ‘we see online the
emergence of a new kind of anti-establishment sensibility expressing
itself in the kind of DIY culture of memes and user-generated con-
tent that cyberutopian true believers have evangelized about for many
years but had not imagined taking on this particular political form’.4
The implication is that it is the darker side of human nature that is
rapidly coming to dominate on the net, and that the net is peculiarly
adapted to this development. Yet another instance where technology has
had unexpected consequences that make a mockery of its early ideals,
which invariably concentrate on the positive effects it will bring while
ignoring the possibility of any negative occurring as well (‘technochau-
vinism’, as this has been dubbed5). Given our collective dependence on
the net, that is a very troubling trend to have to report. In that ‘DIY
culture’, where expert or specialist opinion is treated as irrelevant, post-
truth and fake news have become the common currency, and it poses
a massive problem for anyone still possessing what is now probably to
be described as an old-fashioned Enlightenment-style liberal sensibility,
with its expectation that certain conventions of respect and trust will be
adhered to in public discourse. How do you respond to opponents who
are manifestly, and quite deliberately, not playing fair? And who have no
intention of ever doing so either? That is very much a twenty-first cen-
tury dilemma, as is whether this is what being post-liberal has to mean.
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

If it is, then it is a very bleak future that awaits us: perhaps technopessi-
mism is the attitude we should be adopting.
But post-truth also has a pre-history, running back through vari-
ous forms of what has been called ‘denialism’, where events and phe-
nomena (such as the Holocaust or climate change), are rejected out of
hand, usually for cynical political or ideological reasons. Just to con-
fuse the issue further, as noted previously, philosophical sceptics have
long denied that we can ever establish the final truth of anything any-
way, arguing that truth is relative—and can only be relative, such is its
nature. I will be outlining some of the various forms that post-truth has
taken historically, with the aim of constructing a defence of truth that
can be used against the post-truth community—even if we still have to
acknowledge the power of arguments from scepticism, which always
hangs around on the philosophical periphery with its nagging puzzles
and problems. Ensuring that truth will out is no straightforward pro-
cess, and there are many pitfalls in the way. We need to understand
how post-truth works, and its insidious role in human relations, so I
will open the account with a survey of what the landscape of post-truth
currently looks like, before going on to consider its historical record and
the many forms it has taken. As will become apparent, the post-truth
landscape is varied and a very considerable presence in our lives—far
more so than we are probably aware, or would want to admit. There is a
host of deeply angry sub-cultures out there that we have no choice but
to engage with eventually; that is, if we want truth to be given its due.

Being Post-Truthful
Post-truth means establishing a worldview then refusing to back down
from it, or accept any evidence that questions its rightness. Once
adopted, positions will be rigidly adhered to, oblivious to any objec-
tions that are raised. It sets out quite deliberately to appeal to prejudice
and to reinforce this however it can, being extremely cavalier with facts.
Cavalier right down to the level of inventing them if that is felt to be
useful to the line of argument being pursued—as it so often proves to
be in terms of capturing attention (the novelty effect in action again).
S. Sim

That is what being post-truthful can sanction, and it is, to say the least,
frustrating to be on the receiving end of such bad faith on the part of
our fellow citizens. Ultimately, post-truth is about exerting power and
control over others, and closing off debate—to the point of silencing
the opposition altogether if that is at all possible. It works on your emo-
tions, not your reason; indeed it is expressly designed to bypass your
reasoning faculty, hence its appeal to the unscrupulous, who are out
to arouse deep-seated prejudices that spring more from our emotions
than our rational thought-processes. Gut feeling is what is wanted, and
that means post-truth can very easily create something of a mob men-
tality, featuring the ‘new kind of anti-establishment sensibility’ rightly
identified by Nagle as one of the most dangerous phenomena to emerge
in recent times. It is a sensibility that is depressingly prone to making
death threats in its desire to shut down opposition. Even if these remain
at the status of threats only (and it is to be sincerely hoped they do) it
demonstrates the level of anger and anti-democratic sentiment that is
there to be conscripted under the banner of post-truth, as well as the
extent of the change for the worse that has taken place in public life
of late. Death threats push political disagreement past any acceptable
democratic standard, and represent a particularly disturbing comment
on our culture. You have to wonder why anyone would think they ever
could be an acceptable tactic in expressing an opinion on others’ views.
People generally shy away from making such threats in public situations
(it would be a conversation-killer if nothing else), but when it comes to
quite a few of our fellow citizens, the net’s sheer impersonality seems to
strip away their inhibitions about acting in that way. And once posted,
such messages can embolden others to follow suit. Lives of quiet desper-
ation are a thing of the past now that anyone can go online, and intim-
idate others through indulging their darkest fantasies: ‘kill all normies’
becoming the rallying cry, as Nagle reports.6
Although there has always been an element of the post-truth
approach present in political life (politicians have long been notorious
for saying whatever it takes to be elected, and saying it with all appar-
ent sincerity as well), it has undeniably moved up a gear of late. Two
words alone would be enough to demonstrate why this state of affairs
has come upon us: Donald Trump. The contemporary post-truth
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

mindset can be summed up by quoting the right-wing American politi-

cal commentator Ann Coulter’s dismissive response, in an interview, to
criticism of Donald Trump’s systematic falsehoods and evasions during
the presidential election campaign: ‘No. One. Cares’.7 And therein lies
the problem. Post-truth enthusiasts, such as Trump supporters of the
Coulter stamp, simply are not interested in listening to viewpoints other
than their own, or investigating whether they may actually be true or
not. They will ignore what the mainstream media are saying if it does
not align with their own version of events. You are either with us, and
vociferously so, or you are against us in this militantly uncompromising
group: the mob mentality prevails here, and quite unapologetically so.
Coulter’s recent book, In Trump We Trust, indicates just how uncompro-
mising: ‘Trump is the first hope Americans have had in a very long time
that it may not be over yet. Perhaps the country isn’t finished’.8
Coulter is convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot to undermine
the American way of life by introducing liberalising policies (affirma-
tive action, gay marriage, Obamacare, etc.) that will overturn traditional
values. To her, the solution is quite straightforward: put your trust in
Trump, and the conspiracy can be arrested immediately, banishing the
nation’s supposed enemies from public life and guaranteeing its future.
This will not be our last encounter with the dark world of conspiracy
theory either; for the far right it is an all-purpose explanation, and they
never tire of using it, to the despair of their opponents, who are on a
hiding to nothing trying to disprove the wild conjectures put forward as
facts. Liberal democracy from the far right’s perspective is just one long
series of conspiracies directed against them, and they are not about to
let us forget that either. As far as they are concerned, they are victims; a
particularly vivid contemporary illustration of what has been called ‘the
paranoid style’ in American political life.9
Debate is not really on the agenda for those of Coulter’s turn of
mind: they know what they want to believe, and they will believe that,
and only that, come what may, acknowledging only what reinforces
it and basically blanking out everything else. If Trump says it, then
it becomes true, and there is no need to check out what the opposi-
tion is saying. In an ironic twist, it is the latter’s word that cannot be
trusted, not the post-truther’s; everyone else’s opinion can be dismissed
S. Sim

out of hand. Whoever disagrees with Trump’s reading of events merely

prove themselves to be elitist, out of touch with the average American;
to the point where even their patriotism can be questioned (another
standard post-truth tactic that is notoriously difficult to defend oneself
against). It is the outlook of the confirmed fundamentalist, immune to
counter-argument, and reason plays precious little part in it. Just how
radical a change this attitude is bringing about in public life is only
starting to become apparent (Trump press conferences have become
more and more detached from any recognisable reality, coming across as
more like performance art than anything else), as is the problem of how
to oppose such an unwelcome development. Unwelcome if you are of a
liberal outlook, that is, and concerned at the health of democracy. The
Trump administration’s approach to politics points towards a post-lib-
eral future that could benefit only the far right, for whom all opposition
is to be despised. Opposition can only mean there is a conspiracy in
operation, because there is one, and only one, way to see the world.
Post-truth politics was a significant, and deeply dismaying, factor
in the UK’s Brexit debate, as well as the US presidential campaign of
2016. Post-truthers such as Trump and the Leave campaign leaders in
Brexit, presented a vision of events to their supporters that flew in the
face of the actual evidence, but that allowed them to attack their oppo-
nents and make a string of wild accusations about them. It may just
be rhetoric, and a great deal of it is pure fiction, but it works with a
certain constituency, so it will continue to be used. (The relationship
between fictional and post-truth narrative is an issue that we shall have
to deal with eventually, because politics is very much a narrative-based
field. Let us just say for the time being that some political narratives
require more suspension of disbelief than others.) Trump is now the
elected US President, after all, representing a dramatic victory for the
post-truth model of politics, plus a very considerable encouragement to
like-minded others to follow in his footsteps and bluff and bully their
way into positions of power as he has done so successfully. The support-
ers of post-truthers stubbornly refuse to believe the real evidence, even
when they are confronted by it. Any such material can be dismissed
with a brisk assertion that it is ‘fake news’, or a claim that ‘alternative
facts’ are available to explain the phenomenon in question: post-truthers
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

are nothing if not ingenious in finding ways to recast the terms of

debate to suit themselves. Alternative interpretations are always possible,
but the notion of a realm of alternative facts barely makes any sense.
(Fuzzy logic posits that facts can be either ‘partially’ true or ‘partially’
false, but the notion of a partially true alternative fact takes us into
metaphysical realms that are far better avoided.10) Nevertheless, one
right-wing paper in the UK ran a headline after the Leave campaign’s
victory, that stated that the stock market had risen in the aftermath of
the Brexit vote when in actuality it had fallen sharply at that point, as
the Remain campaign had warned would be highly likely to happen. It
was a brazen example of fake news, and the incidence of this is becom-
ing more and more evident as a tactic in political debate, particularly
on the part of the so-called ‘alt-right’ in America, which is notorious for
its white supremacist stance (complete with nasty overtones of fascism,
quite deliberately evoked and increasingly publicly displayed in protests
and demonstrations). We can see power politics at play in such cases: if
it helps your cause, then do not worry about the ethics, results are all
that count. Respect for your opponent is to be dismissed as an outdated
notion, as is respect for experts and specialists. Churn out enough novel
information and it will drown out the objections of the latter cohorts, as
it speeds its way around the net picking up followers as it goes.
Post-truth enthusiasts are more than willing to resort to cynicism to
manipulate debates their own way, and that move is felt to be entirely
justifiable if it gains the necessary media coverage and puts opponents
on the defensive—as it almost invariably manages to do. Claiming they
were misquoted has become a favourite ploy of the post-truth camp, as
is the closely allied claim that their remarks have been taken out of con-
text. But even when such claims are shown to have no foundation at all,
by then their version of events is out in the public domain and already
shaping opinion and thus influencing debate on the issue spoken about,
leaving their opponents one step behind. Fake news is just a means to
an end as far as this group is concerned, all that matters is the effect
your narrative has; if it succeeds in suspending disbelief amongst a sub-
stantial number of the public, then it is a case of job done. Apart from
anything else, this is a conspicuously anti-democratic attitude to adopt
in a society like ours.
S. Sim

Post-truth involves a great deal of denial, therefore, and there is a

long history of denialism in our culture—the Holocaust being a noto-
rious case, as in the works of the discredited British historian David
Irving, which continue to find a readership despite the open disdain
in which he is held by the rest of his profession.11 The Holocaust may
be the most glaring example, but there are various atrocities that go
back well beyond it that have received similar treatment. Turkey is still
denying the massacre of Armenians during the First World War (the
‘Armenian Genocide’ as it has come to be known, involving 1.5 mil-
lion deaths), for instance, and it is taken as an article of truth amongst
its ruling class that nothing on that scale ever occurred: even to men-
tion it in Turkey is to incur the wrath of the authorities. It is a classic
case of the silencing tactics of post-truth politics in action: just refuse to
admit that there is anything at all to be discussed, and make it seem as
if the other side could only be motivated by malice in suggesting other-
wise. Once again, the premise is that there is only one way of seeing the
Power politics is quite blatant in its deployment of post-truth, and
the danger is that this could turn political life into an exercise of who
can lie, or deny, most persuasively. While it would be naive to pretend
this has never been the situation before, one would have thought that
we had learned something from the mistakes of the past and that public
officials were being made steadily more accountable: that is supposed to
be the way that liberal democracies develop, what the system actively
encourages and the public has come to expect. Yet here we are observing
the post-truth lobby play havoc with such assumptions, in what to them
is a cynically strategic game of lie, deny, invent, silence. Unfortunately
for those of us outside that circle, they have become very good at this.
Being post-truthful also relies heavily on exaggeration to win over its
audience. Thus Trump’s insistence that his inauguration had the larg-
est audience ever recorded for this event (a claim disputed by the main-
stream media, but to little avail, predictably enough), or that his policies
in office will be the greatest, the most significant ever known in all of
American history. He is all but a caricature of the European notion of
the American character in this regard. Everything about him has to
be the biggest and the best, and communicated in a grandstandingly
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

boastful fashion that grates with anyone outside his loyal constitu-
ency: he is, in his own words, a genius. It is a technique that cheerlead-
ers like Coulter are only too willing to deploy in their turn. In Trump
We Trust pictures America as having been on the brink of anarchy and
moral bankruptcy before Trump arrived on the scene, well on the way
to becoming a ‘pathetic, third-rate, also-ran, multicultural mess’, having
formerly been ‘the greatest nation in history’.12 The book is one long
rant on this theme, of a supposed golden age that has been trashed by
devious liberals. Democrat politicians (and voters too) are portrayed as
more or less enemies of the state, with only the genius of Trump stand-
ing between them and a collapse into utter chaos. It is partisan poli-
tics at its most partisan. The most worrying point is that millions and
millions of Americans appear to have embraced this narrative of alter-
native facts enthusiastically, turning Trump-trust into a highly potent
political weapon in the process. Martyn Percy has made the interest-
ing suggestion that Trump’s political success has led to ‘a market-driven
approach to truth’ in American life.13 Basically, from that perspective
truth is what works; that is, whatever sells your point of view to the
public most effectively, and beats off all competitors. It is truth reduced
to persuasion.
Politics has always had its dirty side, but Coulter pushes it farther
than most. Exaggeration is piled on exaggeration: President Obama, for
example, becoming ‘a feckless incumbent who wrecked health care and
whose foreign policies had resulted in Islamic lunatics murdering the
American ambassador in Benghazi less than two months before the elec-
tion’.14 Post-truthers are not the only ones to exaggerate, pretty well any
of us is capable of doing so on occasion. This is all too likely to occur
in our conversation with others, for example, when it is very easy to get
carried away by our own rhetoric in the heat of the moment and make
rash statements; but we will usually own up to having gone too far in
that direction if it is pointed out to us dispassionately enough—and
we have calmed down a bit afterwards. The possibility of there being
any dialogue with commentators like Coulter, however, is just wishful
thinking. Such individuals are not even pretending to listen to what
others have to say, or in giving their views the benefit of the doubt;
express a contrary opinion to theirs and the shutters come down fast.
S. Sim

This is culture war, and it is to be conducted at the level of insult, with

post-truth following post-truth in rapid succession to bewilder oppo-
nents; when it comes to debate, Coulter and company never do calm
down. Yet it does work, depressing though it is to have to concede this,
and Coulter has a large following in the USA. She is obviously saying
what many of her fellow citizens are keen to hear, as the readers’ reviews
on In Trump We Trust ’s Amazon page, containing a string of glowing
five-star assessments, would indicate. Unless of course these are invented
too; anything being possible when dealing with an established post-
truther. Sometimes disbelief is the very best form of defence against
such an adversary.
The Trump Presidency has proved to be a particularly fertile source
of post-truth, generating it almost every time it criticises a mainstream
media report as fake news—which it has been doing with monotonous
frequency. The alternative version of events that is offered by Trump and
his staff in response itself qualifies as fake news, which has the effect of
creating considerable confusion amongst the general public. You can
begin to wonder after a while if there is anything out there but fake
news, and that is a desperate condition to find yourself in, one that
erodes your sense of trust in others, leaving you feeling very isolated.
It is difficult at present not to draw extensively on the Trump adminis-
tration when discussing post-truth, because it encapsulates everything
that we have to fear from the phenomenon. It is a symbol of what has
been going wrong, however, rather than the source of the problem itself.
We need to dig more deeply into the pre-history of post-truth to deter-
mine how it has grown into the widely practiced black art that it has
become for such figures as Trump and his team, and why it exerts such
an appeal on them as a political strategy. Why, as much as anything,
they feel they can get away with it, to the extent of even claiming the
moral high ground over their critics, who are being treated as if they
were all liars. One has to wonder about the apparent lack of conscience
in any of this, and the notion of public officials, particularly high-
profile ones, without any sense of conscience at all is really scary. At that
point demagoguery surely beckons.
Trump will be referred to at various points throughout this study,
although it is important not to become overly fixated on his post-truth
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

activities: he did not create the landscape we are exploring, he is merely

exploiting it. He is to be treated as the current face of a much older
phenomenon that is deeply entrenched in our culture, and he needs to
be situated and analysed within that wider context. The more we are
aware of post-truth’s pre-history, then the better equipped we shall be
to identify it in the process of developing, and thus to prevent the situ-
ation from becoming even worse than it currently is. Trump is unlikely
to be the last politician to base his career on post-truth; his circle alone
contains many others who are as well versed in that method, and the sit-
uation will require constant monitoring. There is a culture of post-truth
that produces individuals like that (President Ann Coulter anyone?),
and it is by no means dependent on the actions of any one figure in
the political world. The post-Trump version of post-truth, one dreads to
say, may turn out to be even worse than the current article. That alone
should be enough to inspire a spirited defence of truth.

‘Not Quite This’, ‘Not Quite That’: Defining Post-

While we can see the effect that post-truth is having in the politi-
cal realm, pinning down exactly what it means as a concept is a more
problematical task. It is too easy to define it as outright lying, because
it often has an element of truth buried somewhere within it to lend
it a superficial credibility. Critically too, it does provide a plausible
narrative of events that bears some resemblance to everyday reality
(so does fiction, but we will address that issue later). Post-truth very
often sounds true, and many of the public respond to it on that basis,
especially if the person delivering it is someone in a position of power
and influence, who in the general run of things will be given the bene-
fit of the doubt in his or her pronouncements (although that may well
be in need of review as a policy). It spills over too into the realm of
interpretation, where it is a matter of different perspectives being put
forward and clashing with each other. Ideological differences can play
their part here, with opponents analysing data according to their respec-
tive belief systems, and reaching mutually exclusive conclusions. This is
S. Sim

what Jean-François Lyotard has called the ‘differend’, where neither side
can accept the other’s rules of engagement and thus reach any kind of
acceptable compromise.15 Disagreements like this can be defended if we
are dealing with real events, which always invite differing interpretations
as to what they mean in a larger context, but not invented ones, which
can only distort any debate that ensues. Interpretation and lying are
incompatible activities—a very obvious point which should not really
need stating, but we are going through strange times.
Post-truth appeals strongly to conspiracy theorists, but again, such
theories can have elements of truth in them, even if these are combined
together in a highly speculative manner that can stretch credibility
more than a bit. A conspiracy to someone like Ann Coulter is a wel-
come liberalisation of public life to others. Not all of us are left seething
by affirmative action legislation, gay marriage, or government-backed
health plans; for many of us such things are the mark of a civilised
society properly attentive to its citizens’ needs, and thus deserve to be
supported to the hilt. Then too, it is worth remembering that much of
what happens in the world cannot be unproblematically categorised as
truth or non-truth, as is the case with opinion, which may or may not
turn out to conform precisely to the facts. Yet we continue to express
opinions on a regular basis in our conversations with others; although,
as opposed to the post-truth crowd, we may well alter or even reject
these altogether after hearing a range of other opinions stated and com-
paring them to our own. Debate can sometimes lead us to change our
minds, and that is a healthy state of affairs, one that democracy vitally
needs in order to function properly. In fact, it would be difficult to
imagine a democracy where people did not reflect on their beliefs in
that way, and on a regular basis. Post-truth, however, sets out to prevent
such reflection from happening with its supporters, insisting that they
just continue to trust what the Trump camp (and its equivalents else-
where) says instead. Debate is off the agenda for such dogmatic believ-
ers. Post-truth has a very shadowy identity, therefore, shuffling along a
spectrum between truth and lies: rather like the deconstructive concep-
tion of the sign, ‘half of it always “not there” and the other half always
“not that”’, post-truth can be described as ‘not quite this’ and ‘not quite
that’, a conundrum for commentators to decipher.
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

We live in an era which seems to like attaching the prefix ‘post-’

to a range of phenomena; thus we have post-modernism, post-
structuralism, post-feminism, etc. (even ‘post-post-’ in many such
cases, as in post-postmodernism16). Post-truth is a very different
kind of beast, however, and of an altogether more insidious nature.
Truth is not simply a style or a fashion, as both modernism and
structuralism, for example, were. It is not something that can be
discarded in favour of a new method of interpretation, but a basic
requirement of human discourse, without which we would be unable
to trust anyone’s word. To go beyond it would be to undermine the
very notion of social existence, which depends heavily on the ability
to have trust in others, to take what they say at face value; so there is
a great deal at stake in identifying just what is going on in post-truth
politics—and why.
Given that the main proponents of post-truth in the West at the
moment are on the far right politically, we should regard it as a move-
ment that has a specific ideological aim, and is prepared to deploy
whatever is necessary, including a deeply cynical use of lies, half-truths,
and conspiracy theories, to achieve its aims of controlling public dis-
course. It requires a considerable stretch of the imagination, for exam-
ple, to claim that President Obama ‘wrecked’ the American healthcare
system. He changed it, yes, and in a way that many who are against
state intervention do not like, but ‘wrecked’? Or that he can be held
directly responsible for outrages perpetrated by radical Islamists (behind
which lies the well-circulated post-truth that he actually is Islamic, so
assumed to be sympathetic to terrorism from that quarter). How the left
and middle ground of politics should respond to the challenge such rab-
ble-rousing discourse poses, where they are constantly being misled by
disinformation, is an interesting topic for speculation, especially since
the far left is not exactly innocent on this score either; it has a shameful
history of using the same kind of tactics when it suited it. Soviet com-
munism, to give the most obvious example, was particularly adept at
the practice of post-truth: a topic which I will be dealing with at greater
length in Chapter 3. It is the far right, however, that now demands our
S. Sim

Alt-Right, Alt-Facts
The alt-right has become a prominent player on the American polit-
ical scene of late, expertly tapping into a vein of racial prejudice that
is never very far under the surface of American life, sad though that is
to observe, and it makes extensive use of fake news to spread its white
supremacist-biased views. White supremacism is on the rise in both the
USA and Europe, and there is clearly a sizeable readership on the look-
out for alt-right material and its battery of alt-facts. The fake news story
has become increasingly part of the post-truthers’ armoury, and there
is now what amounts to an industry dedicated to the manufacture and
dissemination of fake news. In his study of the alt-right phenomenon,
David Neiwert speaks of ‘the rivulets of hate mongering and disinfor-
mation-fueled propaganda flowing out of right-wing media for at least
a decade’ now, and how this has built up a loyal, and substantial, audi-
ence. Radio ‘shock jocks’ and Fox News have been in the forefront of
this assault on liberal values, as their continuing popularity (and noto-
riety) attests.17 You can begin to think that just about anything goes in
this market, as long as it can make trouble for your opponents; truth
is almost incidental to the exercise. Aside from shock jocks and Fox,
there are also many online news sites around and not all of them can
be trusted to be dealing in facts either. Breitbart News has become par-
ticularly notorious, although it is by no means the only source of such
material, and the cumulative effect on the public realm of the many alt-
right sites to be found in the USA should never be underestimated. One
instructive example that brings this point home very forcefully is the
infamous ‘Pizzagate’ episode.
In the closing stages of the 2016 presidential campaign several right-
wing news sites specialising in fake news started spreading a story,
picked up from Twitter, that a paedophile ring involving Hilary Clinton
supporters was being run out of a pizza parlour (Comet Ping Pong)
in Washington, DC: Pizzagate, as it came to be known. The reports
claimed that hacked emails by Clinton officials contained code words
that signalled paedophile activities were being conducted there: ‘cheese
pizza’, of course, stood for ‘child pornography’. The story continued to
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

circulate until it led to an enraged individual entering Comet Ping Pong

and firing several shots from a gun, in his misguided attempt to exact
justice on the alleged perpetrators. The business’s owner and staff were
also harassed and subjected to hate mail for months afterwards for their
supposed complicity in the operation. Pizzagate was a complete fabri-
cation, but since it appeared in an online website it was believed in by
many readers, and there is always a danger of that happening. The mere
fact of publication, whether in traditional or online form, lends a cer-
tain air of authenticity to even the most outrageously unlikely material,
and unpleasant consequences can easily ensue. What if someone had
been killed in this incident, as was an altogether possible outcome?
Nor is it the only time this practice of fabrication for political gain
has occurred: Clinton and the Democrat Party were the targets of a
series of such stories throughout the presidential campaign, and the
entire Brexit episode in British life featured its share of, at best, dubi-
ously verifiable news reports. One such widely-circulated report was
that Turkey was on the verge of EU membership, which would lead
to the UK being swamped by hordes of migrants from that country
attracted by the higher standard of living, when nothing like that was
remotely on the horizon (and still is not). Social media plays a part in
that it picks up on such stories and they go viral, rapidly taking on the
status of fact for readers in the market for the kind of prejudices on dis-
play. And prejudice positively flourishes on the internet, where it can
spread like wildfire: the ‘novel information’ pattern.
It is important to analyse carefully what counts as fake news, because
the term is being used in an increasingly loose fashion by the post-truth,
alt-right, movement. President Trump has been engaged in a running
attack on the mainstream media for printing what he calls fake news
about his news conferences and speeches, but which turns out on inves-
tigation to be merely interpretations of those events that he does not
like (and he does not like anything that presents him in an unflattering
light or questions his judgement, no matter how superficially, as comes
through strongly in Michael Wolff ’s book Fire and Fury 18). It is criti-
cal, therefore, to distinguish between interpretation (of something that
actually happened), and invention (of something that never did). The
former is acceptable, whether you agree with the interpretation itself
S. Sim

or not: at least it can be debated and the differing interpretations com-

pared—in which case opinions might conceivably change. The latter,
however, is pure fantasy, and admits of no rational debate whatsoever.
The Trump government has made claims about non-existent massacres
(Bowling Green, Kentucky), and terrorist outrages (in Sweden), and
these require much more forceful put-downs. They do not justify any
debate taking place at all. Unless evidence—other than hearsay, which
post-truthers are only too willing to believe, suspension of disbelief in
full-ahead mode—can be produced, then fake news must be denounced
for what it really is, outright disinformation created specifically to mis-
lead the unwary. It is contemptuous of all ethical norms.
Ironically enough, the post-truth system can sometimes catch even
Trump out, as when he launched a typically threatening tirade against
Iran on the basis of what was found later to be a false news report about
a missile launch there: the biter bitten, in this instance. What is always
particularly worrying in such instances, however, is that retaliation
could well have resulted for an event which had never actually taken
place, with consequences far worse than a few wild gunshots in a pizza
parlour. A fake missile might have been answered by a real one: novelty
rapidly turning into tragedy. Fake news will always carry that risk: it is
no mere harmless game, and whoever plays it has to bear that responsi-
bility. It could even count as incitement in such instances—especially
when the ‘paranoid style’ is so much in evidence on the political scene.
Post-truthers regularly deny the findings of climate change science,
claiming that is made up of fake news too. Climate change has been
dismissed as a global conspiracy (started by the Chinese government,
according to President Trump, in yet another outrageous and unverifi-
able claim, with the aim of hampering American industry), and thus to
be ignored. Evidence for this conspiracy is at best sketchy, particularly
for the Chinese connection, although denialists often cite contradictory
interpretations of the scientific data by other scientific organisations,
which would seem to be enough to keep discussion going. In the vast
majority of instances, however, these other organisations turn out to be
funded by the oil industry, which expects to be told either that global
warming is a fallacy, or that fossil fuels are not the cause of it. This
means that fake news (or at the very least, a questionable interpretation
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

of data designed to fit a pre-arranged conclusion) is being manufactured

about a phenomenon that could have devastating consequences for the
human race—and all just to protect corporate profits, which depend on
the continued intensive use of fossil fuel products.
The evidence for climate change being man-made is building up
quite relentlessly, however, hence the coining of the phrase the ‘anthro-
pocene’ to describe the current phase in our planet’s history, when it is
deemed to be human activity that is dictating how the environment is
developing. Neither is this development to our collective advantage, as
we watch average global temperatures rising year by year, polar icecap
coverage dwindling in size, and sea levels creeping upwards in vulnera-
ble low-lying archipelagos around the world (some of which are already
in the process of being abandoned by the local population). To claim
that this evidence is down to a conspiracy on the part of the majority
of the scientific profession, as climate change sceptics so frequently do,
barely stands up to any scrutiny. Scientists can get things wrong, and
some lines of scientific enquiry can prove to be dead ends, but to accuse
them of deliberately misleading the public is an unjustified attack on
the profession’s ethics. They project scenarios on the basis of the data
they collect (average global temperatures, etc.), and while the effects
they predict can be queried (and the scientists themselves would fully
accept that), the data cannot simply be ignored. Nor that the process
was conducted in good faith—at least where there is no fossil fuel
industry funding involved anyway. There is room for debate on this
issue, since data is always open to interpretation (especially about such
a complex interlocking system as the Earth), but denialism hardly quali-
fies as debate: no evidence will make it alter its opinion.

Alternative Medicine: Yet More Alt-Facts

Alternative medicine is another area which can be accused of making
use of post-truth techniques, offering scientifically dubious treatments
to a clientele who are, for a variety of reasons, susceptible to the post-
truth approach to health matters. The claims made for the vast major-
ity of the products sold under the heading of alternative medicine are
S. Sim

decidedly spurious, rarely standing up to any properly rigorous testing

regime (as is consistently the case with homeopathy), but the offer of
‘miracle’ cures is always able to draw in a certain amount of custom-
ers, prepared to suspend their disbelief on those grounds. Homeopathy
has a dedicated following. It could well be that the makers of alternative
medicine really do believe in the efficacy of what they are marketing, or
it could be, as I have suggested elsewhere, that they are driven instead
by pure greed to take advantage of gullible consumers, putting profits
before ethics.19 Alternative medicine is a big industry internationally,
and it does make a profit. The medical profession recognises that post-
truth poses a problem for it too, with one practitioner complaining in
the British Medical Journal about the impact of ‘antivaccine campaign-
ers, and the power of Hollywood stars whose unlikely nostrums on diet
and health are taken seriously by millions’.20
Scientific terminology is often deployed by the alternative medi-
cine industry in order to give their products an air of respectability,
taking advantage of the generally high prestige which science enjoys
in our society (climate change deniers notwithstanding). They cannot
realistically claim to be scientific in the absence of any professionally
sanctioned verification, however, in which case it does not seem unrea-
sonable to regard this as yet another example of the post-truth mentality
in action—and in notably cynical fashion. Just as in the political arena,
alternative medicine’s audience wants to believe what it is being told,
the alternative facts it is being offered, and is not prone to go in for too
much in the way of fact checking; that is the nature of the post-truth
landscape, where advocacy is consistently standing in for proof, and
being accepted that way by its target audience. Assert it with enough
conviction and you are almost bound to find someone willing to believe
whatever it is that you are claiming. Taking advantage of that trait is,
however, a far more serious matter, whether it is done for profit or
power. The burden of guilt for the effects of post-truth has to be borne
by its producers, who can hardly be unaware of their lack of credibility
amongst the scientific profession. This may only generate yet another
response of ‘No. One. Cares’ from this group, but the rest of us just
have to keep working our way through these and giving an example by
showing that we do.
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

Truth, Post-Truth and Advertising

As alternative medicine indicates, advertising is an important part of the
post-truth landscape, and one that is exploited to the full. It is an activ-
ity which reaches all of us in some way or other; it is there throughout
the media, making it all but impossible to avoid, or to ignore—just try
doing so if you are a regular net user, when you are being bombarded
from all sides every time you log in. The point of most advertising is to
play on our emotions, which it does quite shamelessly, and that regu-
larly brings post-truth into play. You will find claims being made about
products which often verge on the fantastical: that they will radically,
and instantly, change your life, make you conspicuously more attractive,
a significantly more successful person all round. All such assertions are
designed to elicit an emotional response in us, telling us what we would
like to hear: that we could indeed have a more exciting life, become
more attractive or more successful, and all with no great effort on our
part. Just buy whatever the product in question is, and it will happen—
almost as of right. You are worth it, etc., etc.
The ubiquity of advertising in our culture means that we are being
exposed to post-truth to an extent that can wear down our defences
against it. We have come to expect a certain amount of that in our daily
lives, which plays right into the hands of the post-truth industry in
politics. Advertising could be said to indoctrinate us into the ways of
post-truth, making it seem a natural part of the world. False claims in
advertising are all too common, almost to the point where we expect
them to occur, which can have the effect of significantly lowering our
threshold to the use of the technique elsewhere. Although false claims in
advertising can be referred to public regulatory bodies such as the UK’s
Advertising Standards Authority, resulting in occasional fines being
meted out to guilty parties, that does not stop the practice. Advertisers
continue to test out just how far they can go before being charged (cre-
ative use of statistics being a particular specialty), and in reality few of
them will ever be brought to book over this. Most of the time the pub-
lic, and the authorities, turn a blind eye to what goes on in the indus-
try, and it will only be in particularly blatant cases that action will be
S. Sim

taken. The industry is willing to take that risk, and it seems unlikely
that it will not go on playing post-truth games with the public in this
fashion, since they appear to have the desired effect as a rule; the pur-
suit of profit has at best a rather tenuous relationship to truth, and we
are complicit with this to a certain extent. Advertising cannot totally be
trusted, therefore, and we know this, but it is allowed to get away with
it most of the time. For most of us, life is too short to engage in endless
fact checking of advertising claims, and the advertisers know they can
depend on this.

The Politics of Againstness

Breitbart News, especially under the direction of Steve Bannon, an
adviser to Trump during his campaign and then early months as
President, provides a prime example of the fake news industry and its
political goals. Bannon has become known as a leading exponent of
what has been dubbed ‘the politics of againstness’, dedicated to achiev-
ing a ‘positive polarisation’ of the American political scene for conserv-
atives to exploit. The ‘politics of againstness’ was how a report by the
National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) defined the
developing situation in 1970; while ‘positive polarisation’ was a phrase
coined by an adviser to Richard Nixon, when the latter decided to fol-
low that route to build up his support base, the so-called ‘silent major-
ity’, in opposition to radical social trends occurring during the time
of his presidency.21 What both concepts signalled was a calculated
move into culture wars, where there was to be a sharp division engi-
neered between political opponents, as well as in the country at large,
that would then be deliberately pursued for partisan political advan-
tage. There was to be no middle ground: you were to be pushed into
one camp or the other. The NCEC, a liberally-oriented organisation
founded in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt to help political candidates
with progressive social policies attain elected office, was decrying this
development and the negative effect it was having on American life;
but others like Breitbart have bought into it with unabashed enthusi-
asm, utilising fake news stories to further the polarisation as much as it
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

possibly can, thus fuelling the country’s culture wars. There is no ques-
tion that under Trump’s presidency those wars have become far more
intense and ill-tempered. It is no longer a silent majority out there, not
with a wealth of social media permanently available to make their many
grievances known the second they come to mind—as well as a chorus
of death threats designed to scare off their opponents for good measure.
This intensification certainly wins the approval of the alt-right move-
ment, for whom the more againstness there is at work in American soci-
ety then the better. Mike Wendling has described the alt-right as ‘held
together by what they oppose: feminism, Islam, the Black Lives Matter
movement, political correctness, a fuzzy idea they call “globalism” and
establishment politics of both the left and right’.22 For this group, there
is no middle ground at all in ideological matters; politics is a bitter con-
test in which your opponents are to be remorselessly ground down by
whatever tactics prove to be necessary. It is a game of winners and losers,
and losers are to be despised. The point is to destroy all opposition to
your beliefs and policies, ruling out any idea of compromise with what
you take to be the enemy within; not exactly in the spirit of democracy,
where compromise is the basis of most political negotiation. Indeed, it
is difficult to envisage a democracy where compromise did not play a
vital role. The ideal for the alt-right, however, is for the other side to
be silenced altogether, with ‘hate mongering and disinformation-fueled
propaganda’ well to the fore in the process. Post-truth veers naturally
towards totalitarianism: opposition is little better than treason from this
viewpoint (Brexit unleashed similar reactions from the right-wing media
in the UK, with accusations of betrayal becoming quite common, and
ever more hysterical in tone).
The world according to Breitbart is a very disturbing place to con-
template, where the future of Western civilisation is pictured as
being under severe threat from sinister forces both within and with-
out. Conspiracy is once more the watchword, and from the Breitbart
perspective it is working tirelessly all around us. Under those cir-
cumstances, the more extreme your language and claims the better:
post-truth and fake news need no more justification than that. The
post-truth of Breitbart is aided and abetted by the claims of ISIS to be
responsible for every act that is labelled terrorist. In some cases there
S. Sim

is proof to back this up, but much of the time the individual, or indi-
viduals, carrying out the attack appears to have acted independently of
any outside control: at best ISIS has been an influence on, rather than
a direct controller of, such events. Every such action around the world
can be claimed by ISIS, however, without there having to be any defi-
nite evidence to back it up. In classic post-truth style they have become
ever more cavalier with such claims, working on the time-honoured
principle of whatever serves your cause use it, and let others fret about
the implications. The fact that ISIS does make such claims can then
be seized on by organisations like Breitbart as proof that their line of
argument is entirely correct, and that the Western way of life faces a
dire existential threat from Islam. Post-truth has created its own little
self-contained world in such cases, where fake news is chasing fake news
in order to score ideological points, with both sides feeling vindicated
by whatever the other does. Both sides have a vested interest in claiming
there is a coordinated campaign of terrorist attacks being carried out.
Unfortunately, the effect of all this is to raise tensions worldwide, and
entrench each side even further into its own beliefs: they are all being
told exactly what they want to hear. Differends do not get much more
explicit than that—nor as vigorously engineered for ideological effect.
Bannon has extensive experience in the polarisation field, having
made several provocative documentaries before becoming involved with
Trump’s political career. These have been described by the film critic
John Patterson, as ‘a rightwing version of Michael Moore’, although
as he pointedly goes on to remark, without the ‘essential decency’
of Moore’s work to temper the angry polemic.23 Given that Moore is
such a detested figure on the alt-right, one can imagine just how much
credibility that judgement would have with Bannon and his support-
ers. The documentaries have attacked fairly obvious targets for the alt-
right, such as Hilary Clinton, the Occupy movement, and that hardy
perennial of conservative politicians worldwide, the 1960s (the gift that
keeps on giving for this constituency), as well as delivering sympathetic
portraits of right-wing political icons such as Ronald Reagan and Sarah
Palin. It is not the point of view involved in such work that is at issue,
right and left are both valid positions on the political spectrum after all
(even social democrats have to concede that, although I agree that they
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

might not do so all that willingly), but whether it invents what it needs
to put across its message. When that happens then we enter the domain
of post-truth.
There are various other sites specialising in fake news that can vie
with Breitbart in the notoriety stakes, such as This
site came into the mainstream news with the death in September 2017
of one of its primary contributors, Paul Horner, who had claimed a
large amount of the credit for Donald Trump being elected, through a
series of stories he had posted on the site during the presidential cam-
paign (that President Obama was gay and a radical Muslim, for exam-
ple, just to add a little spice to the ongoing birther controversy). Horner
defined himself as a political satirist, but at points like this it can feel
as if one if entering a hall of mirrors, wondering if anything you see,
or read, is real. If one can trust what Horner said, and that is always
going to be difficult in cases of this nature, then his satire has backfired,
having been read as if it were real and not the exercise in irony that he
claimed it was intended to be (he even stated in an interview after the
election that ‘I hate Trump’, which was a bit late for such a declara-
tion24). The line between satire and malicious mischief is not necessarily
all that precise, however, and if nothing else Horner makes us aware of
the risks involved in plugging into the fake news network in any way.
If there is an audience out there all too ready to take at face value any-
thing and everything that fits their prejudices, then satire in such a con-
text becomes a highly dangerous game to play. The culture wars are bad
enough without interventions like these, which simply raise the para-
noia level on the right.
It is the existence of ready-made platforms for such as Horner to uti-
lise that makes post-truth so potent a technique in current society. In
the past, post-truth was much more restricted in terms of its audience
and dissemination, but now its power and reach has expanded enor-
mously, and it is available to anyone who wants to stir up controversy
through airing their prejudices—with the added attraction of remain-
ing anonymous. More than anything, the alt-right is, as Mike Wendling
emphasises, ‘a creature of the internet’.25 The issue of whether what you
read is real keeps cropping up, with the case of Jenna Abrams constitut-
ing a particularly salutary tale. Abrams’ Twitter contributions, defiantly
S. Sim

alt-right and white supremacist in tone, gained a substantial following

over a period of years, to the point where her views were being reported
on in the mainstream media (including the BBC and the New York
Times ) as representative of a growing constituency in American life dur-
ing the period of Trump’s presidential campaign. Abrams was consid-
ered real by those media, and hers was taken to be an authentic voice
of an America that felt left behind by rapid cultural change, and was
now determined to reassert itself by rejecting establishment politicians
and policies. This was exactly what the Trump campaign was depend-
ing upon from the electorate in order to boost its credibility as an anti-
establishment movement. Investigations in 2017, however, revealed that
‘Jenna Abrams’ was actually an invention by a St. Petersburg-based troll-
ing organisation called the Internet Research Agency. (Russia does seem
to keep cropping up regularly in such situations, although the predict-
able claim back is that they are the victim of a conspiracy against them
to sully their reputation on the international stage.) How many other
inventions like Abrams are out there in the social media it would be
difficult to say; although it is alarming to note that, to date, millions of
fake accounts have been traced back to the Internet Research Agency,
which employs hundreds of staff: trolling on an industrial scale, with a
budget to match.
The Abrams’ case illustrates the extent of the problem that we face
with post-truth. We really do have to be on our guard all the time when
even the mainstream media are being taken in. The question of trust in
a post-truth age looms larger and larger.

Sport, Cheating and Post-Truth

It is worth speculating on whether cheating could be brought under
the heading of post-truth, since it has a distinct tendency to promote
a response of defiant denialism in those accused of it, who will stick to
their alternative narrative through thick and thin. One area of contem-
porary life in which this has become particularly problematical has been
that of international athletics, with events such as the Olympics being
tarnished by a series of revelations about systematic doping schemes,
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

such as that run with the apparent collusion of the Russian government.
The evidence pointing to extensive use of doping, intended to improve
athletes’ performances at several Olympics and World Championship
events over the past few years, is now fairly damning; and it has led to
some sanctions being imposed. Yet it continues to be met with blan-
ket denials, or evasions, by those in official positions, who are quick to
claim that it is false—good old fake news coming to the rescue yet again
(Vladimir Putin is as fond of the tactic as Donald Trump is). A standard
response to the charge is to claim a conspiracy by either the media or
aggrieved competitors; aggrieved because they were beaten by Russian
athletes at major athletics meetings—bad losers, in effect. Although the
Russians are by no means the only ones under suspicion of sharp prac-
tice in this area, just the most organised to date; this is very much an
unfolding story, likely to rumble on for years yet, given what is at stake
The results of the various events, the medals awarded etc., constitute
a form of post-truth. The evidence strongly indicates that the rules of
competition were broken, and broken knowingly, which should have
invalidated the results; but in most cases they stand—at the very least
for several years, until the evidence cannot realistically be denied any
more, as when confessions materialise from those most closely involved
in the doping process. Unfortunately, such confessions are fairly rare,
and the Russian government is still failing to admit complicity in the
doping system used to circumvent the testing regime used before the
2016 Olympics, which ingeniously featured suspect urine samples dis-
appearing (under cover of darkness in closed testing centres) and being
replaced by clean ones, thus clearing doped athletes for competition
after the samples had been relabelled. Alternative samples neatly sup-
plied the alternative facts that the situation required.
Cheating when it is caught out, and then repeatedly denied in favour
of an alternative narrative set up to further your own devious schemes,
does look very much like post-truth in unashamed action, and the ath-
letics world is in a state of considerable confusion over how to deal with
it—or how to prevent every Olympic Games or World Championship
event that comes along turning into a subject of suspicion as the results
appear. Meanwhile, public trust is being eroded ever further, and as the
S. Sim

cycling world has found, this can be extremely hard to win back. Titles
won in this area almost immediately arouse suspicion, given that doping
has been so rampant in the sport for years, with many of its star com-
petitors later revealed to have been serial offenders.

Fake news is also a key tactic in propaganda, and it was used extensively
in recent history by both fascist and communist regimes (critics would
define what the alt-right in America has been churning out over the last
few years as basically propaganda, too). The Soviet Union provides a
very revealing example of just how effective post-truth can be, as it was
a society sustained internally by a steady diet of fake news and post-
truth political practices for seventy-odd years; the Communist Party
proved to be expert at this method of running a state. Perhaps the dop-
ing allegations should be viewed as a legacy of that period, evidence of
habits that have been hard to shake off, even with communism removed
from the scene. North Koreans are being fed with a similar diet to the
present day, kept in the dark by the regime there about what is going
on in the rest of the world, or how they are viewed by other nations.
When post-truth is backed up by totalitarian political power, then it can
become a very formidable opponent, a very real threat to the democratic
ideal. Post-truth can, therefore, have very substantial geopolitical conse-
quences, which I will now go on to consider.

1. Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral, ‘The Spread of True and
False News Online’, Science, 359, Issue 6380 (9 March 2018), pp.
2. Sinan Aral, quoted in Zoe Kleinman, ‘“Fake News Travels Faster”,
Study Finds’, BBC News (9 March 2018),
nology-43344256 (accessed 14 March 2018).
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

3. See Daniel DeNicola, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of

What We Don’t Know, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017, p. 6.
4. Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and
Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Alresford: Zero, 2017, pp. 2–3.
5. The term used by software developer Meredith Broussard to describe
‘the assumption that technology is always the solution’; as she goes on
to point out ‘[i]n reality, it’s more nuanced’ (quoted in ‘Computer Says
No’, New Humanist (Summer 2018), pp. 16–7 (p. 16)).
6. Nagle, Kill All Normies.
7. ‘Q & A: Ann Coulter’, The Observer, New Review Section (2 October
2016), p. 4.
8. Ann Coulter, In Trump We Trust: How He Outsmarted the Politicians,
the Elites and the Media, New York: Sentinel, 2016, p. 2.
9. See Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And
Other Essays [1965], London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.
10. See Bart Kosko, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, New
York: Flamingo, 1993, p. 88.
11. This was exemplified in the court case he brought against the American
historian Deborah Lipstadt, for her attack on his work in her book
Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, New
York: Free Press, 1994. Irving sued for libel, but lost.
12. Coulter, In Trump We Trust, p. 3.
13. Martyn Percy, ‘To Know Trump’s Faith Is to Understand His Politics’,
The Guardian, Journal Section (7 February 2018), p. 4. At the time of
writing, Percy was engaged in researching Trump’s religious beliefs.
14. Coulter, In Trump We Trust, p. 2.
15. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute [1983],
trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele, Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1988.
16. See the entry for this term in Stuart Sim, ed., The Routledge Companion
to Postmodernism [2001], 3rd edn, London and New York: Routledge,
2011, pp. 286–7, where it is suggested that, ‘given the rise of religious
fundamentalism, post-postmodernism might … be a regression to a
much more dogmatic society of the type that modernity replaced’.
17. David Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of
Trump, London and New York: Verso, 2017, p. 2.
18. Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, London:
Little, Brown, 2018.
S. Sim

19. See Chapter 6, ‘A Bitter Pill? Healthcare and Greed’, of Stuart Sim,
Insatiable: The Rise and Rise of the Greedocracy, London: Reaktion,
20. Nigel Hawkes, ‘A Brief History of Post-Truth in Medicine’, The British
Medical Journal (16 September 2017), p. 393.
21. Both quoted in Dorian Lynskey, ‘Taking a Knee and Trump: The New
Era of Total Protest’, The Guardian, G2 (25 September 2017), pp. 6–8.
22. Mike Wendling, Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House, London:
Pluto Press, 2018, p. 3.
23. John Pattterson, ‘For Haters Only: Watching Steve Bannon’s Documen­
tary Films’, The Guardian (29 November 2016), www.theguardian.
com/us-news/2016/nov/29/steve-bannon (accessed 27 September
24. ‘US “Fake News” Kingpin Paul Horner Found Dead at 38’, BBC News
(27 September 2017),
(accessed 29 May 2018).
25. Wendling, Alt-Right, p. 5.

‘Computer Says No’, New Humanist (Summer 2018), pp. 16–7.
Coulter, Ann, In Trump We Trust: How He Outsmarted the Politicians, the Elites
and the Media, New York: Sentinel, 2016.
DeNicola, Daniel, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We
Don’t Know, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
Hawkes, Nigel, ‘A Brief History of Post-Truth in Medicine’, The British
Medical Journal (16 September 2017), p. 393.
Hofstadter, Richard, The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays
[1965], London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.
Kleinman, Zoe, ‘“Fake News Travels Faster”, Study Finds’, BBC News (9
March 2018), (accessed 14
March 2018).
Kosko, Bart, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, New York:
Flamingo, 1993.
Lipstadt, Deborah, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and
Memory, New York: Free Press, 1994.
2  The Post-Truth Landscape    

Lynskey, Dorian, ‘Taking a Knee and Trump: The New Era of Total Protest’,
The Guardian, G2 (25 September 2017), pp. 6–8.
Lyotard, Jean-François, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute [1983], trans. Georges
Van Den Abbeele, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.
Nagle, Angela, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to
Trump and the Alt-Right, Alresford: Zero, 2017.
Neiwert, David, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump,
London and New York: Verso, 2017.
Pattterson, John, ‘For Haters Only: Watching Steve Bannon’s Documentary
Films’, The Guardian (29 November 2016),
us-news/2016/nov/29/steve-bannon (accessed 27 September 2017).
Percy, Martyn, ‘To Know Trump’s Faith Is to Understand His Politics’, The
Guardian, Journal Section (7 February 2018), p. 4.
‘Q & A: Ann Coulter’, The Observer, New Review Section (2 October 2016),
p. 4.
Sim, Stuart, ed., The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism [2001], 3rd edn,
London and New York: Routledge, 2011.
———, Insatiable: The Rise and Rise of the Greedocracy, London: Reaktion,
‘US “Fake News” Kingpin Paul Horner Found Dead at 38’, BBC News (27
September 2017), (accessed
29 May 2018).
Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral, ‘The Spread of True and False
News Online’, Science, 359, Issue 6380 (9 March 2018), pp. 1146–51.
Wendling, Mike, Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House, London: Pluto
Press, 2018.
Wolff, Michael, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, London: Little,
Brown, 2018.
The Pre-History of Post-Truth

Post-truth has come to dominate contemporary political life, but its

roots go well back into the past, and it is not difficult to find examples
of the approach in operation then. There is a pre-history of post-truth
to be considered, therefore, even if it is never quite on the scale that
we find around us now. Politicians throughout history traditionally have
played around creatively with the facts if it helped their case, and, sadly,
all too often it has proved to do so, which has to raise awkward ques-
tions about human gullibility. Post-truth only works if we allow it to,
although the way our trust is continually being betrayed by its practi-
tioners can be considered something of an excuse on this front. Go back
just a few years to the George W. Bush and Tony Blair administrations,
and events surrounding the Second Gulf War are still shrouded in con-
siderable mystery. It was claimed by the American and UK governments
that Iraq possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and that was taken as
enough justification to invade the country to prevent these from being
used against the regime’s many enemies in the region. However, no
such weapons ever came to light despite diligent searching by the allied
forces. Was this a post-truth claim, or was there ever enough evidence
to convince—or, more charitably perhaps, mislead—the US and Britain

© The Author(s) 2019 41

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

to go to war on that basis? One suspects that future historians may well
decide that somewhere along the line post-truth came into play; that it
was in someone’s (or some group’s) interest within the administration
for weapons of mass destruction to be thought to exist, in order forci-
bly to try and bring about regime change in a politically volatile area.
Could it be that it furthered someone’s career, or ideological obsessions,
in which case a little licence was felt to be required? The end can always
be made to justify the means for such enthusiasts.
The Bush administration had a distinctly post-truth cast to it, as
can be noted when one of its senior figures (claimed to be Karl Rove,
Deputy Chief of Staff), batted away criticism of the administration’s for-
eign policy by asserting that: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act,
we create our own reality. … [W]e’ll act again, creating new realities’.1
In other words, the government would believe exactly what it wanted
to believe, and proceed accordingly, requiring the rest of the world to
conform to it as of right: so if it said that weapons of mass destruction
existed, then de facto they must. The failure to find them was inciden-
tal; the claim stood. To an outside observer that looks like the kind of
conclusion to be expected of the post-truth mentality; the unaccept-
able face of power politics, where arrogance is on blatantly open display.
Rove’s point could have been put far less aggressively, by saying that
America’s foreign policy was going to conform to its interpretation of
the state of geopolitics, which is only to be expected of any nation. But
‘reality’ has altogether more sinister overtones: other nations’ concep-
tion of reality is simply being denied any validity at all, as if no ‘empire’
need be bothered by such trifles. Not just might makes right, but might
makes reality. ‘We are the masters now’ is the unmistakable message that
is being communicated. Another type of fundamentalist belief comes
into operation at such points.
Earlier examples of post-truth with serious political impact can be
found in the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The former, published in The Daily Mail in 1924, purported to be an
attempt by the Communist International in Moscow to support the
Labour Party cause in the forthcoming General Election in the UK.
Apparently written by a key figure in the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev,
the Letter is now generally thought to have been a forgery; but it
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

provided the Conservative Party with a valuable weapon to discredit

the Labour Party in the ensuing election campaign. It corresponded to
the Conservatives’ worldview, so that was all that was needed to jus-
tify stirring up as much outrage about it as they could, and not both-
ering to check too hard for authenticity. (Interestingly enough, the
document has recently been reported as having gone missing from the
UK’s National Archives.) The Protocols, published in 1903, notoriously
claimed the existence of a sinister Jewish conspiracy aiming at world
domination, and it fed into a climate of antisemitism that echoes right
down to the present day. The Protocols are a classic instance of how
the post-truth process works, reinforcing existing prejudices by telling
those holding them what they want to believe. Henry Ford was a fer-
vent believer, paying for a print-run of 500,000 copies of the Protocols
to be distributed throughout the USA in the early 1920s, which dra-
matically increased their readership potential: ‘Every Patriotic American
Must Read These Protocols’, as its front cover boldly declared. He also
used a newspaper he owned, The Dearborn Independent, as another out-
let for his antisemitic views, and asserted in an interview, paranoia well
to the fore, that: ‘The only statement I care to make about the Protocols
is that they fit in with what is going on. They are sixteen years old and
they have fitted the world situation up to this time. They fit it now’.2
‘Fitting in’ appears to be all that is needed in such circumstances, rather
than critical thought about the events at hand, or the possibility of
other explanations. Adolf Hitler, an admirer of Ford, was another to be
completely convinced by the text’s argument. It was therefore taken up
as truth by the Nazi movement, who used it to whip up antisemitic sen-
timent in Germany, bringing the Protocols right into the heart of the
twentieth-century political scene—and in what proved to be a highly
destructive way.
Once such post-truths are out there in public circulation, and with
half a million copies distributed around the USA alone (population
just over 100 million at that point) they most certainly were, then it
is depressing to note how long a life-span they can have, cropping up
regularly for years afterwards as if they had the status of fact. Despite
being exposed as a forgery as early as 1921, and by an impeccably
establishment source in the form of The Times, opinions are still being
S. Sim

formed by the Protocols into the twenty-first century. Even when there
are well-publicised denunciations to be taken into account, conspiracy
theory always seems able to find an audience, which again raises awk-
ward questions about human gullibility—especially in the aftermath of
the Holocaust. If you do not believe that the Holocaust even occurred
of course (taking your line from such as David Irving perhaps), then
you can just sidestep such issues altogether, making it very easy indeed
to take Jewish conspiracies on board. Then you can agree wholeheart-
edly with the sentiments expressed in the series of articles Ford ran in
The Dearborn Independent under the heading of ‘The International Jew:
The World’s Foremost Problem’. You are creating your own reality; after
which whatever you want will always fit in. Conspiracy theorists are
adept at that process.

Conspiracy and Post-Truth
Conspiracy theory trades heavily on post-truth, therefore, weaving a
narrative out of a mixture of facts and fiction in order to create polit-
ical capital. Notorious recent examples include the claims that it was
the American government that was responsible for the 9/11 attack on
the World Trade Towers in New York (in order to discredit the Muslim
world being one suggestion, although there are others); or the ‘birther’
controversy over Barack Obama, aimed at proving he was ineligible to
be President under American law because of being born outside the
country. Despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, these are sto-
ries which still have their adherents, and that continue to circulate on
the net, picking up new believers along the way. They do so along with
a host of other old faithfuls, such as the faked moon landing (filmed
somewhere in the American desertlands apparently3), plus any number
of explanations as to the Kennedy assassination—the CIA, the FBI, the
Mafia, just take your pick (or come up with your own, and you will
undoubtedly find some support for it if you post it online). Conspiracy
theories never really seem to die out altogether; new recruits to the
cause just keep on emerging over the years, only too eager to suspend
their disbelief. The current one as I write is the Las Vegas massacre of
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

October 2017, which has generated a depressing number of conspiracy

accusations on the net, arguing either that it did not happen at all or
that it was a government plot (using actors) to claim the necessity of
introducing gun controls in its aftermath. (Given a government as com-
mitted to upholding gun ownership as the Trump one, as evidenced by
its wholehearted support of the values of the National Rifle Association,
we really do need a considerable amount of disbelief suspension over
the latter theory.) No doubt the inquest to this event will be treated as
yet another government plot unless it actually does blame the govern-
ment, and the stories will keep on proliferating into the future; even
ISIS has claimed it as a terrorist act on their behalf, which feeds into
yet another conspiracy theory held by many in the country. Some rea-
son can always be found for making the facts fit with your suspicions,
and for the conspiracy believer no amount of evidence to the contrary
will ever be enough to dispel these. When Barack Obama’s birth certif-
icate was produced, birthers, notably including Donald Trump, simply
claimed it was a forgery; their theory required it, so no other explana-
tion was acceptable. It would be all too easy to start a conspiracy theory
over the disappearance of the Zinoviev Letter from the official files, but
I will forbear from doing so.
The Protocols capitalised on a long-running tradition of antisemitic
sentiment throughout Europe, where Jews were treated with suspicion
as cultural outsiders whose motives could never really be trusted. There
was, in other words, a receptive audience for such a tale, only too will-
ing to believe the worst of the Jews living in their midst, Christianity
having encouraged this attitude quite shamelessly over the centuries,
despite its own Old Testament roots in that culture. This was particu-
larly the case in Russia, where deep-seated antisemitic attitudes made
life very uncomfortable for the country’s substantial Jewish population
(violent pogroms being regular events), and where the Protocols were
first published in 1903. If you had grown up in a climate of virulent
antisemitism, then this work appeared to confirm all your worst fears,
and that is the effect it had on many, reinforcing their prejudice against
their unfortunate Jewish neighbours and fellow citizens. The book is
still in print now, and openly on sale on sites such as Amazon, although
the company is careful to announce that it does not endorse the book’s
S. Sim

contents in any way, insisting that it stocks the work only in the name
of free speech.4 That there is still a market for the work is a disturbing
comment on twenty-first century society: one would like to think that it
is mainly made up of those actively working to discredit it, rather than
potential believers seeking reinforcement for their prejudices, but that is
probably a forlorn hope. The document sets out a comprehensive plan
by a sinister group of Jewish rabbis, meeting in secret in a graveyard (the
macabre Gothic setting is a significant part of the story’s appeal, given
that genre’s popularity in the period), to take over the world by means
of steadily infiltrating, and ultimately controlling, the political system,
the financial industry, and the media, undermining Christian values
systematically along the way. It is a ridiculous, even risible, tale, yet an
astonishingly large number of readers, over several generations, have
been convinced by it.
Conspiracy theory is one of the major themes of Umberto Eco’s fic-
tion, as in The Prague Cemetery, which speculates on how something like
the Protocols could have come about and found such wide acceptance,
despite their totally spurious nature. Eco portrays a nineteenth-century
European society where antisemitism is all but a default setting, and
anything that claims to provide proof of Jewish-led conspiracies against
Christian society and its values is eagerly pounced upon. It is a society
only too willing to be told that the ‘International Jew’ is the ‘World’s
Foremost Problem’. The narrator’s grandfather is steeped in the stand-
ard prejudices against the Jews, passing these on to his grandson as if
they were received truth: ‘“They are the most godless people,” he used
to say. “They start off from the idea that good must happen here, not
beyond the grave. Therefore they work only for the conquest of this
world”’.5 There was nothing positive to be said about the Jewish race;
they were, respectively, ‘vain’, ‘ignorant’, ‘greedy’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘insolent’,
‘dirty’, ‘unctuous’, ‘imperious’, ‘slanderous’, and driven by ‘uncontrol-
lable lust’.6 Not surprisingly, the narrator, Simone Simonini, reports
that after a childhood of exposure to such views, ‘I dreamt about Jews
every night for years and years’, and it becomes his life’s work to foster
as much prejudice and resentment against them as he can—not diffi-
cult to do in such an antisemitic milieu.7 The Jews were a convenient
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

scapegoat to blame for the many troubles that will beset any society, a
way of reducing a complex series of problems into something apparently
manageable; if they all spring from the same source, then they become
easy to address. Thus we have the satirical song from the Berlin caba-
ret scene of the 1930s by Friedrich Hollaender, entitled ‘The Jews Are
All to Blame for It’, where the Jews are held responsible for absolutely
everything that is going wrong in German life, right down to the most
trivial of everyday annoyances. It was a satire that only too accurately
reflected what was widely believed at the time: a joke much too close for
comfort in that respect. Post-truth has traditionally resorted to scapego-
ating in this fashion, and unfortunately enough all too often it works,
persuading a substantial part of the public to take the claims it makes
Simonini is an expert forger and undercover agent, much in demand
by unscrupulous governments for those services, and he becomes the
major source of the Protocols, producing material like this to order for
his political clients: ‘So this is my trade? It’s a marvellous thing, creat-
ing a legal deed out of nothing, forging a letter which looks genuine,
drafting a compromising confession, creating a document that will
lead someone to ruin’.8 He is under no illusion as to what he is doing,
being entirely willing to fuel the antisemitic prejudice all around him in
European society by producing appropriate ‘evidence’ of Jewish deceit.
Whatever he cannot find in older documents and antisemitic narratives
(concerning secret societies such as the Templars, the Freemasons, and
the Illuminati, all held to have been infiltrated over the years by the
Jews), he blithely invents, or lifts from the plot of novels by such popu-
lar authors of the time as Eugene Sue, and it always seems to fit in with
what the general public believes: ‘I realised the most attractive news to
fabricate would be what these idle minds were expecting, rather than
what the newspapers reported as solid fact’.9 Post-truth could hardly
be more neatly described than that: novelty to meet demand. It is very
much a market-driven practice.
Eventually the Protocols take on their final form, picturing the rab-
bis convening in secret at night in a cemetery in Prague, where they
lay out their objectives, as luridly imagined by Simonini: ‘Ours is an
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ambition that knows no limits, a voracious greed, a desire for ruthless

revenge, an intense hatred’.10 It is all only too plausible for the antisem-
ite, and the book as a whole resonates particularly powerfully now that
we have entered into a post-truth era, where politicians like Trump and
the alt-right news sites cater to their audience in just as unscrupulous
a manner. Yet again it is a case of fabricating what their supporters are
expecting, as a potent substitute for the solid facts to be found in the
traditional media outlets, to the point where the latter begin to lose
their credibility as far as the alt-right’s audience is concerned. If those
media are not saying what the alt-right wants, then they must be guilty
of peddling fake news: againstness demands that, and will make the
point ad nauseam. That is what keeps sites like Breitbart News going,
the insistence that everyone else has got it wrong, and that they are the
only ones perceiving reality correctly. The Protocols succeeded in gain-
ing the attention they did because there was an audience looking for
something just like it to shore up their prejudices. Simonini was simply
meeting a need, a need that also fitted in with his own beliefs. It may be
fiction, yet it sounds convincing, and entirely plausible. Antisemitism
created the Protocols, not the other way round.
The Zinoviev Letter came at a point when Western governments
were, not unrealistically, fearful of the spread of communism in the
wake of the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917; especially since
it was being viewed so sympathetically by so many in Europe, captur-
ing the imagination of the left in general. Its contents certainly provided
grounds for those fears, asserting that a Labour Party victory would
help in radicalising the British working class, thus setting up favoura-
ble conditions for the spread of communism in the country. While it is
unclear to this day exactly who did write it, the evidence suggests that it
was most likely some anti-Soviet source in Europe out to discredit both
the new Soviet government and the burgeoning communist movement
throughout the continent in general, in which case they were very suc-
cessful. As with the Protocols, there was an audience looking for just that
kind of document to score ideological points, and the Letter ticked all
the right boxes. Once more it was a case of meeting a pre-existing need,
all that a conspiracy theory needs to start spreading very rapidly.
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

Conspiracy and Gullibility
The issue of gullibility does need to be addressed at some point, as con-
spiracy theories will not work without that trait being present to a sig-
nificant degree in its audience. You have to want to find an explanation,
no matter how far-fetched it may appear to others, that will reinforce
your prejudices, something that will fit in seamlessly with those and
give you a focus for your anger. When conspiracy theory offers just that,
connecting various events together such that no loose ends are left to
puzzle over, then it is gratefully received by those of that disposition.
It provides the reality such believers want. Instead of mystery and con-
fusion, there is now a recognisable force behind events such as the JFK
assassination or the 9/11 attack—or whatever it is that is bothering
you. Rather than being an isolated individual, you now become part
of a movement with a clearly delineated mission. You and your fellow
believers know the truth, it is just others who are failing to see, or are
being too stubborn to admit, what is self-evident to you. The empower-
ing aspect of this should not be underestimated.
It is all too easy to sound elitist or morally superior when discuss-
ing such a subject as this, however, because it is undeniably judgemental
about others’ reasoning ability. Gullibility, I suspect most of are inclined
to think, is what other people are guilty of, not ourselves. We know bet-
ter, we cannot be misled and manipulated so easily, we can spot truth
or falsity when confronted by them. Conspiracies do happen, and his-
tory has its fair share of them, so they cannot be dismissed out of hand
as mere fictions. Whether they constitute an all-purpose explanation for
almost everything that goes on politically is, however, another issue alto-
gether. Conspiracy theory reduces the complexity of human interaction
to seductively simple formulations: ‘The Jews Are All to Blame for It’.
Everything that goes to make up that ‘It’ is part of their master plan, so
all we have to do is to foil their attempt to carry it out, and our society
will be saved: simple and straightforward. That is an illusion of course,
but for believers it suggests a course of action that promises to end their
frustration about things going wrong in their world—and some things
always will, that is destined to be the human lot in every age. Which is
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to say that the conditions for conspiracy theories to be devised always

exist, and that is where the likes of Simonini step in. As Slavoj Žižek
has summed it up: ‘the ideological figure of a Jew is a way to stitch up
the inconsistency of our own ideological system’.11 That process still
operates, although it is interesting to note that it is immigrants who
are increasingly being used for the same purpose nowadays. The claim
that ‘The Immigrants Are All to Blame for It’ is becoming a staple in
the campaigning strategy of many far right political groupings through-
out Europe, and it finds a receptive audience: as it does in the US too,
ironically enough for a country built on the principle of mass immigra-
tion (the ‘poor’, ‘tired’, ‘huddled masses’ welcomed to their new home
by the Statue of Liberty).
Unfortunately enough, therefore, conspiracy theory does fulfill a
psychological need, and one that keeps arising as each new generation
comes along. As Evan Davis has observed in his study on post-truth:
‘let’s not just assume this is a book about other people. It is to a very
large extent about us all’.12 All of us, that is to say, are susceptible to
what Davis, following on from various other commentators, refers to
as ‘bullshit’ (‘peak’ as his sub-title puts it), if it echoes our worldview.13
Those who choose to meet that recurrent need with tailor-made theo-
ries to further their own devious ends are, however, much more to be
criticised than those who are gullible enough to believe them. Preying
on gullibility in the manner of a Simonini is a deeply unpleasant activ-
ity, and it does little for one’s faith in human nature to see conspiracy
theorists so enthusiastically pursue it for personal advantage. Choosing
to supply that particular market can hardly be described as morally

Authoritarianism and Post-Truth
Authoritarian regimes in general have made extensive use of post-truth
to maintain their grip on power, as can be seen in the various fascist
and communist governments that held sway over the course of much of
the twentieth century (Islamic fundamentalist governments presumably
could qualify as this century’s heirs). The Nazi Party were past-masters
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

at the art of propaganda, portraying their opponents as evil and claim-

ing racial superiority over all others—often describing other races, in
particular the Jews (who were a substantial minority in the German
population at the time), as subhuman. Eventually this kind of cam-
paigning was to lead to such atrocities as the Holocaust, with the Jewish
race coming to be regarded as such a menace to European civilisation
that they had to be exterminated altogether. A tradition of antisemi-
tism that included works such as the Protocols had paved the way for the
‘final solution’ to be developed; popular opinion had been primed to
regard this as a necessary step to take to protect their reputedly threat-
ened cultural heritage, based on the concept of Aryan racial superiority.
In this instance all too many Germans really had come to believe that
‘The Jews Are All to Blame for It’, and were prepared to allow their gov-
ernment to deal with the situation, as they saw fit, in order to protect
the national interest.
The Soviet system wielded total control over all the media in the
state, enforcing a party line that very definitely did create its own reality,
claiming complete success for the party’s policies even when there was
precious little in the way of hard evidence to back this up. Propaganda
was put forward as if it were actual news, history rewritten to conform
to Marxism’s dialectical materialist interpretation of it. The population
was repeatedly told that the economy was improving rapidly, despite
regular shortages of even the most basic of food products, and that the
Soviet Union, with its succession of widely advertised, but often nota-
bly disappointing in practice Five-Year Plans for manufacturing and
agricultural output, was surpassing the West in industrial and military
power. With no free press, and access denied to other sources of infor-
mation (except through clandestine means that could put your personal
safety at risk), the Soviet system had a captive audience which was left
with little option but to accept what the communist party said was the
truth. The arts were drawn into this policy as well, with the aesthetic of
socialist realism requiring artists to deliver the same message that state
propaganda was doing: that the Soviet Union was building a workers’
paradise, and that everyone in the country was totally committed to this
ideal. Ordinary workers were to be portrayed as heroic figures, happy
in their labour for the common cause, their class consciousness proudly
S. Sim

displayed. Only capitalist workers were exploited, not Soviet ones. Any
dissident voices that arose to question this state of affairs were soon
silenced, meaning that the Soviet people existed inside a bubble, with
only the vaguest idea of what was really taking place in the rest of the
world, or how their lifestyle compared to that of countries outside the
Soviet orbit. Evan Davis suggests that the impact of propaganda can be

[M]y default assumption would be that a good propagandist can only

work with our pre-existing values and beliefs, which are in part moulded
by the evidence that we have encountered. Reality imposes itself, dispos-
ing us to accept some messages more readily than others, and it constrains
the ability of propagandists to shape our views.14

That does depend on access to a wider reality, however, which the Soviet
Union proved could be overridden by a state determined enough to
impose its own version of reality on the population—and prepared to
be utterly ruthless in maintaining it, as Stalin’s reign of terror in the
1930s amply proved. Granted, fake news eventually ceased to work in
this context, but it took over seventy years to reach that critical point
and the era of perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s that presaged the end
of Soviet rule.
The Soviet system did not just rewrite history to fit Marxist theory,
they invented it when it suited the regime’s interests to do so. One of
the most blatant examples of this is outlined in Catherine Merridale’s
book Lenin on the Train, about Lenin’s journey to St. Petersburg in
1917, and the famous arrival at the Finland station in the capital that
ended his exile from the country. During Stalin’s reign the artist M. G.
Solokov painted Lenin’s arrival at the station, being greeted by cheering
crowds. Behind him as he alights from the train is Stalin, looking on
approvingly at the scene. In reality, Stalin was not part of Lenin’s party
on the train (reportedly, he was not even present at the station, being
otherwise engaged in the city at the time), but as Merridale observes,
post-truth was well engrained in the Soviet lifestyle by this point: ‘With
no regard for history (but a keen sense of self-preservation), the artist
added Stalin to the scene’.15 It is not only guile that lies behind the
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

move into post-truth, fear can do so too. Stalin well knew he had not
been at that historic event, as did anyone else who actually had been
there to witness Lenin being greeted, but it was patently in his inter-
est for that piece of news to be faked to enhance his reputation. The
implication was that Stalin was always destined to be Lenin’s heir, and
to spur the Soviet Union on to even greater heights than his predecessor
had, subtly suggested by the artist placing him higher up in the painting
than Lenin, who is waving to the crowd as he steps down off the train.
As Merridale tartly remarks, ‘[s]uch lies were not unusual by the 1930s’,
by which time the Soviet system was in full post-truth mode, and it
was expedient to be seen to be in alignment with this.16 Dictatorships
are always attracted to the post-truth game, well aware of its power in
moulding and controlling public opinion, and in situations like that,
post-truth begets yet more post-truth, in the process obscuring reality
even further.
It was the existence of totalitarian dictatorships such as the Soviet
Union that prompted George Orwell to write 1984, picturing a future
England run on post-truth lines, where the rulers really have created
their own reality, using techniques such as Newspeak to enforce that
reality on the population:

The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately con-

structed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had
in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desir-
able mental attitude upon the person using them.17

Imposing a desirable mental attitude upon the citizenship at large is

exactly what post-truth narratives are out to achieve: ‘In Big Brother We
Trust’. The book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, loses that trust, but is
easily enough tracked down by the authorities as a potential dissident
and, after appropriate ‘treatment’, returned to the approved mental atti-
tude: ‘it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.
He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother’.18 That is
the ideal of every authoritarian regime, a compliant and uncritical pub-
lic, wholly believing in their socio-political system and those running it.
Opposition cannot be allowed to exist.
S. Sim

One of the ways in which Marxist theorists, particularly those living

outside the Soviet Union in capitalist countries, made use of post-truth,
was in their continued resort to the concept of hegemony to cover up
the failings of Marxist predictions about how world politics would
develop as communism took root. The capitalist system was supposed
to be unsustainable, economically as well as politically, and the assump-
tion was that once the masses recognised this and rose up against their
oppressors (as they had done in Russia) then it would soon fall apart,
heralding the arrival of a socialist utopia in which economic exploita-
tion, the basis of the capitalist socio-political model, would cease. This
was the message socialist realism required creative artists to communi-
cate in their work. To the committed Marxist it was a self-evident truth,
one on which the integrity of Marxism as a belief system depended;
that was how class struggle worked out, as The Communist Manifesto
had declared.19 Its validity was not to be questioned, so other explana-
tions had to be found for the delay of the promised dictatorship of the
proletariat than that the belief itself was misplaced. Reality had to be
made to fit in with the theory somehow or other: Marx just could not
have been wrong. As outlined by the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio
Gramsci, therefore, hegemony described how the capitalist order man-
aged to keep itself in power past its Marxist sell-by date by disseminat-
ing its worldview through a society’s various institutions and activities.
This reveals itself in ‘[t]he “spontaneous” consent by the great masses
of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the
dominant fundamental group’.20 It was a process that the later structur-
alist Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser saw as being carried out by
what he called Ideological State Apparatuses: ‘a certain number of real-
ities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form
of distinct and specialized institutions’, amongst which he included
organised religion, the educational system, the trade union movement,
the media, and even the arts world.21 The effect of the ruling class’s
efforts through the ISAs was to establish their set of values as the natural
order to which every section of the population should aspire, a very sub-
tle form of propaganda designed to keep the masses in line and support-
ive of the system that in actuality was exploiting them. The exploited
were lured into a sense of false consciousness about what was best for
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

them, believing instead in the ‘realities’ that the ISAs were so assidu-
ously promoting, with Althusser asserting that ‘it is ultimately the rul-
ing ideology which is realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses….
[N]o class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time
exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses ’.22
As a consequence of the successful hegemony exercised through the
ISAs, the expected collapse of the capitalist system was being delayed,
but it would still arrive once the system’s resources and support had
been further exhausted: Marxist reality would ultimately prevail. While
this was a plausible enough argument initially, it was an explanation
which began to wear a bit thin as several generations passed with no
worldwide revolution breaking out to prove the Marxist case. The ISAs
appeared to have commendable staying power—as they still do in
the aftermath of the debilitating 2007–2008 credit crash, when even
socialism is hardly much in evidence in the Western political system at
present. With Communism now little more than a fading memory, cap-
italist hegemony has to qualify as one of the most successful ideologi-
cal techniques of modern times, posing a serious problem for Marxist
It was a general theory which was to be subjected to a withering
critique in the 1980s by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, helping
to establish a post-Marxist school of thought which wanted to move
beyond the post-truth mentality embedded so firmly within Marxism,
with its demand that doctrines be followed to the letter and never
questioned by the movement’s members. In their book Hegemony and
Socialist Strategy Laclau and Mouffe argued that this obsession with pro-
tecting the authority of the original theory, by insisting that it will even-
tually come right in its predictions, was holding up left-wing thought
from addressing the many significant social changes taking place all
around the globe, which it could turn to its advantage. Since these
changes were not conforming to Marxism’s overall conception of his-
tory, this suggested to Laclau and Mouffe that there needed to be some
fundamental reappraisal of the Marxist scheme:

Left-wing thought today stands at a crossroads. The ‘evident truths’ of

the past—the classical forms of analysis and political calculation, the
S. Sim

nature of the forces in conflict, the very meaning of the Left’s struggles
and objectives—have been seriously challenged by an avalanche of histor-
ical mutations which have riven the ground on which those truths were

Hegemony was being used to mask the failure of Marxist theory to

account for such events, leaving it in a state of denial as to its lack of
effectiveness as an ideology. For Laclau and Mouffe that meant a break
with classical Marxist thought was necessary to end this pointless cycle.
For them, the ‘the era of universal discourses’, of which Marxism was
such a prime example, was over, and it was time to develop new meth-
ods of working towards social justice.24 Decades later, however, classical
Marxists go on believing in the theory’s key doctrines and their suppos-
edly universal application, while real-world politics keeps telling them
that it is just not working out the way they are claiming it should; that
capitalism seems able to weather various crises—stock market crashes,
for instance; of which there have been several in modern times—and
yet still command enough public support to stave off revolutionary
action. It may not always be that way of course, no system is ever totally
immune from collapse; but a century after the Russian Revolution, and
thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet system, it is looking less and
less likely to work out as classical Marxism prescribed.
Yet Marxist political groupings on the fringe in the West continue
to cling to the belief that capitalism is on the verge of collapse, that it
is just around the corner, and that all the movement needs to do is to
overcome the false consciousness in which the bulk of the population is
trapped under ‘late’ capitalism for truly revolutionary change to be trig-
gered. The longer they stick to the doctrine, however, the more it looks
like post-truth, since there is no reliable evidence to back it up. Late
capitalism can only be described as such according to a Marxist time-
scale, which has imposed that interpretation on it to give the impression
that the end is in sight, and that its historical stages are on course to
deliver capitalism’s demise. To such fringe groups, however, thinkers like
Laclau and Mouffe are traitors to the cause, their views to be dismissed
as anti-Marxist; there must be no divergence from the party line. It is
yet another case of where you put the emphasis. For Laclau and Mouffe
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

it is firmly on ‘Marxism’, whereas for their detractors it is the ‘post-’ that

defines, and so invalidates, their thought, and neither side is inclined to
budge from its position on this differend.25 Such old-style Marxists have
created their own reality and they intend to stay within it, regardless of
what happens in the outside world. Denialism takes over again, offering
a refuge for the frustrated believer.

Propaganda: ‘Noble Lie’ or Post-Truth?

Propaganda raises some interesting issues, because almost all societies
have had recourse to it at some point or other in their history. This is
often the case in war, for example, when governments feel it expedient
to present an optimistic picture of the conflict’s progress in order to
keep up public spirits; this can involve either intensive spin-doctoring,
or, when that seems too difficult, the outright suppression of really bad
news. No government is proof against doing that, not even the most
democratically minded, fearing that if they did not then defeatism
might set in amongst the population and adversely affect their efforts
(a policy which has been defended by some commentators26). It is often
said that truth is the first casualty of war. Numerous examples of this
could be cited, but one that has just come to light as I write involves
the conflict over the Falkland Islands between the UK and Argentina
in 1982. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk by the
Argentinian navy, with press reports indicating that the ship was unable
to withstand the powerful Exocet missiles fired at it. The declassifica-
tion of the documents concerning the event that circulated internally
amongst the authorities at the time, however, subsequently released
in 2017, reveal a very different story. It was actually negligence by the
ship’s officers that prevented the Sheffield from defending itself properly,
as it should have been able to do; even Exocets were not as all-conquer-
ing as had to be claimed by the UK government afterwards (although
the missile’s sales did benefit from the alternative facts explanation that
was offered). Since the conflict ended in victory for the UK, however,
no action was taken against the officers in case it detracted from the
resultant celebrations. That was felt by the government and the navy to
S. Sim

be more important than telling the truth, so the story was quietly bur-
ied, and the post-truth option called on instead. Whether this decision
falls under the head of what has been called the ‘noble lie’ is, at best,
contentious; but it does show how seductive an option post-truth can
be when the governing authorities have a secret they want kept.

Unless you are an unabashed post-truther, to survey the current land-
scape of post-truth can be a fairly depressing experience when you start
assessing the conduct it is regularly involving in the political domain:
the conduct of Trump, Coulter, Bannon, et al., and their aggressively
partisan politics of againstness designed to demonise their opponents.
Politics is often referred to, even by politicians themselves, as a dirty old
game, and history amply affirms this, but it does seem to have become
much dirtier in recent times, and to be showing few signs of arresting
the process. Societies in the modern, post-Enlightenment age, at least
in principle—and at least in the West, anyway—are committed to
the idea of progress, both materially and politically. This vision is not
always adhered to, however, and to look back at the twentieth century
is to note several regressive phases in terms of Enlightenment ideals—
such as human rights, and respect for other cultures and lifestyles. The
Holocaust and the Second World War are prime examples of socio-
political regression, as the Stalinist period in Russian history very obvi-
ously is too. The optimistic way of interpreting such episodes is to point
out how we managed to overcome these very considerable setbacks and
reform Western social and political life along Enlightenment project
lines, restoring the belief that politics should be guided by a respect for
truth; the pessimistic, to point out that we appear to remain very prone
to repeating such regressions.
I would read post-truth as the most visible symbol of yet another
significant regression, where ideals derived from our Enlightenment
heritage are once again being trashed by reckless individuals in favour of
deeply dubious ideological aims. The political scientist Larry Diamond
has gone so far as to suggest that a ‘democratic recession’ has set in.27
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

Who would have thought that white supremacy would become more
mainstream in countries like America, explicit fascist references and
all? Or that high-profile politicians could use fake news tactics with
such impunity? Or indeed, find such a large audience that would take
them at their word, and believe in what they said so uncritically, accept-
ing wholesale the bizarre concept of alternative facts? Something has
changed within the public realm, and it is a work in progress to find out
how this can best be answered. Regardless of where you place yourself on
the liberal democratic spectrum, whether at its conservative or socialist
end, you have to be worried at where this change might lead: the death
of democracy always has to stand as a distinct possibility. Diamond
remains relatively hopeful this will not happen, because ‘[d]emocrats
have the better set of ideas’, but also counsels that, ‘[i]f the current mod-
est recession of democracy spirals into a depression, it will be because
those of us in the established democracies were our own worst ene-
mies’.28 Unfortunately, very often we appear to be just that at present.
The repeated recourse to post-truth, fake news, and alternative facts
in the political arena is surely a sign of a society going seriously wrong,
and it does not provide all that much comfort to record that there are
precedents for such behaviour when we look back in history. The more
pertinent question to ask is why we seem to keep making the same mis-
take of falling for schemes claiming to create their own reality, in spite
of the many lessons that the past can offer on the matter. Religious his-
tory delivers yet more evidence of how that process works, and that will
be the next topic for consideration.

1. Quoted in Ron Suskind, ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of
George W. Bush’, The New York Times Magazine (17 October 2004),
(accessed 20 February 2018). Suskind reported these remarks as part
of a conversation he had with Rove, who has since denied saying them.
Presumably, one of them must be right, which suggests we are straying
into post-truth/fake news territory at some point here.
S. Sim

2. New York World, 2 February 1921.

3. In a witty homage to such theories, in the film Capricorn One (1977),
NASA decides to fake a landing on Mars in a similar desert location.
4. See, for example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Eastford, CT:
Martino Fine Books, 2009, which is offered for sale on the site—with
the distributor’s disclaimer noted above.
5. Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery, trans. Richard Dixon, London:
Vintage, 2012, p. 6.
6. Ibid., p. 7.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 20.
9. Ibid., p. 132.
10. Ibid., p. 538.
11. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London and New York:
Verso, 1989, p. 48.
12. Evan Davis, Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What
We Can Do About It, London: Little, Brown, 2017, p. xviii.
13. See also James Ball, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World,

London: Biteback, 2017. Putting it as bluntly as possible, Harry G.
Frankfurt had earlier claimed that ‘[o]ne of the most salient features of
our culture is that there is so much bullshit’ (On Bullshit, Princeton, NJ
and Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 1).
14. Davis, Post-Truth, p. 233.
15. Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train, London: Penguin, 2016, cap-
tion to plate 24.
16. Ibid., p. 268.
17. George Orwell, 1984 [1949], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, p. 244.
18. Ibid., p. 239.
19. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [1848], ed.
Frederic L. Bender, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1988.
20. See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and

trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, London: Lawrence
and Wishart, 1971, p. 12.
21. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben
Brewster, London: NLB, 1971, p. 144.
22. Ibid., p. 146.
23. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy:
Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], 2nd edn, London and
New York: Verso, 2001, p. 1.
3  The Pre-History of Post-Truth    

4. Ibid., p. 3.
25. For some of the critical voices on Laclau and Mouffe’s post-Marxism
see Part I, ‘Redefining Marxism: The Reception of Laclau and Mouffe’,
in Stuart Sim, ed., Post-Marxism: A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, 1998, pp. 13–68.
26. See Huw Lemmey, ‘Something to Shout About’, New Humanist

(Summer 2018), pp. 62–5, for a defence of propaganda as a way of
organising support for government policies.
27. Larry Diamond, ‘Facing Up to the Democratic Recession’, Journal of
Democracy, 26 (2015), pp. 141–55.
28. Ibid., p. 154.

Althusser, Louis, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster,
London: NLB, 1971.
Ball, James, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, London: Biteback,
Davis, Evan, Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can
Do About It, London: Little, Brown, 2017.
Diamond, Larry, ‘Facing Up to the Democratic Recession’, Journal of
Democracy, 26 (2015), pp. 141–55.
Eco, Umberto, The Prague Cemetery, trans. Richard Dixon, London: Vintage,
Frankfurt, Harry G., On Bullshit, Princeton, NJ and Woodstock: Princeton
University Press, 2005.
Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin
Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards
a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], 2nd edn, London and New York:
Verso, 2001.
Lemmey, Huw, ‘Something to Shout About’, New Humanist (Summer 2018),
pp. 62–5.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [1848], ed.
Frederic L. Bender, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1988.
Merridale, Catherine, Lenin on the Train, London: Penguin, 2016.
Orwell, George, 1984 [1949], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
S. Sim

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2009.
Sim, Stuart, ed., Post-Marxism: A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
Press, 1998.
Suskind, Ron, ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush’, The
New York Times Magazine (17 October 2004),
faculty/chwe/austen/suskind2004.pdf (accessed 20 February 2018).
Žižek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London and New York: Verso,
Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious

Ask a believer if his or her religion is true, and you will almost ­undoubtedly
receive an unequivocal ‘yes’ in reply—and possibly also be treated to a
list of reasons why. To be a believer is to have a sense of certainty as to
what one believes in. That is how faith works; it banishes doubt and
insecurity from believers’ lives, assuring them that there is a divinity
looking out for their welfare, one that can always be depended upon to
ease their troubles. That, to them, is a truth that holds firm, whatever
may happen in the world at large. But is it that straightforward? One
could even define monotheistic religion as a form of post-truth, since it
cannot admit any doubt to exist about its doctrines, and denies that its
position can be challenged by sceptical thinkers (traits shared by both
Christianity and Islam, for example), or by any other ­monotheisms
either. Monotheistic religions emphasise the need for faith, taking this
to be the mark of true religious belief. Faith demands an uncritical
belief in doctrine, and particularly in the sacred texts from which the
doctrine is drawn (such as the Bible, or the Qu’ran), demanding that
this be passed down intact from generation to generation and followed
to the letter: its principles are not really up for discussion. Thus adher-
ents to Christianity have to believe in a series of miracles—virgin birth,

© The Author(s) 2019 63

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

resurrection after death, etc.—which clash with our everyday experi-

ence, not to mention scientific probability: ‘gospel truth’ comes to take
on a more ambiguous meaning than its general usage now would imply.
Faith and knowledge, in other words, frequently come into conflict,
often contradicting each other. Yet the religious believer must always
maintain his or her faith in what their religious doctrine tells them—
that is the final court of appeal, not to be denied. Believers may have
a sense of certainty, yet it will only apply within their own particular
circle, not outside it. Each belief system is a self-contained entity in that
respect: move outside it, and you lose the guarantee of divine support.
Nothing less than 100% faith will suffice to save you; the notion of
being a bit religious will not be acceptable to the deeply devout.
Sceptics can only look on with a sense of wry detachment, espe-
cially when there are various monotheisms competing against each
other for attention, all claiming to be the one and only ‘true’ religion.
Philosophical sceptics can no more accept the possibility of an eternal
truth in theology than they can in their own discipline. Againstness
applies here in the sense that the ‘true’ religion sets itself up against all
others, none of which can be considered as authentic; there can be only
one true way, and they have found it. Classical Marxists adopt a very
similar attitude to other ideologies, bringing out the tenaciousness of
the desire for certainty amongst believers of all kinds (found in philos-
ophy and science no less than in religion). From this perspective there
simply is no alternative; if you are not with us, then you must be against
us. Devotion is what is expected, not half-heartedness.
Theology, therefore, could be viewed as structured on a post-truth
principle, admitting no challenge to what its sacred works say. These
have to be accepted wholesale, no matter how much they may clash
with reality and scientific knowledge; in effect operating on the prin-
ciple outlined by Karl Rove that, ‘We’re an empire now, and when we
act, we create our own reality’. Both Christianity and Islam, as cases in
point, manifestly have their own reality, and each takes that to be the
only reality—as does every other monotheism in its turn. There is no
clash between faith and knowledge for the devout, their sacred work is
a source of absolute truth, and that is not to be called into question.
As the basis of the entire system, it is to be defended come what may,
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

and no amount of cultural change can alter what its contents say; they
are assumed to be as true now as when they were first written, and will
remain that way for eternity, explaining everything you need to know
about the nature of being if you read the text carefully enough (hence
the importance placed on Bible study). It is the task of the clergy to
be such readers and pass on their findings to their flock. This can have
some interesting implications. For creationists, it means that the Earth’s
age is to be computed from the various generations of humankind men-
tioned in the Bible, which, depending on the writer, gives a figure of
somewhere between 6000 and 10,000 years (Bishop James Ussher pro-
vided a lead here, when he calculated in the seventeenth century that
the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.). No amount of argument from the
scientific community will make any difference to the committed crea-
tionist, for whom truth lies in the Bible, not in science. Science must
conform to the Bible, rather than the other way round. Several billion
years of the Earth’s existence, and the scientific proof behind that (in
geology, for example), has to count as fake news, and there are alterna-
tive facts ready and waiting to take over: just turn to Genesis and start
counting the generations up to the coming of Christ, then add the two
millenia since. Alternative facts ready to be widely disseminated as well,
as creationism is on the syllabus of many schools in the American edu-
cational system—plus some in the UK too, in the faith school network
that has been developed in recent times. It is presented in that context
as if it were a scientific theory in its own right, deserving at the very
least equal consideration with the official scientific line: a good example
of what Matthew D’Ancona has described as ‘pernicious relativism dis-
guised as legitimate scepticism’.1
Creationists, however, would see themselves as anything but relativist.
Their position is that God must have had a purpose to make it look as if
the Earth was several billion years old, and it is up to them to work out
a plausible explanation for consumption by the devout, not to suggest
that the Bible could be wrong, or in competition with other authorities.
Any scepticism should be addressed to the scientific explanation, which
is starting from entirely the wrong premise. Physics is relegated to the
status of false consciousness. Not all Christians are as literal as this, I
freely admit, and many nowadays in our more secular age take a more
S. Sim

pragmatic view towards their faith and its requirements; but creation-
ism is nevertheless a logical outcome of belief in the Bible as revealed
truth. Science is little better than fake news to creationists; they are not
going to be swayed by its arguments, no matter how detailed. The Bible
becomes the standard against which all other claims and explanations
are to be judged, an eternally reliable source of knowledge as far as the
devout are concerned. As the well-known hymn puts it, I know that
Jesus loves me, because it says so in the Bible: no further proof needed.
Looking back through history, the main monotheistic religions have
traditionally been harsh on those of a sceptical turn of mind, when it is
a question of raising doubt about any of their fundamental doctrines.
Scepticism, for confirmed monotheists, is a form of heresy, and here-
tics are to be dealt with as a danger to the faith. To go against doctrine
was to declare oneself as evil, quite possibly an agent of the devil tasked
with undermining the beliefs of the faithful, and that could lead to your
death as punishment. Scepticism, however, has some very pertinent
points to make about religious belief and the assumptions on which it is
based; assumptions such as the self-evident truth of the sacred texts, and
the existence of a divine being to guarantee this. To a sceptic these are
both unsubstantiated, since they have to be taken on trust alone, thus
raising the spectre of an infinite regress: what guarantees the existence of
the divine being, and so on back, level after level. No fully-fledged scep-
tic would stop at the Bible, or the Qu’ran, as a source of truth beyond
all possible doubt; nor accept that those works conclusively prove the
existence of God as the ultimate guarantor of that truth. Even when
Christian philosophers set out to prove the existence of God, they do so
with a definite bias towards a positive conclusion, rather than to inspire
real doubts amongst believers about the issue. Indeed, only a confirm-
atory answer would be acceptable to their religious peers; any disproof
would be rejected, a case of needing to go back to the drawing board
and construct a more convincing argument. God just has to exist, that
is the whole point of the religion, and proving this is so is the whole
point of religious philosophy; the exercise is meant to reinforce belief,
not to question it. From a sceptical point of view, this is all just too
neat; a case of prejudging what the result of your proof has to be, some-
thing that both philosophy and science consistently warn against. To
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

a sceptic, a sacred book can never be anything more than an arbitrary

starting point—but try telling that to a true believer.
Monotheistic religions have a tendency to be fundamentalist in out-
look, refusing to acknowledge that the claims of other faiths have any
validity; at best they are to be tolerated, and not always with very good
grace either (as the history of the Jews under both Christianity and
Islam attests). For all that ecumenical gestures do get made from time
to time, the religions involved are invariably careful to protect their own
identity and the fundamentals of their belief. It is an attitude that has
led to many ‘holy wars’, where each side is fully confident it has God
on its side, and is therefore completely justified in slaying its enemies in
advancing its cause. From the Crusades onwards, Christianity has a his-
tory of acting in this way, even internally amongst its various denomina-
tions, with Catholics and Protestants rising up in armed conflict against
each other on various occasions (and Protestant sects against other
Protestant sects as well, just to show how little room for compromise
there could be on this issue). Elements within Islam to this day con-
sider themselves to be in a holy war against all other religions, and take
this to legitimate terrorist activity against ‘infidels’: ‘there is no God but
Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger’, as the Qu’ran unequivocally
asserts, precluding the idea of any debate on the topic. Monotheism is
a package, and you are expected (obliged, as the religion’s hierarchy sees
it) to accept the whole thing.
Fundamentalism has become a growing issue in our own time,
with Islamic fundamentalism the most notable thanks to its extremist
wing, such as the Islamic State movement (and before that, al-Qaeda),
which has been responsible for a series of terrorist outrages across the
world, designed to prove the depth of their fidelity. Yet it is not the
only example of this trend of late, as both Jewish and Christian fun-
damentalism have been on the rise too, and making themselves felt
more widely in the public realm. Jewish fundamentalism has been used
to claim the right to build settlements on the Palestinian West Bank,
taken to be traditionally part of Israel, thus the rightful property of
God’s ‘chosen people’. Not surprisingly this has gone down very badly
in the Islamic world, which has held sway in the region for centuries
now, and cites the rise of their own religion there as evidence that their
S. Sim

territorial claims are the stronger. Neither side is of a mind to drop its
claims, each being utterly convinced it has God on its side. Christian
fundamentalists campaign against legislation which sanctions abortion
and gay marriage, arguing that biblical teaching outlaws such activities.
The Christian right in America wields a considerable amount of power
on the political scene, and uses this to put pressure on candidates for
election to support their stance on such policies (as one might suspect,
atheists do not fare well in such a system). Catholicism opposes contra-
ception because of certain passages in the Bible, despite the problems
that rapid population growth is creating in poor countries where the
faith is dominant. Relevant quotations can always be supplied to back
up these positions—although not ones that would persuade the scep-
tic, who would not accept the authority of the source. For the faithful,
however, quotations from sacred texts are truth, and considered to be all
that is required to clinch arguments with opponents. Fundamentalism
triumphs in such situations, which are not about debate, but with prov-
ing your reality is the only true one.
Whatever the sceptic might think of their doctrines, the major world
religions at least anchor themselves in historical figures and events that
are subject to some degree of verification. Jesus Christ and Mohammed
did exist, and are chronicled in various sources other than their respec-
tive religion’s sacred book, even if that does not prove everything that
is attributed to them—their divine mission, miraculous powers, etc.
Scientology, however, pushes us even further into the realm of post-
truth in its explanation of its origins. Given that the founder of the
religion, L. Ron Hubbard, was a writer of science fiction, it is perhaps
not surprising that scientology requires more than the usual amount of
suspension of disbelief. No historical proof can be offered at all for the
events, or the beings, that provide the basis for scientology (much the
same can be said of Mormonism too). That has not stopped it grow-
ing into a worldwide religion with a very substantial following, however,
including many high-profile international celebrities who campaign
vigorously on its behalf. Scientology requires belief in previous lives,
extending this notion out to extraterrestrial life, from where humankind
is claimed to be derived. This does seem to be taking us into a science
fictional realm. However, it could be said that the extraterrestrial option
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

is one taken up by most religions, with some concept or other of heaven

looming large in their belief systems, so scientology is working well-
worn territory here (reincarnation comes into Buddhism and Hinduism
as well). Sceptics yet again will react with bemusement to such unsub-
stantiated, and in their terms of reference unsubstantiatable, beliefs.
What would constitute scientifically acceptable proof of the existence
of heaven? Or previous lives, for that matter. Verifiable evidence is in
notably short supply in either instance, although verifiable does mean
something very different to the faithful: if it is in the sacred book then
consider it verified.

Proof and Religion
The question of proof has to loom very large with religions in gen-
eral. If there is objective proof available about its historical figures and
sacred works, then a religion’s claims can be accepted—at least up to
a point. Sacred works do not on their own constitute objective proof,
they would have to be confirmed by other reliable sources—and also
conform to scientific laws, with all the obvious issues that raises about
miracles. (An enterprising believer might suggest that scientific notions
such as the Big Bang sound a bit like miracles too, as no underlying
cause can be identified for its occurrence. Attribute it to God, how-
ever, as Pope Pius XII did, and the problem disappears—for believers
anyway.2) In one respect, however, religion can avoid the accusation of
being based on post-truth principles: the existence of a divine being.
While it is not possible to prove the existence of God beyond all logical
doubt, despite the valiant attempts of generations of religious philoso-
phers, neither is it possible to disprove it conclusively. It has to remain
an open question as to whether there is such an entity, and it is an idea
which has kept recurring over the history of human civilisation, making
it difficult to ignore in any discussion on the nature of truth and belief.
There is no post-truth as such involved in this case, although that is not
the same thing as saying it is true that there is a divine being, because
there is neither a definitive proof nor disproof. Where no proof exists of
a claim (and this applies to all areas of human activity, not just religion),
S. Sim

and it can be proved not to have happened, then we are in the realm of
post-truth. Alternative facts, as put forward by the Trump administra-
tion, can be subjected to this test; as can their monotonously frequent
claims of fake news made against their opponents. The only proof we
have of the Bowling Green massacre is Trump’s claim, no other record
of it exists; in which case it can be disproved. It had the desired impact,
however, and that it was not reported in the media was enough proof
to his followers that a conspiracy must be in operation against Trump.
You just cannot win with this group: Trump-trust is notoriously hard
to shake, being all but impervious to opposition. The alternative, that
perhaps there was no media coverage because there never was anything
of substance to cover in the first place, can be dismissed as fake news,
just as scientific proof about the Earth being billions of years old is dis-
missed by the Creationist camp. We find ourselves back in the hall of
mirrors. Creationism has to be considered a regressive step in terms
of religious belief, and yet despite the mental gymnastics it demands,
it continues to collect adherents. Christian bookshops can offer a wide
range of texts outlining the ‘truth’ of creationism, and these do sell—
particularly in America, where the movement is well entrenched within
the religious establishment.
Proofs for the existence of God within the Christian ­philosophical
tradition can sound very logical. Those of Anselm of Canterbury for
example, are painstakingly constructed, and dense in their reasoning.
God is here described as ‘something than which nothing greater can
be thought’, although that does not give us any very clear idea as to
what God actually is, remaining instead at the level of a fairly abstract
notion (a bit like the Big Bang in that respect).3 Yet for Anselm, to have
that abstract notion constitutes proof in itself of God’s existence: ‘And
surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in
the mind alone. For if it exists in the mind, even, it can be thought
to exist in reality also, which is greater’.4 To think otherwise, would be
to lapse into a logical contradiction: ‘greater’ has to include absolutely
everything or it cannot be defined as ‘greater’. For Anselm, the conclu-
sion to be reached from this line of reasoning is that ‘this being so truly
exists that it cannot be even thought not to exist. … And You, Lord,
are this being’.5 Even if we accept this argument, however (and it does
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

involve something of a leap of faith to reach its conclusion, much as

Pope Pius’s link between the Big Bang and God does), it does not pro-
vide any information as to what God’s overall plan for creation might
be; for that, we have to turn yet again to Christianity’s sacred book, and
accept what it says on trust. The Bible is to be taken as revealed truth,
containing all that the believer needs to know. Needless to say, sceptics
will find this sequence of proof less than convincing. It is the dead end
we reach with all religious philosophy: faith and reason constitute a par-
ticularly intractable differend.

Postmodernism and Religion
There have been various attempts in recent years to reinterpret religion
through postmodern theory, in order to give it a less fundamentalist
character. Whether these resolve the issue of faith as a basis for one’s
worldview is another matter, postmodernists having little time for faith
or uncritical belief of any kind, but at least it opens it out to the chal-
lenge of relativist thought. John D. Caputo has been one of the most
enthusiastic advocates of a postmodern approach to theology, as in his
provocatively titled book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?6 Caputo is
highly critical of fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity, argu-
ing that they are inimical to the spirit of Jesus’s thought and teach-
ings, to the extent that Jesus would, in the event of a ‘second coming’,
most likely set about deconstructing the entire Christian church and
its teachings for its drastic misunderstanding of his gospel. Rather
than the omnipotent, vengeful God of so much fundamentalist theol-
ogy, Caputo’s God is, provocatively enough, a ‘weak force’.7 This con-
cept moves us away from religion as post-truth, and God as a weak
force manifestly does not require the same level of zealotry that fun-
damentalists feel is necessary to defend their belief against critics. The
second coming is also interpreted from a deconstructive standpoint, as
something that will always be ‘to come’, always deferred, never arriv-
ing in any believer’s earthly lifetime—following on from Jacques
Derrida’s claim that meaning can never attain ‘full presence’.8 This
sounds remarkably similar to Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of ‘relative
S. Sim

certainty’ as well, with the second coming destined to be always a pre-

sumed future event beyond individual experience, but one which it is
not unreasonable to believe the ultimate reality of—a ‘weak’ second
coming perhaps. Once again, this steers us away from the absolute cer-
tainty assumed by fundamentalists. Faith here is a more tentative state
of mind, in dialogue with reason rather than opposed to it, and notably
willing to entertain doubts about the nature of belief. Deconstruction
offers an opportunity to rethink the Christian experience for Caputo.
Yet intriguing though Caputo’s reinterpretation of Christianity is, it
is unlikely to have any substantial effect on mainstream Christian the-
ology; not when he seems to be positing anything as paradoxical as rela-
tive divine omnipotence or a relatively certain second coming of Christ.
Most religious belief has its share of paradoxes, but these particular two
would be a step too far for a major monotheism like Christianity. As
would the notion of having to deconstruct Christian doctrine to leave
it lacking the certainty of meaning that believers invariably crave; take
that away and religion would lose much of its appeal. Relativism is not
part of the monotheistic mental set, and Caputo would appear hereti-
cal to some for even suggesting that it had any applicability to what for
the faithful are fundamental Christian principles. It would have to be
said that, as well as being a problematical metaphysical concept, a god
lacking full presence is a challenging basis for a monotheism. Anselm’s
reasoning may be dense and difficult for the non-philosopher to follow,
but nevertheless it does lead to expected conclusions that do not require
any rethinking of one’s basic theological beliefs: ‘And You, Lord, are this
being’, that is ‘that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought’, rather
than a ‘You Lord are a weak force’ (which the Bible does not tell you
As with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s post-Marxism,
Caputo’s postmodernist theology can claim to be in the spirit of its
belief system, even as it diverges from it; but that is always going to
clash with the fundamentalist impulse within Christian ­monotheism,
just as post-Marxism does with that in classical Marxism. Laclau’s
answer to his critics was that, ‘I haven’t rejected Marxism. Something
very different has occurred. It’s Marxism that has broken up and I
believe I’m holding on to its best fragments’, and Caputo presumably
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

could say much the same thing about Christianity.9 But no fundamen-
talist system really accepts the idea that there can be a legitimate post-
to it, or that its tradition has to be updated periodically to take account
of new trends of thought—especially if that update seeks to reinter-
pret its notion of certainty. Fundamentalism does not really go in for
degrees of certainty, never mind keeping only fragments of the origi-
nal creed as if it were a nostalgic reminder of the past: it has to be the
whole package. Caputo could even be described as anti-Christian from
that standpoint, since the Christian establishment will feel itself under
no obligation to justify its millennia-old beliefs to recently-developed
theories like deconstruction or postmodernism. Deconstruction hardly
suggests itself as the subject of a Sunday sermon.
Even so, there is another thought-provoking take on the relationship
between postmodernism and religious belief to be found in Lyotard’s
concept of paganism, where the polytheistic aspect of pagan religion is
seen as being far preferable to the monotheistic tradition in the sense
of being less doctrinaire. Lyotard has in mind paganism as it was prac-
ticed in the classical world, where city-states each had their own pan-
theon of gods: ‘I think that the relation between gods and humans is to
be thought of in terms of boundaries. And pagus always indicates the
country, the region…. It is the place where one compacts with some-
thing else’.10 There is no revealed truth or absolute truth in paganism,
‘it is’, as Lyotard interprets it, ‘a place of ceaseless negotiations and ruses’
with the gods inside the particular boundaries of one’s city-state.11
Polytheism lacks the authoritarian character of monotheism, and is a
more flexible system as far as the individual believer goes: far too flexible
for a religion like Christianity or Islam, who regard belief as something
far stronger than a compact that can be opted into or out of as the indi-
vidual chooses. Monotheistic gods expect obedience, rather than doing
deals with believers: power is not shared, it lies on the divine side of the
relationship only.
The pagan gods are equally engaged in ceaseless negotiations and
ruses with each other (the subject of many classical myths), meaning
that there never is any absolute truth to be identified, just positions rel-
ative to, and jostling with, each other. Full presence eludes them too.
This is not what monotheism has in mind at all, however; it is designed
S. Sim

to overcome such confusion. In a pagan situation there can be no defin-

itive criteria by which to make value judgements, since there is no
omnipotent God imposing these on humanity. The pagan gods have
their limitations, geographical and spiritual, and cannot claim to be any
more than weak forces. Religious truth is as relative as any other kind of
truth—for postmodernists or pagans anyway.

Post-Truth and the Meaning of Life

To the non-believer religion is based on a series of post-truths, espe-
cially when it comes to phenomena like miracles; but one of the rea-
sons that religions both survive and thrive is that they provide us with
post-truths we would like to believe in, because they have the ability to
give meaning and purpose to our lives. The need to find some mean-
ing to one’s existence has been a very powerful one throughout human
history, and the psychology lying behind it is perfectly understandable,
even to the non-believer. Atheism may have become more common in
modern times in the West, as declining church attendance would sug-
gest (although it is holding up better in the USA than elsewhere); but
religion still exerts its attraction, giving the individual a sense of being
part of a universal scheme, including, crucially for many, an after-life,
rather than their life having no point at all. Success of any kind can be
interpreted as a signal of divine approval, further reinforcing one’s belief
in the existence of a universal scheme under which one is guaranteed
divine protection. Financial success, for example, is to be regarded that
way as far as the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement in America is concerned:
the greater one’s faith then the greater one’s reward will be, both spirit-
ually and materially. The assumption, as Martyn Percy has put it, is that
‘God wants people to be rich, and that he makes them wealthy as a sign
of his blessing. So the richer you are, the more obvious it is that God
loves you’12 (the early nonconformists in England made a similar con-
nection, laying the groundwork for what was to become known as the
‘Protestant work ethic’13). Atheists may not consider these arguments
strong enough to make them believe in that universal scheme (God as
the ultimate capitalist could never appeal to socialist atheists anyway);
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

but they are not immune from the feelings that cause people to look
for it, even if they seek out meaning and purpose in different ways. The
positive side of religion can make its post-truths recede into the back-
ground, with adherents willing to take the latter on board in order to
gain the benefits of the former. And if these benefits include financial
success, that is another powerful incentive to keep on believing for
many; especially in such a materialistically oriented society as the USA,
where the notion of God as a capitalist would probably seem quite nat-
ural. The gospel being spread here is that it is the entrepreneurial who
will inherit the earth, not the meek (not surprisingly, Donald Trump
has close links with the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement).
Religious post-truth is defensible, therefore, in a way that the alt-
right version never could be: at the very least, the religious one is made
in good faith (even if misguided, as the non-believer would see it),
which is hardly something that could be said of the alt-right with its
divisively racist bias and fascist overtones. This is not to absolve religion
from the damage that fundamentalism, creationism, or the notion of
holy war can do, but to suggest that the psychology underpinning post-
truth always needs to be taken into account, and that some psychologies
are more dangerous than others. White supremacism has to be seen as a
far greater social menace than creationism, unhelpful though the latter
undoubtedly is in educational terms in terms of its conflict with science.
There is the less positive point to make about religion, however, that
conspiracy theory is also in the business of providing people with post-
truths they want to hear, and for much the same reasons, that it gives
meaning to their life and brings them within a community of like-
minded believers: the Simoninis of this world well understand that.
Even if religious post-truth can be defended to some extent, as above,
the psychology is much the same in each case: a need to find an all-
purpose explanation, and the sense of security that brings—no m ­ atter
how illusory that may be. To sceptics, it never could be anything but
illusory, as it lacks definitive proof for its claims; but as long as that
psychological need persists, then post-truth will have a receptive audi-
ence for its narratives in much the same manner that religion continues
to do. The tenaciousness of post-truth is clearly evident in each area.
Some Christians do warn against the implications of that tenaciousness;
S. Sim

as in the following injunction in the Quaker Faith and Practice man-

ual: ‘Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into
making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it pos-
sible that you may be mistaken’.14 Whether that includes the strength
of your convictions that God exists and that the miracles recorded in
the Bible are to be taken at face value, would be more problematical for
such believers, one would have to assume. It would be all to the good,
however, if post-truthers collectively, whether religious or not, could
be persuaded to base their conduct on the possibility that they could
be mistaken (starting with Donald Trump and Anne Coulter). Doubt
would be the great corrective against post-truth generally, and it is
always to be encouraged—as philosophical sceptics keep advising us.

1. Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to
Fight Back, London: Ebury Press, 2017, p. 2.
2. Pius speaks of ‘the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth
from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chem-
ical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies’, from which
he concludes that: ‘Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists’
(‘The Proofs for the Existence of God in the Light of Modern Natural
Science’ (1951); quoted in Simon Singh, Big Bang: The Most Important
Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It,
London and New York: Fourth Estate, 2004, p. 360). Even an atheist
would have to admit that this constitutes a neat conjunction of science
and theology.
3. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in Arthur Hyman and James J.
Walsh, eds, Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic,
and Jewish Traditions, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1973, pp. 149–51
(p. 150).
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of
Postmodernity for the Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,
4  Faith, Truth and Post-Truth in Religious Belief    

7. John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event,

Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006, p. 44.
8. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference [1967], trans. Alan Bass,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 279.
9. Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, trans.
Jon Barnes, et al., London and New York: Verso, 1990, p. 201.
10. Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming [1979],
trans. Wlad Godzich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985,
p. 42.
11. Ibid., p. 43.
12. Martyn Percy, ‘To Know Trump’s Faith Is To Understand His Politics’,
The Guardian, Journal Section (7 February 2018), p. 4.
13. Being barred from most of the professions—law or the universities,
for example—because of their refusal to conform to the established,
Anglican, church, led many nonconformists to engage in the world of
trade and business instead. Success in that endeavour was often inter-
preted by them as meaning that God was supportive of their theolog-
ical opposition to Anglicanism. You could say that the seeds of the
‘prosperity gospel’ are to be found there.
14. ‘Advices and Queries’ (17), in Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of
Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of
Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 5th edn,
(accessed 10 April 2018).

Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, eds,
Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions,
Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1973, pp. 149–51.
Caputo, John D., The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
———, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernity for the
Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
D’Ancona, Matthew, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back,
London: Ebury Press, 2017.
Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference [1967], trans. Alan Bass, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978.
S. Sim

Laclau, Ernesto, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, trans. Jon
Barnes, et al., London and New York: Verso, 1990.
Lyotard, Jean-François, and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming [1979], trans.
Wlad Godzich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Percy, Martyn, ‘To Know Trump’s Faith Is To Understand His Politics’, The
Guardian, Journal Section (7 February 2018), p. 4.
Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting
of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 5th edn, qfp.quaker. (accessed 10 April 2018).
Singh, Simon, Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time
and Why You Need to Know About It, London and New York: Fourth Estate,
Philosophical Scepticism and Its
Arguments for Relativism

Post-truth has an important philosophical dimension, in that philoso-

phers have wrestled from classical times onwards as to how to define
truth—indeed, whether there even is such a thing to be defined at all.
Truth is a very basic issue for philosophers, since without a concept of
truth it is difficult to work out how to ground any theory—including
what is to philosophers the most crucial of all, a theory of knowledge.
There has to be a basic assumption or proposition which can be taken
as true beyond all possible doubt, before any argument or theory can
be constructed that will resist criticism and yield certain conclusions.
Without that, there can be no foolproof theory of knowledge. Classical
sceptics pointed out that any such assumption would have to depend
on a previous one, and so on in infinite regress, meaning that there was
no proper foundation on which to base a theory of truth. Their line
was that there were only beliefs, and that none of these could claim to
be true beyond all possible doubt. In other words, truth was a relative
rather than an absolute concept: another case of ‘not quite this’ and ‘not
quite that’. That raises the very awkward question of how we can judge
between competing beliefs if we have no overall standard by which to
make such a judgement. If we are stuck with relativism, then how do

© The Author(s) 2019 79

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

we know what to believe and what not? Or how to defend the position
we find most credible? We would appear to be back with truth as anar-
chy, a situation which on the face of it could be turned to advantage by
the post-truth community, all but licensing them to claim whatever it is
they wanted to.
The most famous work of classical scepticism to survive is Outlines of
Scepticism (c. 200 A.D.) by Sextus Empiricus. For this thinker (building
on the work of earlier sceptics in a line running back several centuries
in Greek classical philosophy), truth was an illusion, because there was
no way of discriminating between the value of one or other instance of
it, leading him to claim that there was no point in even trying to do so:
‘The chief constitutive principle of scepticism is the claim that to every
account an equal account is opposed; for it is from this, we think, that
we come to hold no belief ’.1 Sextus Empiricus seemed quite sanguine
about being left in that position, one where ‘a suspension of judge-
ment’ leads ‘afterwards to tranquillity’, although not everyone would
be.2 One critic of classical scepticism has suggested that ‘perhaps some
people need a good hearty dose of naive Dogmatism (as religion appar-
ently comforts the bereaved)’, to enable them to negotiate the trials and
tribulations of everyday existence.3 Politically and ideologically Sextus’s
tranquillity amounts to a counsel of despair, as such passivity leaves the
field open to one’s competitors, and it is easy to see how post-truthers
might try to capitalise on this outcome by appealing to your prejudices
as a way of skirting round the problem of having doubts: dogmatists
need little more encouragement. It would be a case of believe in what
your feelings tell you and act accordingly, the antithesis of what most
philosophers think we should be doing in such situations—but, it has
to be admitted, one that does have a wide appeal. Post-truth would not
have been able to gain such a foothold were that not so. And as noted
before, any of us are more than capable of being carried along by our
emotions on occasion, and making decisions that in looking back on
we might well regret. The confirmed post-truther, however, is highly
unlikely to experience regret about trusting to his or her gut feeling.
Reflection on other possible outcomes is not a post-truth characteristic:
prejudice is proof against such a trait.
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

Relativism is not just a philosophical problem, therefore, it has

critical ideological implications in the everyday world, down to the level
of whether we can ever trust what we are being told. With allegations of
fake news flying all around us at present, that is an issue of considerable
import, and one can see why some would turn to Trump-trust as a solu-
tion: misguidedly, yes, but also understandably. At least Trump-trust
offers you a measure of security in a confusing world, something you
can always fall back on, as Sextus Empiricus did with tranquillity. Not
that one would describe the average Trump-truster as a tranquil type of
person, however; like their source of inspiration, they are culture warri-
ors with a long list of grievances which they are not going to stop ­airing
on the net—and wherever else they are given the opportunity in the
public sphere. They would be only too happy if their opponents with-
drew into tranquillity, leaving them with greater freedom to alter the
political system to their own benefit. Post-truthers feel no need at all to
give up on their beliefs.

Theories of Truth
There are various theories of truth in philosophy that would seem to
prevent the problem of relativism or post-truth from arising: corre-
spondence theory and coherence theory, for example. Correspondence
theory works on the principle of truth being a case of whether state-
ments are describing accurately states of affairs that exist in the world. If
you cannot indicate what that correspondence is then you cannot claim
that what you say is a truth, it requires that corroboration to justify
acceptance by others. Coherence theory takes truth to be a matter of
coherence within a system of belief, which makes it particularly appli-
cable to areas like mathematics and formal logic, where it is critical that
all the system’s symbols have a fixed value as to what they stand for, and
set rules as to how they can operate. Rather more problematically, how-
ever, it is a theory that can also be used within the area of religion. In
that latter case, the system itself depends on beliefs which do appear to
fit the description of post-truth, and as the previous chapter indicated,
S. Sim

once we get into the issue of faith and doctrines derived from sacred
books, things become very murky as regards truth. It is in the nature
of religions to be coherent, to hang together as a system of belief; but
the evidence for the truth of their doctrines, other than being present
in their sacred books, and the tradition of commentary that has grown
from that over time, is not going to be enough to persuade the non-
believer who is not starting from a position of faith. Miracles will always
constitute a sticking point for the latter. Whereas faith counts more
than reason on one side, the opposite applies on the other; coherence is
being judged according to different criteria by each side. Another differ-
end asking to be pondered over.
It can also be said of correspondence theory that the followers of such
political figures as Donald Trump really do seem to believe that what he
says describes actual states of affairs; it matches their vision of the world,
whereas what his critics say does not. In that world, the Bowling Green
Massacre really did take place, instead of something far more mundane
(the arrest of two suspects charged with being radical Islamists, with
no violent action ensuing), helping to make Trump’s case that terrorist
outrages were becoming more common in the USA, so action urgently
needed to be taken against Muslim immigrants. Furthermore, Trump’s
supporters believe his claim that there is a media conspiracy against
him, meaning that such events are not reported; the correspondences
are being suppressed by the liberal media. Conspiracy theory neatly fills
in the gaps here. Trump-trusters would also contend that their beliefs
are coherent, and could no doubt reel off exactly why. Something along
the lines of, ‘In Trump We Trust’ because otherwise the country will
continue to fall apart, thanks to the debilitating effect on public morals
of liberal policies: Obama has already tried to wreck the healthcare sys-
tem, etc. The likes of Coulter can always come up with the appropriate
chapter and verse on this, to keep the grievance level running high.
Any objections that this is not the way either theory of truth really
works philosophically speaking (and philosophers can offer much
tighter versions of both4), are hardly likely to change the opinion of
the committed Trump enthusiast. A very basic, if somewhat naive,
interpretation of both coherence and correspondence can be turned to
advantage by the post-truth camp, who can then feel vindicated in the
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

trust they hold in Trump. Everything would neatly fit in; thinking it
possible that they may be mistaken is not on their agenda. Post-truthers
are nothing if not strong-willed in persevering with their beliefs; ‘naive
Dogmatism’ is not to be commended in their case.
Bayesian analysis puts forward yet another method of dealing with
the problem of uncertainty, basing itself on probability, and what we
can infer from this. It has been described as ‘a rigorous method for
interpreting evidence in the context of previous experience or knowl-
edge’.5 In the absence of certainty, therefore, there are degrees of
probability, based on our knowledge of past events and the reason-
able expectations we have built up because of this. Each episode of
confirming evidence can combine with our prior beliefs (in scientific
laws, for example), so that we can infer a higher probability of those
beliefs being true the next time around. Truth is still provisional, but
there is a probability that can be assigned to it, based on past instances,
making it reasonable to go on believing in it—as with a given scien-
tific law. It is never an absolute guarantee, as a contradictory instance
is always theoretically possible, but it is enough to work with in most
sets of circumstances that we are likely to encounter. We might con-
clude from the use-value of Bayesian analysis that it is the desire for
certainty (particularly absolute certainty) that creates difficulties, and
that this is more of a psychological problem than a philosophical or
scientific one. Since they are very often operating at the boundaries of
what we know, an absence of certainty is something that scientists are
quite used to coping with; their task then becomes to find ways round
that, not to give up on their researches and retreat into the world of
Sextus Empiricus.
Bayesian analysis is now being used very widely in the sciences, par-
ticularly with regard to statistics and the practice of computation. While
it does not yield certain truth, it does provide a basis for ­continuing
on in its absence, and most importantly, what we can infer from the
information available to us at any given moment as to what we can
believe with a reasonable degree of confidence. It is not a case of being
mistaken to believe in probability, which for Bayesians is as close to
certainty as we can hope to get. James V. Stone has summed up the
system’s benefits as follows:
S. Sim

Bayesian inference is not guaranteed to provide the correct answer.

Instead, it provides the probability that each of a number of alternative
answers is true, and these can then be used to find the answer that is most
probably true. In other words, it provides an informed guess. While this
may not sound like much, it is far from random guessing. Indeed, it can
be shown that no other procedure can provide a better guess[.]6

Being provisional need not mean that all discourse is thrown into a
state of disarray and knowledge rendered useless, or that there are no
ways of settling disputes. Probability from this perspective is a much
stronger position than we might initially think it ever could be, involv-
ing informed rather than random guessing, the latter being the kind of
criticism that scepticism and relativism are often subjected to.
Informed guessing means that we are still left with relativism, but it is
not as open-ended as the more radical sceptics are prone to claim. There
is no need to withdraw into the state of tranquil passivity recommended
by Sextus Empiricus—nor to revert to naive dogmatism to avoid that
fate either. The key to our informed guessing is information:

[A]s the amount of information we have increases, our confidence in the

probability of each possible outcome also increases. This suggests that
probability is not a property of the physical world, but is a measure of
how much information an observer has about that world.7

While Bayesian theory rapidly becomes extremely complex to

non-mathematicians (such as myself ) when it is applied in the area of
statistics, the notion of proceeding on the grounds of probability does
seem to fit in with our intuitions of how we behave in so many aspects
of our everyday experience: we act according to our accumulated store
of knowledge. Having conceived of this book as a defence of truth, it
might perhaps be more realistic to think of it as a defence of proba-
ble truth. That is still a worthwhile exercise, however, and the virtues of
proceeding on the basis of probable truth are well brought out by Stone:
‘In essence, Bayes’ rule provides a method for not fooling ourselves into
believing our own prejudices, because it represents a rational basis for
believing things that are probably true, and for disbelieving things that
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

are probably not’.8 (Medical students have a noted tendency to assume

exotic diseases when diagnosing patients in their early career, but are
advised by their tutors that when they hear the sound of hooves they
should think of horses first rather than zebras; which bears out Stone’s
point very nicely. The lack of information available does suggest a mar-
ginal probability and low likelihood of a zebra stampede—especially in
countries like the UK.) The implications of such an approach extend
well beyond science and mathematics; there are important lessons to
be learned for the realm of politics, where prejudice is far too much in
evidence at present and being given far too much latitude. In the post-
truth community, believing your own prejudices is the standard way of
doing business; these are never examined dispassionately enough to test
their validity.
Julian Baggini has argued that truth needs to be broken down into
a series of different types, presenting us with ten of these, a ‘taxonomy
of truths’ running from ‘eternal’ through to ‘holistic’.9 Different crite-
ria apply to each of these types, and we need to be clear which we are
dealing with before making any general statements about the nature of
‘truth’. Religious ‘truth’ is not to be confused with philosophical, for
instance. Baggini warns us that if we are going ‘[t]o rebuild belief in the
power and value of truth, we can’t dodge its complexity. Truths can be
and often are difficult to understand, discover, explain, verify. They are
also disturbingly easy to hide, distort, abuse or twist’.10 In other words,
truth can be a source of much social and political division, something
we are only too aware of in an age of post-truth politics, and that lends
a sense of urgency to the task of finding some type of truth we can
depend upon to counter Trump-trust and its distorting effect on public
discourse. The objective has to be to steer a course between the extremes
of scepticism and dogmatism.
What Baggini’s arguments prove more than anything is that we ought
to be exceedingly careful in the way we use the concept of truth, which
we manifestly are not always being in our everyday discourse. There are
situations in which we use it where it is not really applicable, where we
are stating something more like a political or aesthetic preference than
a truth in its stricter sense: ‘supposed truths’ only, as Baggini describes
them.11 When we speak of truth as a kind of preference, that leaves lots
S. Sim

of room for debate, and the likelihood of a range of preferences being

expressed across a group of individuals. Terminology becomes crucial
in this context, otherwise we find ourselves back in Sextus Empiricus’s
position of having to acknowledge that every account is being opposed
by an equal account, leaving us with no obvious basis to judge between
them. Belief should be clearly differentiated from truth, but in our
everyday exchanges with others we are not always doing so: ‘this is true
for me’ being a comment one often hears, and which can draw a very
aggrieved response if objected to on philosophical grounds as a belief
rather than a truth. What ‘true for me’ really means is, ‘I like this’
(whether a belief, feeling, or state of mind), and all of us ought to be
very wary of falling back on this as a method of closing down discus-
sion. It is highly unlikely it will be ‘true’ for everyone else—or even
­anyone else.
Theories of truth cannot cover all eventualities, however, and there
are statements which will resist being definitively categorised as either
true or false. Both mathematics and science can provide us with many
examples of these intriguing, but also frustrating, ‘not quite this’ ‘not
quite that’ entities. There is no definitive proof, for example, as to
whether the sequence 1–9 will ever turn up in pi, where the fraction can
keep on being extended no matter what point it has reached (pi being
calculated as approximately 3.14159). It has not yet, but it remains
within the realm of possibility nevertheless, and even if it did appear,
some other sequence could always be put forward. It is problems of
this nature that have given rise to theories such as ‘fuzzy logic’, which
works on the assumption of vagueness as to whether a given proposi-
tion is true or false (undecidable being another possibility). Rather than
such definitive either/or positions, fuzzy logic posits degrees of truth.
Admittedly, these are not problems that have much impact on our daily
lives, but they do bring home how complicated the issue can be, and
science offers an array of very thought-provoking problems when it
comes to the nature of truth.
Most of us think of scientific laws as true, but they are in the main
only provisionally so; deemed true according to the current state of
scientific knowledge, and this is always subject to change—sometimes
­radical change that demands we must adopt a whole new world picture.
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

We have been witness to several such radical changes in recent years,

with physics in particular constantly generating challenges to the ‘standard
model’ of the nature of the universe that can be quite bewildering to the
layperson. Quantum mechanics poses a whole range of particularly tax-
ing problems in that respect, in that it pictures a micro world where the
laws of the standard model just do not appear to apply: a world where
particles can be in two places simultaneously, for example (until meas-
ured, anyway). It also gives us such counter-intuitive situations to mull
over as Schrodinger’s Cat, potentially both alive and dead in an experi-
mental setting of being locked in a box containing a radioactive particle.
Which state it is actually in cannot be determined until its condition
is checked. Scientific history contains a long list of discarded ‘laws’,
which were subsequently found not to be true—or at least, to have been
superseded by some new ones. Neither can we guarantee that our cur-
rent set will continue to be ‘true’ into the indefinite future; indeed, it
is highly unlikely that all of them will as scientific research advances
into new areas of enquiry, and has to find new ways of describing them.
They have the status of provisionality no less than their lost predeces-
sors. Lyotard sees scientists as working on the principle that, ‘as long
as I can produce proof, it is permissible to think that reality is the way
I say it is’, but only ‘as long as’.12 That sounds in line with Bayesian
principles, and it is where post-truth falls down (Rove’s ‘empire reality’
Fuzzy logic enables us to make calculations in the absence of absolute
certainty, when there is a vagueness as to what the outcome is going to
be. It describes several real-life situations where we lack precise enough
information to act with a sense of certainty—but nevertheless gen-
erally go on to act anyway. Informed guessing comes into its own in
such cases, and all of us fall back on this on a regular basis. Bart Kosko,
one of the leading proponents of fuzzy logic, took issue with the notion
that truth and falsity were absolute categories, insisting that, ‘[a]ll facts
were matters of degree. The facts were always fuzzy or vague or inexact
to some degree. Only math was black and white and it was just an arti-
ficial system of rules and symbols’.13 His recommendation was that we
should think of truth as a ‘scorecard’ for calculating the degree reached
in any given situation, which is to be found in ‘the infinite continuum
S. Sim

of gray scores between 0 and 1’.14 Facts, for Kosko, are ‘partially true’
or ‘partially false’—as opposed to logic, which is ‘100% true or 100%
false’. But he insists there is no overlap between the spheres of opera-
tion of facts and logic: ‘never the twain shall meet’.15 Post-truth cannot
take advantage of this ‘partial’ quality, however, because it is decidable
whether its claims are right or not: evidence either way can be cited.
Fake news is not fuzzy: the Bowling Green Massacre is not just partially
false, it is false. In Baggini’s terms of reference, what we are dealing with
here is a supposed truth only, and evidence can be brought to bear on
it to reveal that this is so; there is a real truth about the supposed one.
Trump-trusters will just ignore the evidence, but that does not render
it undecidable. Informed guessing and dogmatism lie at opposite poles
to each other when it comes to decision-making. There has to be a fact
before we can speak of it being partially true or partially false, and fake
news cannot meet that criterion, meaning that we have no basis for
informed guessing in such cases. Sounding true, or even just plausible,
is not enough to take us into the range of partiality.

David Hume, Causality and Truth

David Hume’s work on causality fits in well with the notion of scientific
truth as only ever being provisional, and he remains one of the most
interesting and provocative of philosophical sceptics. Hume’s argument
was that cause and effect were not as predictable as they were assumed
to be, and that we could not guarantee that a given cause would always
have the same effect every time around. It was merely ‘custom’—in
other words, habit—to believe that this would happen, based on pre-
vious observed instances. But since we could have no knowledge of the
future we could not say with certainty that the usual thing would neces-
sarily occur on the next occasion:

There is no internal impression which has any relation to the present

business, but that propensity, which custom produces, to pass from an
object to the idea of its usual attendant. This, therefore, is the essence of
necessity. Upon the whole, necessity is something that exists in the mind,
not in objects[.]16
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

For Hume, therefore, there is no ‘necessary connection’ to be found

between causes and effects, meaning that there is no guaranteed uni-
formity to be found in nature.17 Such uniformity is something most
of us simply take for granted: indeed, our world picture is constructed
on that basis and the security it brings us as we go about our every-
day affairs. Yet the only thing we can say with certainty is that there
has been uniformity up to the present, we cannot go any further than
that; our knowledge stops at that point. In a similar vein, Ludwig
Wittgenstein was later to comment that:

It is an hypothesis that the sun will rise tomorrow: and this means that
we do not know whether it will rise. There is no compulsion making one
thing happen because another has happened. The only necessity that
exists is logical necessity.18

In both cases scientific law is viewed as only ever provisional, based on

our lack of certainty as to how the future will turn out. It is an extreme
position to take, but a plausible one nevertheless in epistemological
terms; although Bayesian probability theory makes it seem less alarming
than Hume presents it, because for Bayesians ‘habit’ can be assigned a
probability. We are not left in quite the condition of limbo that Hume
seems to envisage as our fate; certainty may not extend into the future,
but we do have it up to that point, which for Bayesians is enough to
dispel our worst fear of systems suddenly collapsing around us. One
contrary instance need not demolish the basic assumption being used
either; it would only affect the probability ratio overall. Informed guess-
ing still applies, and it would need a succession of failures before that
lost its credibility. The Bayesian would point out that the hypothesis
that the sun would rise tomorrow has consistently been true up until
now, meaning that the likelihood that it will not do so tomorrow can be
described as a marginal probability only (very marginal given the huge
number of confirming instances). Bayesians would stress the marginal,
Hume the probability; but it is the former that is more likely to be a
guide to how events unfold.
To speak of scientific ‘truth’ is to stretch the concept of truth quite
a bit, but not to the point of it being classifiable as fake news. Nothing
is being invented, as is the practice in the post-truth camp; guessed at
S. Sim

perhaps according to the current state of scientific knowledge, but not

made up, and that is always a critical distinction to bear in mind when
it comes to truth versus post-truth. Informed guessing is what is going
on here, not random, and that provides enough of a basis for scien-
tific enquiry to proceed with, as well as for the general public to get
on with their lives without worrying overmuch about the unexpected.
If the unexpected does happen, then it will most likely generate either
new scientific laws or revised versions of existing ones, rather than the
state of helplessness that Hume seems to be implying would be our
fate. Scientific enquiry would not stop at such points. Carlo Rovelli
has made the point that when such contradictions arise, scientists
become inspired to discover the reasons why, treating such an event as
‘an extraordinary opportunity’ to engage in new enquiries and test out
new concepts.19 Neither are they fazed by the experience of doubt with
regard to the state of their scientific knowledge; that, for Rovelli, is just
as it should be. For him, ‘permanent doubt’ is ‘the deep source of sci-
ence’.20 Above all else, scientists must not be dogmatic.
Hume is to carry his notion of there being no necessary connection
between events into the area of personal identity, where he proceeds,
characteristically enough, to make some startling claims:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always
stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or
shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any
time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the per-
ception…. I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are
nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which suc-
ceed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux
of movement.21

The idea of the self as just a series of perceptions only momentarily

experienced prefigures the claims of deconstructionist theorists that
meaning, too, is in a state of perpetual flux, never staying fixed for long
enough for truth to be anything else but relative. There is no necessary
connection between a word and its meaning for Jacques Derrida, push-
ing us further and further into the condition of relativism. Hume, more
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

worryingly, appears to be confronting us with relativism of our personal

identity. A state of ‘perpetual flux of movement’ would be a desperate
condition indeed from which to construct a theory of knowledge, and
even Bayesian theory would find it difficult to resolve the problem it
leaves us with. Certainty of having had particular perceptions in the
past would not take us very far, since they appear to be random in
nature, thus not a very promising candidate as a ground for a theory of
identity. Hume remains one of the most thought-provoking of philo-
sophical sceptics, a source of some of the subject’s ‘most cunning puzzles
and most obdurate problems’; although it is interesting to note that he
has his own state of tranquillity that he withdraws to when his scepti-
cism becomes too much for him to bear:

I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my

friends; and when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return
to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous,
that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.22

Even Hume, it would seem, cannot resist ‘a good hearty dose of naive
Dogmatism’ on occasion.

Truth and Evidence
It will have become clear by now that in most areas of life truth is a
matter of evidence, rather than purely logical deduction as it is carried
out in mathematics or formal logic. Post-truth and fake news can only
be disproved by providing evidence to the contrary of what they are
claiming, evidence that can be independently verified, or by exposing
their lack of evidence for their claims. This is how scientific truth works
as well, by investigating what evidence can be found for its theories;
even when these have been reached through mathematical calculations,
they still need to be tested, as Rovelli emphasises:

[T]he theory gives predictions about things we have not yet observed,
and we can check whether these are correct, or not…. This is what
S. Sim

distinguishes science from other kinds of thinking, where deciding who

is right and who is wrong is usually a much thornier question, sometimes
even devoid of meaning.23

When no such evidence is forthcoming, or if it is a hit and miss affair

(after a series of experiments yielding conflicting results, say), then the
theory in question is falling short of the requirements for producing sci-
entific truth, and either has to be revised or a new theory developed. At
that point, Rovelli’s ‘extraordinary opportunity’ presents itself. Although
it is worth noting in this context that the move to take such opportu-
nities is not always necessarily approved of by the scientific establish-
ment, who can be notably conservative when faced with calls for radical
change in their methods and beliefs. As Thomas Kuhn’s work has pos-
tulated, scientific laws provide the basis for a paradigm, which becomes
the accepted way of conducting scientific activity while it is in force.
The evidence that is generated by experiments is judged according to
the principles of the paradigm. This is what Kuhn refers to as ‘normal
science’, where the overriding aim is to apply the paradigm’s theories as
widely as possible to test their validity: ‘puzzle-solving’ as he describes
it.24 This is in line with the concerns of Bayesian analysis: providing
the framework for establishing probabilities in order to play down the
impact of scepticism. Each confirming instance that occurs increases the
reliability of informed guessing about likely future results.
Under the aegis of normal science truth becomes a matter of conven-
tion, and will continue to be that until the paradigm loses its credibil-
ity through repeated failure to explain anomalies (Kuhn provides several
examples of this process in scientific history). At that point ‘normal sci-
ence’ begins to lose its authority amongst practitioners, and the oppor-
tunity arises to construct a new paradigm with new criteria for judging
the validity, or otherwise, of experimental findings. With the advent of
a new paradigm normal science resumes, addressing the many puzzles
that the new theory invariably brings along in its wake.
Although critics have argued that Kuhn’s model of scientific his-
tory is rather too neat to explain all the changes that have taken place
in scientific theory and practice over the centuries (he goes back to the
example of how the Copernican theory of cosmology came to replace
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

the Ptolemaic worldview as something of a model), it can be said in its

favour that it does make the provisionality of scientific truth very plain.
Scientific truth in physics has altered quite dramatically over the last
few centuries, and continues to do so right through into our own day,
when it is in a considerable state of flux, with quantum mechanics and
Einsteinian relativity in conflict with each other over a wide range of
issues. Scientists are still searching for that elusive ‘theory of everything’.
Kuhn’s model also tells us how large a role evidence plays in deciding
what will count as truth in the scientific world at any given time. Any
challenge to the existing dominant theories must be backed up by more
than a mere insistence on alternative facts being available. Whatever
those alternative facts may be, they will either have to conform to exist-
ing theories (normal science), or generate a new theory which itself will
be subjected to rigorous testing in its turn. The critical point is that,
even if it is truth only by convention, mechanisms exist whereby its
claims can be checked against the field’s professionally accepted criteria
(Bayesian analysis could come into this process too). At any stage in sci-
entific history when extraordinary opportunities are being followed up,
‘whether these are correct, or not’ can be determined. Any attempt at
post-truth within the scientific community would soon be exposed for
the deception that it was; proof must always be forthcoming.
Such extraordinary opportunities apply in medical science too, which
relies very heavily nowadays on evidence based methods. These methods
constantly have to be reviewed, and this has brought about a significant
change in working practices in the treatment of most medical condi-
tions. Previously, procedures that were established by leading figures in
the field tended to become standard forms of treatment, on the basis of
the authority behind them (jokingly referred to within the profession
as ‘eminence based medicine’). Now, the emphasis is on looking at suc-
cess rates of procedures, which yields the evidence the system requires
as to which is proving the most effective. Evidence is not something to
be set in stone, however, it can be refined and altered as techniques for
generating data change over time; it will always depend on the technol-
ogy available, so provisionality is built into the evidence based approach
as well. We are in the realm of informed guessing once more. Logical
truth, on the other hand, is a case of following the rules of the formal
S. Sim

system one is using; mathematics is a rule-bound activity, as are the var-

ious systems used in philosophical logic. These offer a particularly spe-
cialised form of truth (‘artificial’, as Kosko sees it), and one that is easy
to check. Either the calculations have been done correctly or they have
not: scepticism is inapplicable in such cases. When correct calculations
have been made, then we can speak of mathematical or logical certainty
as regards the conclusions reached: provisionality does not come into it.
Truth in everyday life, however, is a less straightforward affair, otherwise
post-truth and fake news would have no scope for operation. Collecting
evidence is a more painstaking activity when it comes to disproving the
claims of Trump et al., and this is what gives them room for manoeuvre;
puzzle-solving in this context is a case of trying to work out what devi-
ous aims lie behind their claims, and scepticism about these is utterly
justified. Poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophy would seem to
cast doubt on the notion of clinching evidence in general, which does
not help matters either. Whether that is the whole story about what is
going on in these areas needs to be considered.

1. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, trans. Julia Annas and
Jonathan Barnes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 4.
2. Ibid.
3. R.J. Hankinson, The Sceptics, London and New York: Routledge, 1995,
p. 306.
4. See, for example, Joshua Rasmussen, Defending the Correspondence
Theory of Truth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014; Ralph
C.S. Walker, The Coherence Theory of Truth: Realism, Anti-Realism,
Idealism, London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
5. James V. Stone, Bayes’ Rule: A Tutorial Introduction to Bayesian Analysis,
Sheffield: Sebtel Press, 2013, p. 1.
6. Ibid., p. 9.
7. Ibid., p. 120.
8. Ibid., p. 128.
9. Julian Baggini, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth
World, London: Quercus, 2017, p. 10.
5  Philosophical Scepticism and Its Arguments for Relativism    

0. Ibid., pp. 8–9.

11. Ibid., p. 9.
12. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge [1979], trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi,
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 24.
13. Bart Kosko, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, London:
Flamingo, 1993, p. xv.
14. Ibid., p. 81.
15. Ibid., p. 88.
16. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature [1739], ed. D.G.C.
Macnabb, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1962, pp. 216–7.
17. Ibid., p. 123.
18. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1921], trans. D.F.
Pears and B.F. McGuinness, London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1974, p. 70.
19. Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum
Gravity, trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, London: Penguin, 2017,
p. 127.
20. Ibid., p. 121.
21. Hume, Treatise, pp. 301–2.
22. Ibid., p. 318.
23. Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems, p. 183.
24. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962], 2nd edn,
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 5, 36.

Baggini, Julian, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World,
London: Quercus, 2017.
Hankinson, R.J., The Sceptics, London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature [1739], ed. D.G.C. Macnabb,
Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1962.
Kosko, Bart, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, London:
Flamingo, 1993.
Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962], 2nd edn, Chicago
and London: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
S. Sim

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

[1979], trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1984.
Rasmussen, Joshua, Defending the Correspondence Theory of Truth, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Rovelli, Carlo, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity,
trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, London: Penguin, 2017.
Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, trans. Julia Annas and Jonathan
Barnes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Stone, James V., Bayes’ Rule: A Tutorial Introduction to Bayesian Analysis,
Sheffield: Sebtel Press, 2013.
Walker, Ralph C.S., The Coherence Theory of Truth: Realism, Anti-Realism,
Idealism, London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1921], trans. D.F. Pears
and B.F. McGuinness, London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François
Lyotard Versus Jacques Derrida

Relativism became very popular again in the latter part of the t­wentieth
century amongst postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers like Jean-
François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, for whom
it became a way of challenging the power structures in our culture. If
there was no overall standard for truth then that meant such structures
were based on unsubstantiated assumptions, thus undermining their
credibility and the authority this gave them over the general public.
This was a line that was pushed hard by poststructuralists and postmod-
ernists, who saw themselves as taking on the establishment across the
fields of politics and the arts. As we have noted, relativism taken to its
extreme means that no one belief can be considered any better than any
other, and that creates a very considerable problem with regard to value
judgements, raising the issue of whether these are still possible within a
relativist framework where clinching evidence would appear to be ruled
out. Clinching evidence or not, however, value judgements cannot be
avoided; so how can we justify them? A comparison of the treatment
of relativism in the work of Lyotard and Derrida in particular can be
very revealing in that respect, and it has important implications for any
analysis of the post-truth phenomenon. Deconstruction can be a very

© The Author(s) 2019 97

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

destabilising theory in epistemological terms, and that plays into the

hands of hostile political commentators such as Matthew D’Ancona,
who has attacked poststructuralism and postmodernism on the basis
that, ‘if everything is a “social construct”, then who is to say what is
false? What is to stop the purveyor of “fake news” from claiming to be
a digital desperado, fighting the wicked “hegemony” of the mainstream
media?’.1 It is a description which fits the profile of an alleged ‘political
satirist’ like Paul Horner, so D’Ancona does have a point.
Lyotard’s interpretation of relativism, however, while recognising the
considerable problems involved in making value judgements from that
position, does not want to give up on doing so, particularly on politi-
cal and ethical matters. For Lyotard, metanarratives must be challenged
at every opportunity to prevent them from abusing their power (which
they are systematically guilty of doing, in his view), and that means
going past the rather naive relativism of Sextus Empiricus’s classical
scepticism. Lyotard will not be one to seek tranquillity when it comes
to beliefs: social constructs still demand to be assessed in his world, and
finding the criteria with which to undertake this task is a central, and
very laudable, concern of his philosophy. Passivity is to be ruled out by
this thinker. Derrida’s work, on the other hand, seems far more con-
cerned with demonstrating how criteria can only fail us, and although
it can be very persuasive on this score, it does leave us in an uncomfort-
able state of limbo when it comes to matters of value judgement. In an
era of post-truth, that is not a very desirable outcome, and as the phi-
losopher Peter Salmon has remarked: ‘It seems we have deconstructed
truth just when we needed it most’.2 My argument will be that Lyotard
offers us an antidote to that condition.
The difference between Lyotard and Derrida came to a head dur-
ing the 1980s, when French intellectual circles clashed over the ques-
tion of whether the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work was
tainted by his well-documented association with the Nazi movement.
Derrida argued that Heidegger’s Nazi connections did not detract
from his philosophical work, whereas Lyotard argued that they did, as
his book Heidegger and “the jews” went on to explain in detail.3 Value
judgement was implicit in this analysis, and it had long been a consum-
ing concern of Lyotard’s, as in the series of interviews that made up Just
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

Gaming, where he addressed the problem of how to go about making

value judgements despite being a confirmed relativist.4 His work can
be very helpful in countering the post-truth phenomenon, therefore,
demonstrating that relativism need not lead to a free-for-all as far as
meaning goes. Relativism means that there are various possible inter-
pretations of events in the world, not, as in post-truth, that you have
invented something that either is not there or never actually took place.
Which is to say that relativism provides no basis for a post-truth cul-
ture, despite claims to the contrary by the likes of D’Ancona. While one
can understand the latter’s testy reaction to poststructuralist and post-
modernist thought, which admittedly can be deliberately provocative on
occasion, it fails to take into account Lyotard’s repeated attempts to find
ways round the dilemma, and to insist that some social constructs are
far preferable to others. Both liberal democracy and fascism qualify as
social constructs, but that does not mean they are equally valid ideo-
logically or morally. It is also dismissing the entire history of scepticism
within Western philosophy, where it has played a critical role in rais-
ing questions about the validity of many philosophical methods and the
systems they have generated. We could also point out that (leaving Paul
Horner aside for the moment) in most cases the ‘digital desperado’ is
making a value judgement by asserting that the mainstream media have
got it wrong, and that his or her ‘fake news’ is to be believed instead.
That is a characteristic of post-truthers in general; they have a political
axe to grind, and are not being maverick for the sake of it. Relativism,
however, does not really allow for such a move to be made, whether it is
Derrida’s version of it or Lyotard’s.

Deconstruction and Relativism
Deconstruction undermines the notion of truth, and consequently any
ideological claims, putting it at variance with Lyotard’s more politically
oriented approach to the topic. Derrida’s line throughout his work is
that deconstruction is neither theory nor method: ‘deconstruction, as I
have often had to insist, is not a discursive or theoretical affair, but a
practico-political one, and it is always produced within the structures
S. Sim

… said to be institutional’.5 This is one of the main reasons why it is

difficult to draw up a specific political programme from deconstruc-
tion: although there are obvious political implications to be noted in
the way that its brand of relativism undercuts the notion of authority
(hence Derrida’s ‘practico-political’ description). The claim does, how-
ever, apparently enable Derrida’s followers to brush off any criticism of
deconstruction—and there has been no lack of this from the Anglo-
American philosophical community for several decades now. If decon-
struction is not a theory or a method then it is in effect declaring itself
to be off-limits to standard philosophical critique; especially when it
is claiming that all of Western philosophy is founded on questionable
principles anyway, being one of the ‘institutions’ Derrida is referring
to. For mainstream philosophers that is to adopt a position of extreme
relativism, a radical scepticism that would seem to render any kind of
debate well nigh impossible. Deconstruction makes philosophy sound
like a deeply compromised discipline based on indefensible principles,
and at that point the differences between the two sides are all but irrec-
oncilable. Being told that your professional activity is basically a waste
of time rarely goes down very well, and not surprisingly made Derrida
many enemies.
I will be arguing that Derrida’s position is ultimately an untenable
one, and that deconstruction cannot avoid being defined as a form of
scepticism, in which case it cannot escape the problems that inevita-
bly go along with a relativist outlook. There are positive points to be
drawn from this too, however, since it brings deconstruction into a very
influential discourse in Western thought and therefore into, at least
potentially, productive dialogue with that tradition. And it is a tradi-
tion that still has much to commend it when it comes to the analysis of
discourse. The ahistoricist tendency in deconstruction does it no favours
and is to be resisted. Treat it as a form of extreme scepticism, however,
and deconstruction makes much more sense; a technique that poses
some very awkward questions for traditional modes of thought. That
may not rehabilitate it in the eyes of the mainstream analytical tradition
in philosophy in the English-speaking world, which is no great fan of
scepticism in general, but it does provide a context from which to assess
the validity or otherwise of Derrida’s claims.
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

Derrida points out that all discourse is based on an assumption that

words can convey precise meanings from speakers to listeners. This is
what he dubs logocentricity, and he sets about dismantling the notion,
arguing that slippage of meaning is inevitable in the act of communi-
cation. For Derrida there is an inherent instability to words, which can
never achieve full presence in terms of their meaning (in which case,
as his critics never tire of observing, the same must apply to his own
writings; a traditional rejoinder to sceptics). Discourse in Western
culture assumes a ‘metaphysics of presence’ whereby meaning main-
tains its integrity, holding over time, being ‘present’ to the listener or
reader when they encounter it; but for Derrida it is constantly being
deconstructed instead, gone almost as soon as it is voiced.6 The bulk
of Western philosophy is based, therefore, on what is for Derrida a
false premise. It posits ‘founding concepts’ which themselves seem-
ingly do not need founding, the dilemma that classical scepticism had
identified.7 Any attempt at solving this discrepancy could only lead us,
as Sextus Empiricus had warned, into an infinite regress. The absence
of founding concepts means that we can never locate the starting
point needed for any theory to overturn relativism comprehensively.
Searching for origins is thus for Derrida a pointless activity, although
Western thought in particular does seem to be somewhat obsessed by it.
Derrida’s ideas therefore represent a broadside against the phil-
osophical establishment that is very similar in effect to that of classi-
cal scepticism, as very quickly became apparent in the early essays
collected together in Writing and Difference. The main target of the
book was structuralism, which by the 1960s had turned into one of the
main methods of critical analysis in France through the efforts of such
high-profile thinkers as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, being
widely applied across the humanities and social sciences. Derrida wades
into the assumptions on which structuralism is based, taking issue in
particular with the notion that there is a deep structure to texts which
fixes their meaning in place. The implication was that structure, almost
conceived of as a pre-existent entity, largely determined what the text
would go on to be: ‘The structure thus was a receptive one, waiting,
like a girl in love, ready for its future meaning to marry and fecundate
it’.8 For Derrida, this is a case of ‘preformationism: the well-known
S. Sim

biological doctrine, opposed to epigenesis, according to which the total-

ity of hereditary characteristics is enveloped in the germ, and is already
in action in reduced dimensions that nevertheless respect the forms and
proportions of the future adult’.9 That is not what writing really is, in
Derrida’s view; it is neither predetermined nor stable in terms of mean-
ing. We should think of it instead as creative and constantly evolving:
‘It is because writing is inaugural, in the fresh sense of the word, that
it is dangerous and anguishing. It does not know where it is going’ (no
doubt every writer has had that feeling in the early stages of a project).10
Neither is the finished product going to mean the same thing to every
reader; it will be constantly evolving with each and every reading. There
can be no definitive reading of a text; a situation which would not be at
all acceptable to monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, where
full presence is simply assumed when it comes to its sacred texts, carry-
ing a divine guarantee. To say that the Bible or the Qu’ran do not know
where they are going, would amount to heresy to the faithful. John
Caputo might be able to take that idea on board, but no monotheism
could operate under such a regime.
Whereas structuralism had assumed that texts were highly organised
entities, thus susceptible to being decoded by critical analysts who could
systematically and comprehensively itemise the elements that made up
their structure (Barthes developing highly detailed ‘grammars’ of texts
by which to undertake the exercise11), Derrida sees them as far more
fluid and constitutionally unable to cohere around any central meaning,
or deep structure. No writer is ever really in control of what he or she is
doing, therefore, because texts always evade that kind of direction (the
same thing must be assumed to apply to Derrida’s own writing, which
has to raise some interesting questions as to how to read him as well,
of course). Derrida argues that there is ‘what we might call the play of
the structure’, which escapes the condition of control and fixing that
traditional forms of critical analysis like structuralism assume always
applies in texts.12 Given that play, meaning can never be pinned down
precisely; full presence can never occur, because there is no ‘reassuring
foundation’ to guarantee it.13 Again, the faithful would baulk at that.
Derrida’s conception of language as so fluid and imprecise hardly
inspires confidence when it comes to making value judgements: that is
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

the quandary that extreme versions of relativism can always leave us in.
Criticism becomes yet another activity based on a false premise: that it
can reveal the true meaning of any text, that it is just a matter of decod-
ing what goes to make up its structure. Thus his claim that ‘literary
criticism is structuralist in every age, in its essence and destiny’.14
Derrida is careful to distance himself from the critical tradition in
general, insisting that this is not what deconstruction is ever about,
although that has not prevented a school of literary criticism from
developing out of deconstruction. Deconstructive critics, however, tend
to be more concerned with cataloguing ambiguity and gaps in the texts
they study than in explaining what their meaning might be, whereas
for mainstream literary criticism that is the primary task to be under-
taken.15 One side looks for the gaps in presence, where the sign fails to
be a unity, remaining ‘half not there’ and ‘half not that’; whereas the
other is trying to pin down presence to render the text more accessi-
ble to its audience. Given such a marked divergence in objectives, it is
hardly surprising that the literary studies establishment has been no less
critical of Derrida than the philosophical one has: accusations of charla-
tanism are not uncommon.
When he does get on to the subject of truth itself, Derrida makes it
seem like an unrealisable state of affairs. Reflecting on a statement by
Paul Cezanne in a letter to a friend that, ‘I owe you the truth in paint-
ing and I will tell it to you’, Derrida expresses deep scepticism about the

[W]hat must truth be in order to be owed [due ], even be rendered [ren-

due ]? In painting? And if it consisted, in painting, of rendering, what
would one mean when one promised to render it itself as a due or sum
rendered [un rendu ]? What does it mean, to render? What about restric-
tion? And in painting?16

He proceeds to speculate, in typically convoluted style, on how truth

might be defined in this context:

‘the truth in painting’ … could mean and be understood as: truth itself
restored, in person, without mediation, makeup, mask, or veil. In other
S. Sim

words the true truth or the truth of the truth, restituted in its power
of restitution, truth looking sufficiently like itself to escape any mispri-
sion, any illusion; and even any representation – but sufficiently divided
already to resemble, produce, or engender itself twice over, in accordance
with the two genitives: truth of truth and truth of truth.17

The notion that truth is divided suggests it can never be pinned down
with precision, that it can never convey its meaning unproblematically:
a consistent theme throughout Derrida’s work. He goes on to speak of
‘truth-effects’, which pretty much describes what post-truthers are striv-
ing for in order to establish some semblance of credibility with their
audience; as if the appearance of truth was all that mattered, the abil-
ity to produce effects to generate the required emotional response.18 As
long as fake news has the effect of truth, then that will suffice for sup-
porters of such as Trump. For the deconstructionist, however, all that
truth-effects do is mask the lack of full presence in meaning; they can
never be anything other than a pretence.
It is passages such as the above two from The Truth in Painting that
have gained Derrida the notoriety that he enjoys within the philo-
sophical world. He is deliberately problematising the concept of truth,
whether in the context of the arts or in more general usage, which is
what one would expect from a radical sceptic. The more he holds forth
on truth, the more obscure an entity it seems. The implication is that
truth will always elude us, meaning that we have no basis for value
judgement: it is Sextus Empiricus updated.

Lyotard, Relativism and Value Judgement

Lyotard, however, is one of the few postmodern thinkers to confront the
issue of value judgement head on, which he has done in several works,
such as Just Gaming and The Differend. At various points in his oeuvre
he insists that his work should be treated as a ‘philosophical politics’,
a claim that is far more specific than a deconstructionist would want
to make on this issue.19 At best, Derrida is implicitly political, whereas
Lyotard is self-consciously explicit in terms of his political concerns and
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

aims, constructing his philosophy around these in an attempt to tran-

scend scepticism’s negative implications as best he can, in the search for
viable criteria by which to judge. A Marxist in his early career, Lyotard
turned away from the movement after the 1968 événements in Paris (as
many of his intellectual contemporaries did), but he retained its strong
commitment to political action.20 Lyotard sees it as the duty of philos-
ophers ‘[t]o bear witness to the differend’; that is, to engage with the
disputes in society that give rise to the need for value judgements.21 It
is a plea for philosophers to avoid the more negative aspects of relativ-
ism, such as Sextus Empiricus’s retreat into the abandonment of beliefs
because of the difficulty of grounding them. Infinite regress does not
absolve the philosopher from becoming politically active, not as Lyotard
interprets it anyway, and his work is in sharp contrast to the decon-
structionist school on that basis. Deconstruction offers a more extreme
version of relativism than Lyotard, who is always looking for ways to
make political interventions: a constructive rather than a deconstructive
thinker in that regard.
Just Gaming argues for adopting a pragmatic attitude towards
value judgements, claiming that is what is to be found in the work of
Aristotle, where each judgement is made on a case by case basis, rather
than according to a pre-existing set of rules which have to be followed
without exception. In other words, Lyotard directs us towards the effect
of value judgements, insisting that this should form the basis of our
decisions, rather than whether we have been ‘true’ to some ‘universal
prescription’ in the making of them.22 Universal prescriptions apply to
matters of truth rather than justice, and these belong to different lan-
guage games: ‘being just is independent of telling the truth[.] … It must
be understood that if one wants criteria in the discourse of justice one is
tolerating de facto the encroachment of the discourse of justice by the
discourse of truth’.23 It is in the nature of the language game that is jus-
tice that ‘one is never certain that one has been just, or that one can
ever be just’.24 Part of the reason for this is that there is not just one
language game of justice, but many, each with their own set of criteria.
Lyotard refers to such situations as being like a visit to an archipelago,
where we cannot carry the criteria that are used on one island over to
another; a new language game has to be addressed each time around.
S. Sim

It is as if each island possesses its very own coherence theory, which

only applies within its demarcated realm and cannot be transferred out.
Lyotard pictures us as ‘navigating between islands in order paradoxically
to declare that their regimens or genres are incommensurable’25 (there
are similarities to be noted in Julian Baggini’s list of ten different truth
types, each with different characteristics and applications). There is also
the consideration that the effects of all decisions that are made will go
on unfolding over time, so final judgements cannot really figure in this
process; certainty always remains out of reach. Judgement creates a sit-
uation that must be constantly monitored to check what its impact has
been; it is more of a process than a one-off event.
Lyotard goes on to make some intriguing observations about the
nature of truth, as he interprets the notion, suggesting that ‘one can be
certain of having been true. That, one can be relatively certain of; not
absolutely but relatively: it is neither unthinkable nor absurd to think
that one can have relative certainty in matters of truth’.26 This sounds
fairly close to the Bayesian position on truth, indicating that it is pos-
sible to make decisions, and propound ideological theories with at least
a degree of confidence, even in the absence (indeed, impossibility) of
complete certainty as to the likely outcomes. Probability would give us
the basis of such a relative certainty—enough presence to be getting on
with, in other words. It still counts as relativism, but a more positive
version of it than a classical sceptic (or deconstructionist) would want to
agree to, and, crucially for Lyotard, it opens the way to political involve-
ment. If being relatively certain is the best we can hope for, then it is
still better than nothing. Lyotard is clearly not seeking after the state of
tranquillity that satisfied Sextus Empiricus. Baggini, too, leans toward
the concept of relative certainty, arguing that: ‘There may be no one
objective truth but there are objective truths, real truths about relative
truths’.27 Supposed truths, in other words, can be judged and found
It is worth considering briefly how this position relates to fuzzy log-
ic’s concept of decision-making. There are interesting similarities in this
respect, with Kosko arguing that we proceed each time around by way
of a ‘fuzzy weighted average’:
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

How do you decide to do or not do? … You add up a lot of things and
weight each thing to some degree. Then you go with the average or ‘cen-
troid’ or center of mass. You do not solve math equations[.] … You do it
by feel. You feel or intuit the center of mass. It pulls you or inclines you.28

Kosko is talking about relatively personal everyday decisions in this

instance: whether to take up a job offer, move house, or buy a car,
for example; but he also explores how fuzzy logic works in matters
of justice. Judging is for him a combination of rules and principles,
and the role of the judge is to reach a weighted average between the
two, after considering all the factors applying in each particular case.
Unlike Lyotard’s method of reaching judgements, this does involve
deploying universal prescriptions to an extent, but only as one part of
the process—and by no means the defining one. Kosko’s conclusion is
that when a judge cites previous cases ‘to justify her ruling. She does
not point out an audit trail in a rule book. She gives what looks a lot
like a fuzzy weighted average’.29 Weighting advantages up is a way of
reaching a position of relative certainty, and as with Lyotard’s concep-
tion of justice, that is the most that we can hope for: to be as precise as
we feel we can be under the circumstances prevailing. No decision that
a judge makes will define what a future judge has to do in looking for
previous cases to cite, and the ones chosen will then have to be weighted
up according to the situation in the current one. Each time around
the judge can be quite pragmatic in her choice and how she weights
everything. It is case by case, within a very flexible framework of sources
and procedures, where nothing is determined beforehand. What is cru-
cial is that a decision can be made, and defended—but never to the det-
riment of future decisions, which will have to go through the process
again from their different vantage points.
Pragmatism informs Lyotard’s method of circumventing relativism
too, and while it does not as such resolve all its contradictions (effects
can only be predicted, not guaranteed, as Hume’s work had shown), it
does enable debate to continue. The effect of deconstruction, however,
is so often to stop debate in its tracks (Derrida’s digressive approach to
analysis in The Truth in Painting shows how this can be expedited, and
it is only one of many examples of this technique to be found in his
S. Sim

oeuvre). You can conduct a dialogue with a pragmatist, since you are
both positioning yourselves within philosophical history; but you can
hardly do so against a deconstructionist who claims to have no method
at all, to be effectively outside that tradition altogether and engaged in
the practice of destabilising discourse in general, regarding it as ‘an old
cloth that must continually, interminably be undone’.30 There are very
different language games going on here. Lyotard, however, very defi-
nitely has roots in that history, as The Differend in particular demon-
strates, with its ‘Notices’ on various philosophers such as Plato and
Kant, positioning Lyotard with regard to their work. A deconstruc-
tionist, however, is claiming to be rootless, and the academic philo-
sophical world has been predictably very critical of the deconstructive
movement because of that claim. For Lyotard, being a relativist does not
mean being outside philosophical history; it means arguing your case
from within it, rather than writing it off as based on false principles.
The absence of absolute certainty in your discourse does not absolve you
from the need to engage politically; you strive to reach as much rela-
tive certainty there as you can, and see what can be achieved with that.
Deconstruction does not argue against such political involvement, but
it gives you far less to go on in justifying the courses of action that you
choose to follow. Extreme relativism does not translate well into pol-
itics, and that is never going to be an acceptable situation for such a
political animal as Lyotard, for whom it would simply be giving carte
blanche to your dogmatically inclined opponents.

The Heidegger Affair

The ‘Heidegger Affair’ in the 1980s becomes very symbolic of the differ-
ences between Derrida and Lyotard when it comes to value judgement
and the politics of relativism. Heidegger had a huge influence on post-
war French philosophy, and both Derrida and Lyotard were in dialogue
with phenomenology throughout their career (Lyotard’s first major
work was a survey on that subject, which became a much-reprinted
textbook31). Yet they took up opposing sides when it came to the ques-
tion of whether Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies rendered his philosophical
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

work problematical. Derrida was certainly not condoning Heidegger’s

Nazi beliefs, but he emphasised how his philosophy could be inter-
preted in a variety of ways by commentators across the ideological spec-
trum—as could a whole range of other philosophers:

We are not, I believe, bound to decide. … There can always be a Hegelianism

of the left and a Hegelianism of the right, a Heideggerianism of the left
and a Heideggerianism of the right, a Nietzscheanism of the right and a
Nietzscheanism of the left, and even, let us not overlook it, a Marxism of the
right and a Marxism of the left. The one can always be the other, the double
of the other.32

The effect of Derrida’s defence of Heidegger was, not unreasonably, to

separate the work and the life. Lyotard’s response to the debate, how-
ever, was Heidegger and “the jews”, where he argued that there were
various aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy that fitted in well with Nazi
ideology. This was the case with his championship of the volk, for exam-
ple, which for Lyotard prefigured the Nazi concept of race, and thus the
assumption of racial superiority that formed such a critical part of the
Nazi system. Lyotard criticised Heidegger on that basis, although with-
out claiming to do so in the name of any specific metanarrative on his
own part. Again, it was the effect of holding such views as Heidegger’s
that Lyotard was concentrating on, with Heidegger standing as an
example of how these could come to underpin, even sanction, unaccept-
able ideological policies. Susan Sontag once remarked, with reference to
Walter Benjamin, that ‘[o]ne cannot use the life to interpret the work.
But one can use the work to interpret the life’, and Lyotard seems to
be following a similar procedure with regard to Heidegger.33 The work
reveals a character with a mind-set receptive to the Nazi outlook and its
totalitarian ambitions.
An anti-relativist would probably not be convinced by Lyotard’s
argument, but it is an indication of his commitment to political
debate, a point which differentiates him very firmly from Derrida,
who always seems to be on the edges of such phenomena, reluctant
to politicise deconstruction in any specific way. Throughout his work
Lyotard is repeatedly emphasising the political dimension, building on
S. Sim

his experience as an activist in his early career with the Socialisme ou

Barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier campaigning groups in the 1950s and
1960s. Philosophical politics inevitably draws him into ideological con-
flict, because positions are being taken on important public issues; for
Lyotard, that is a duty the philosopher owes the general public, and one
that he is determined to fulfill. The image of postmodern continen-
tal philosophers as nihilistic mavericks unconcerned with the practical
applications, if any, of their work does not really fit with Lyotard; to the
end, he remained a highly socially conscious thinker, firmly committed
to making his work resonate politically. He never allowed relativism to
restrain him on that front.
Derrida was very influenced by the work of Heidegger, and this
placed him in an awkward situation when the ‘Heidegger Affair’ broke.
Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies alienated many French thinkers, who
felt this undermined his philosophical legacy. The issue first came to
prominence in a book by Victor Farías, entitled Heidegger and Nazism,
where the author took a very critical line on Heidegger, arguing that
given his background it was only to be expected that he would be
drawn towards Nazism as a political creed. From his youth onwards
‘we can see the progressive connections in a thought process nourished
in traditions of authoritarianism, anti-semitism, and ultranationalism
that sanctified the homeland in its most local sense’.34 Even before he
joined the Nazi party, therefore, Heidegger ‘acted in a way consonant
with National Socialism’.35 For Farías, Heidegger’s politics cast a pall
over his philosophical work, and that sparked a heated debate within
the French philosophical establishment. Derrida argued that there was
no one interpretation of Heidegger, and that his work could be adapted
to a wide range of uses without necessarily being tainted by his Nazi
associations. This was a logical extension of his views on meaning and
communication, in that Heidegger’s work was there to be interpreted
by others, who would of course bring their own experiences and beliefs
to their reading, giving us either a Heidegger of the right or the left,
depending on the ideological position they started from. There was no
way that Heidegger could have fixed the meaning of his writings for
all time, never mind the vexed question of whether they would carry
ineradicable traces of his ideological beliefs along with them. The lack
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

of full presence prevented that from occurring. For Derrida, there

was no one Heidegger, no essence to his work that would resist inter-
pretation: Heidegger’s thought, like that of any other writer, was in a
state of constant evolution. (Roland Barthes had earlier made a similar
point with his concept of ‘the death of the author’, with literary works
being assumed to take on a life of their own once out into the public
realm and subjected to multiple interpretations by their readership: ‘the
birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’.36)
The relationship between life and works is a particularly tricky one,
and Derrida is right to point out that interpretation circumvents this in
many ways: philosophy would be a much reduced subject were this not
so—as would any of the critical disciplines for that matter. For Derrida,
Heidegger’s philosophy is what we make of it: we are in no way ‘bound
to decide’ beforehand.
Lyotard took a much harder stance than that on Heidegger. Farías
had made the point that no thinker could ‘be completely understood
without taking into account the context in which the ideas grew and
the direction of their application’.37 Even though Lyotard insisted that
Heidegger’s politics could not be read off from his philosophical works
in any straightforward fashion, he too wanted us to bear that context in
mind. He went on to draw attention to some parallels between the poli-
tics and the works that are at the very least thought-provoking: the work
putting the life in profile as it were. Heidegger and “the jews” mounts a
sustained attack on Heidegger, arguing that his Nazi sympathies can-
not simply be glossed over because of the acknowledged profundity of
his philosophical writings. For Lyotard, what Germans like Heidegger
were doing was wilfully ‘forgetting’ the Nazi past, simply refusing to
acknowledge their support for Nazism, tacit or otherwise, that prepared
the ground for events like the Holocaust. He argues that we should be
disturbed to find that Heidegger ‘has lent to extermination not his hand
and not even his thought but his silence and nonthought. That he “for-
got” the extermination’.38 The Holocaust was not being faced up to for
the humanitarian disaster that it had been, nor the moral failings that it
laid bare, which to Lyotard suggested that the ideology that led to it was
still latent in German culture. Heidegger’s complicity in this is highly
symbolic for Lyotard, who does not feel he can be forgiven for it: ‘one
S. Sim

cannot say that Heidegger’s thought “leaves open” the question of his
silence on the Holocaust [as another contributor to the Heidegger Affair
had alleged]. It seals it hermetically’.39 Such silence becomes a form
of post-truth: a denial of what has happened. Heidegger has signally
failed to bear witness to the differend between a Nazi-led Germany
and the Jews, and that is a philosophical as well as an ideological fail-
ing in Lyotard’s view. It is as if for Lyotard the Heidegger of the right
cancels out the Heidegger of the left. Socio-political context just cannot
be ignored in this way, and it is one’s philosophical duty to ensure that
does not happen.
Lyotard’s commitment to a ‘philosophical politics’ comes through
very strongly at such points, since its objective is to give a voice to
the concerns of those who are being prevented from doing so by the
metanarrative ruling over them: the victims of the Holocaust become
a prime example of that category. There is always a political dimen-
sion to be acknowledged within the philosophical world, no less than
in any other area of human activity, and Heidegger must be held to
account for his part in this—even if it is just his silence after an event
that cannot simply be erased from history. Forgetting is for Lyotard
another form of denialism, and that has to render Heidegger’s philo-
sophical thought suspect. Philosophers, he insists, cannot turn a blind
eye to the political world; they have a responsibility to become involved
there on behalf of others (his own writings on the Algerian revolution
against French rule in the 1950s, for the Socialisme ou Barbarie jour-
nal, are exemplary in that regard, making clear his support for ordinary
Algerians, who were not always being well served by their own revolu-
tionary leaders40). Relativism does not permit one to opt out of moral
dilemmas. Even if discourse cannot guarantee absolute truths, relative
certainty is enough to condemn fascism. When it comes to such topics
moral neutrality is impossible, and sides must be taken; forgetting has
to count as bad faith, and an unforgivable instance of it when it comes
to Nazism.
The Jews become for Lyotard the most blatant example of the scape-
goating tendency so prevalent in Western culture, which could be used
against almost any group that a majority chose to turn on. Hence his
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

use of the term ‘the jews’, which he argued could be applied more
widely to oppressed minorities throughout history:

It seems to me … that ‘the jews’ are within the ‘spirit’ of the Occident
that is so preoccupied with foundational thinking, what resists this spirit;
within its will, the will to want, what gets in the way of this will; within
its accomplishments, projects, and progress, what never ceases to reopen
the wound of the unaccomplished.41

Both to scapegoat and to ‘forget’ the act of scapegoating, was in effect to

escape into post-truth, which even for a relativist like Lyotard was com-
pletely unacceptable and morally dubious. There is a distinctly moralis-
tic strain to be noted about his thought on this issue; those who oppress
‘the jews’ are doing so in the name of an authoritarian socio-political
system that a relativist such as Lyotard can only reject as a denial of
cultural difference. He reacts particularly strongly against this homog-
enising tendency within Western culture, taking a firm anti-funda-
mentalist line. Relativism is for him a positive condition that validates
cultural difference, and demands that it be respected rather than abused
by the cynical—as is happening all too frequently in today’s world,
where immigrants are increasingly being targeted by the political right
as a threat to national identity. This is relativism as a positive technique
rather than the negative kind promoted by classical scepticism. It does
not preclude taking sides; rather it advocates it. Sitting on the fence
becomes a dereliction of our moral duty: one is bound to decide when
it comes to issues such as the oppression of minorities, and the weak
in general. From his Algerian writings onwards this is a constant of
Lyotard’s philosophical career; the plight of ‘the jews’ has to keep being

The Politics of Narrative

A more problematical aspect of Lyotard’s relativism is to be found in his
commitment to the notion of narrative as the critical aspect in human
discourse. He expounds on this topic in The Postmodern Condition,
S. Sim

where he contrasts the rigidity of metanarratives with the flexibility

offered by ‘little narratives’.42 Metanarratives are seen to be oppressive in
that they enforce conformity of belief and so keep populations in line,
as happens with political ideologies of various persuasions, and religions
too; whereas little narratives are temporary arrangements designed to
address specific social problems, and can come and go as circumstances
dictate (much as ‘rainbow’ coalitions do). The former are authoritarian
in nature, the latter are anti-authoritarian—as envisaged by Lyotard,
they are not designed to last long enough to develop in that way, being
expected to dissolve after settlement of the issue in question. We can
recognise each side by the treatment it accords ‘the jews’ present in their
midst. For Lyotard, little narrative was the way forward politically, since
he believed that metanarrative had lost its force in the contemporary
world, and could no longer command the obedience it once did; uni-
versalising theories in general were becoming a thing of the past, leaving
the way open for campaigning little narratives with their more specific,
localised, objectives. He was over-optimistic on that score, however, and
we have experienced a return of the metanarrative imperative in the
past few decades in the form of fundamentalism (religious and other-
wise), plus economic theories such as globalisation and neoliberalism—
not to mention the rise of aggressive nationalism in various countries
in the West. Intolerance of others is actively being advocated by many
in the Western political establishment—with immigrant groups the
current favourite target. Increasingly, it looks like the twenty-first cen-
tury is turning into the century of the right—very much a post-liberal
Nevertheless, little narratives do present a real challenge to the world
of metanarratives, undermining their claims to be the sole repositories
of the truth, claims that do not stand up to much scrutiny given that
what they are propounding is very often based on false assumptions,
taken for granted by the general public despite being sanctioned by
nothing stronger than tradition. In that sense, little narratives serve to
reveal the post-truth that metanarratives are dealing in; their insistence
that their ideology is the only true one, and that all others are to be dis-
counted as false. They offer a principled resistance to the homogenising
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

drive within Western culture that Lyotard, and postmodernists in gen-

eral, so deplore.
Lyotard assumes an anti-establishment, more or less leftish, orien-
tation to the little narrative phenomenon, but there are cases when it
can become much more complex than he conceives of it. The Tea Party
movement in the USA has the outward appearance of a little narrative,
and it set out to oppose what it saw as the wrongs committed by the
American political establishment—unquestionably one of the most
powerful metanarratives in the world. It did so, however, from a very
right-wing position, and its goal was to undermine the authority of the
liberal order in the name of an aggressively anti-government ideology.
What the Tea Party sought was a drastic reduction in central govern-
ment, which it felt was intruding far too much on its citizens’ lives
(starting with such obvious things as taxation, always an obsession of
the far right), and it vigorously supported candidates for political office
who shared that outlook. The goal was to take over and shrink the
state’s power as much as possible. At least initially, Trump’s presidential
campaign was based on similar principles (in office it has become more
complicated, however, as he clearly enjoys the power he has access to).
The Tea Party was openly taking on the concept of authority, but it had
a distinctly authoritarian approach which was designed to curtail cul-
tural difference quite dramatically. From their perspective cultural dif-
ference was precisely what was wrong with American society, and they
wanted it remade in their own image. White supremacism was implicit
in the Tea Party’s beliefs, a metanarrative in all but name, lurking in the
wings waiting for its chance to take over and return America to a sup-
posed golden age. ‘Jews’ of all descriptions had reason to be very wor-
ried about such a programme, which was actively on the lookout for
scapegoats (Trump has settled on Mexicans and Muslims for the time
being). Intriguing though the little narrative idea is, it does not neces-
sarily completely resolve the issue of dealing with ideological dogma-
tism. It would appear there can be a little narrative of the right, and
a little narrative of the left; hardly what Lyotard had in mind for the
Lyotard’s concept of the differend further reinforces the notion of the
relative quality of truth, in this case insisting that it can run to the point
S. Sim

of incompatibility between conflicting sets of assumptions. When such

a situation arises, there is no absolute truth to be found in either posi-
tion, rather a radically different worldview which cannot encompass the
concerns and perspective of the other:

As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict,

between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack
of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy
does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy.43

Lyotard points out that what tends to happen in such situations histori-
cally, when a particularly divisive differend develops within a culture, is
that the stronger of the two sides works to impose its will on the other,
ignoring its concerns and discriminating against it when disputes occur.
Metanarrative dogmatism encourages such a move, since it believes
its ‘truth’ is universal, and that all opposition to it is misguided. This
is what happens when, for example, colonisers and their colonised sub-
jects clash—a recurrent state of affairs throughout the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries that has left a legacy of ill-will running into the cur-
rent century. The political system is set up by the colonisers to judge
all conflicts between the two parties according to its own set of rules,
suppressing the latter group by armed force if necessary and refusing
to acknowledge the validity of any of its complaints. Truth becomes a
matter of power under these circumstances, and Lyotard is quite une-
quivocal in defining this as a ‘wrong’, because ‘the rules of the genre of
discourse by which one judges are not those of the judged genre or gen-
res of discourse’.44 The side making the judgement is failing to respect
the legitimacy of the other side’s position, and that is one of the key
criteria for the assessment of morality in Lyotard’s world; cultural dif-
ference must always be respected in order to minimise the risk of differ-
ends arising.
A more pessimistic way of interpreting this concept would be to
see society as a multitude of mutually exclusive differends, none able
to compromise with any other in real terms: a situation of dogmatists
confronting dogmatists. Politics from that perspective would be a bat-
tle between a series of truths, or post-truths, with very little possibility
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

of resolution, as if everyone were deliberately talking past their oppo-

nents; or even worse, unable to understand what it is they are complain-
ing about or defending so vehemently. It can sometimes feel like that
in the world of poststructuralism and postmodernism, but it is here
that Lyotard’s notions of the little narrative and case by case judgements
come into play. At least theoretically they enable us to address the dif-
ferend and try to engineer a resolution of the stand-off between the
opposed parties. The critical thing for Lyotard is that they do not con-
stitute a rulebook for future deliberations; each case has to start afresh
according to the information available to the decision makers at that
time, and proceed from there with an open mind (as Kosko also sug-
gests any judgement requires). Open minds, however, are not much in
evidence on the post-truth side, which stubbornly persists in using only
the rules of its own genre of discourse in dealing with others. Trump-
trust has no problem with that state of affairs, which is why it is so
important to develop a positive-minded, socially conscious relativism
like Lyotard’s to negotiate the divide between extreme scepticism and
hard-line dogmatism.

Foucault, Power and Truth

Turning briefly to another important thinker in the poststructuralist
movement, Michel Foucault’s interpretation of ideologies also treats
them as a form of post-truth, with no universal truths lying behind
them. He contends that they are based instead on sheer power, the
power to enforce their system on society. In Foucault’s reading of his-
tory, ideologies are driven by the need to control the population, which
leads them to repress those sections of it which refuse to conform to
their doctrines: the homogenising tendency in militant operation again.
All behaviour that did not conform to the ruling class’s social norms was
to be treated as deviant, or even criminal, and measures put in place
against it. The mentally ill were to be confined to asylums, for exam-
ple, and all deviations from standard heterosexual conduct were to be
outlawed.45 The point of all this was to eradicate difference, in a bid
to establish one correct mode of existence; a set of fundamentals that
S. Sim

the rulers would not allow to be transgressed by any dissident group: ‘It
is common knowledge that the seventeenth century created enormous
houses of confinement; it is less commonly known that more than one
out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves
confined there, within several months’.46 We were not dealing in truths
when it came to ideology, therefore, but with power: the relative bal-
ance of power between factions in a society, and the struggle to be the
dominant one within that ensemble. Those with that dominant power
could dictate what was to count as truth in their society—as Lyotard
had pointed out was the standard pattern with differends historically.
Foucault is often accused of overstating the case about truth’s rela-
tionship to power, which is the criticism that Baggini levels at him: ‘the
force of his argument is severely diminished if we conclude that truth
is nothing more than the exercise of power. … We must be careful not
to confuse the frequent capture of truth by power with an equation of
truth and power’.47 This is a crucial distinction, and one that Foucault’s
supporters do not always make. Yet although power is a social con-
struct in Foucault’s reading, that does not mean every form of it is to
be treated as equally acceptable ideologically. Some versions are clearly
preferable to others for Foucault—those that respect difference in its
various forms (social, political, sexual, ethnic, etc.), as cases in point.
He was, after all, an activist on behalf of various causes throughout his
life—the gay community and prisoners, for example; like Lyotard, he
was a constructive thinker. It could be argued, therefore, that Foucault’s
relativism, like Lyotard’s, still enables value judgements to be made, and
that it is not the recipe for anarchy that opponents on the metanarra-
tive side so often claim it to be. Relative certainty can be claimed once
again, and the necessity for it becomes very clear when having to face
up to ideological metanarratives: scepticism alone will not be enough
to undermine the authority they have built up over a period of genera-
tions. There is a certainty as to what thinkers like Lyotard and Foucault
are against, if nothing else, and that does differentiate them from clas-
sical sceptics like Sextus Empiricus, who simply opts out of the busi-
ness of choosing altogether. A relativism that incorporates some method
for making value judgements is one that can be turned on post-truth—
digital desperadoes and all.
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

The postmodernist thinkers discussed above are all relativists, who take
truth to be a problematical entity, but crucially in the case of Lyotard
(and at least implicitly in Foucault) an entity that we have to engage
with in order to make value judgements possible. Politics demands that
for Lyotard, otherwise cultural difference is placed at risk. The point of
scepticism is to raise doubts in your mind with regard to things that
you take for granted (and Derrida clearly succeeds in doing that in his
self-consciously iconoclastic way), not to sanction the introduction of
alternative facts because truth is relative. As Lyotard’s work demon-
strates, not all value judgements are to be considered ideologically
acceptable just because truth is relative either. Philosophical relativ-
ism need not lead to the free-for-all envisaged by Matthew D’Ancona,
therefore, even if it does problematise the status of truth, asking us to
look closely at how it is being used and what it is being used to justify.
This is an exercise that all social constructs should be put through—
including, critically, post-truth. ‘To conflate the lying of the Trump
era with “the questioning of truth”’, Peter Salmon warns, ‘is to become
complicit in a neat trick’.48 Relativism ought to concentrate our minds
about what is going on when we are making value judgements; whether
we really are justified in reaching the decisions we do in such situations,
and can justify them to others as well (sceptical others in particular).
It may only be relative certainty we end up with, but that is still some-
thing worth achieving in the current climate; that, plus informed guess-
ing, gives us a reasonably sound basis from which to take on the tricks
of the post-truth community.

1. Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to
Fight Back, London: Ebury Press, 2017, p. 92.
2. Peter Salmon, ‘The Moment of Truth’, New Humanist (Spring 2018),
pp. 26–31 (p. 26).
S. Sim

3. Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews” [1988], trans. Andreas

Michel and Mark S. Roberts, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1990.
4. Jean François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming [1979],
trans. Wlad Godzich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
5. Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond
[1980], trans. Alan Bass, Chicago and London: University of Chicago
Press, 1987, p. 508.
6. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference [1967], trans. Alan Bass,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 281.
7. Ibid., p. 284.
8. Ibid., p. 18.
9. Ibid., p. 23.
10. Ibid., p. 11.
11. See, for example, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’,
in Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. and ed. Stephen Heath,
London: Fontana, 1977, pp. 79–124; and also S/Z: An Essay [1970],
trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
12. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 278.
13. Ibid., p. 292.
14. Ibid., p. 5.
15. Most notably in the first instance, the ‘Yale School’. For an introduc-
tion to their work see Harold Bloom et al., Deconstruction & Criticism,
London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
16. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting [1978], trans. Geoff Bennington
and Ian McLeod, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,
1987, p. 4.
17. Ibid., p. 5.
18. Ibid., p. 7.
19. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute [1983], trans.
Georges Van Den Abbeele, Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1988, p. xiii.
20. The degree of Lyotard’s disenchantment with Marxism in the wake of
1968 can be seen in the vicious attack he mounts on it in Libidinal
Economy [1974], trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, London: Athlone
Press, 1993. See particularly Part III, ‘The Desire Named Marx’ (pp.
95–154), the content of which is all but guaranteed to put the average
classical Marxist’s blood pressure at risk.
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

21. Lyotard, The Differend, p. xiii.

22. Lyotard and Thébaud, Just Gaming, p. 99.
23. Ibid., pp. 97, 98.
24. Ibid., p. 99.
25. Lyotard, The Differend, p. 135.
26. Lyotard, Just Gaming, p. 99.
27. Julian Baggini, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth
World, London: Quercus, 2017, p. 74.
28. Bart Kosko, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, London:
Flamingo, 1993, p. 176.
29. Ibid., p. 180.
30. Jacques Derrida, Positions [1972], trans. Alan Bass, London: Athlone
Press, 1981, p. 24.
31. See Jean-François Lyotard, Phenomenology [1954], trans. Brian Beakley,
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
32. Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference,
Translation, trans. Peggy Kamuf, ed. Christie McDonald, Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988, p. 32.
33. Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn, New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1980, p. 111.
34. Victor Farías, Heidegger and Nazism [1987], trans. Paul Burrell and
Gabriel R. Ricci, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989, p. 4.
35. Ibid.
36. Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image Music Text, pp. 142–8
(p. 148).
37. Farías, Heidegger and Nazism, p. 3.
38. Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, p. 82.
39. Ibid., p. 94.
40. See section V, ‘Algerians’, in Jean-François Lyotard, Political Writings,
trans. Bill Readings with Kevin Paul Geiman, London: UCL Press,
1993, pp. 163–326.
41. Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, p. 22.
42. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge [1979], trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi,
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
43. Lyotard, The Differend, p. xi.
44. Ibid.
S. Sim

45. See, for example, Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A

History of Madness in the Age of Reason [1961], trans. Richard Howard,
London: Tavistock, 1967, and The History of Sexuality, vols. I–III:
The History of Sexuality: An Introduction [1976], trans. Robert Hurley,
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981, The Use of Pleasure [1984], trans.
Robert Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, The Care of the Self
[1984], trans. Robert Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
46. Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, p. 38.
47. Baggini, A Short History of Truth, p. 83.
48. Salmon, ‘The Moment of Truth’, p. 31.

Baggini, Julian, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World,
London: Quercus, 2017.
Barthes, Roland, S/Z: An Essay [1970], trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill
and Wang, 1974.
———, Image Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath, London: Fontana,
Bloom, Harold, et al., Deconstruction & Criticism, London and Henley:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
D’Ancona, Matthew, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back,
London: Ebury Press, 2017.
Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference [1967], trans. Alan Bass, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978.
———, Positions [1972], trans. Alan Bass, London: Athlone Press, 1981.
———, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond [1980], trans. Alan
Bass, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
———, The Truth in Painting [1978], trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian
McLeod, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
———, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans.
Peggy Kamuf, ed. Christie McDonald, Lincoln and London: University of
Nebraska Press, 1988.
Farías, Victor, Heidegger and Nazism [1987], trans. Paul Burrell and Gabriel R.
Ricci, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.
Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization: A History of Madness in the Age of
Reason [1961], trans. Richard Howard, London: Tavistock, 1967.
6  Postmodern Relativism: Jean-François Lyotard …    

———, The History of Sexuality, vols. I–III: The History of Sexuality: An

Introduction [1976], trans. Robert Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981;
The Use of Pleasure [1984], trans. Robert Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1987; The Care of the Self [1984], trans. Robert Hurley, Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1990.
Kosko, Bart, Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, London:
Flamingo, 1993.
Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
[1979], trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1984.
———, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute [1983], trans. Georges Van Den
Abbeele, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.
———, Heidegger and “the jews” [1988], trans. Andreas Michel and Mark S.
Roberts, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
———, Phenomenology [1954], trans. Brian Beakley, Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1991.
———, Libidinal Economy [1974], trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, London:
Athlone Press, 1993.
———, Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings with Kevin Paul Geiman,
London: UCL Press, 1993.
Lyotard, Jean-François, and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming [1979], trans.
Wlad Godzich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Salmon, Peter, ‘The Moment of Truth’, New Humanist (Spring 2018), pp.
Sontag, Susan, Under the Sign of Saturn, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth
and Post-Truth

Fiction has traditionally played games with truth, pretending that it is

describing a real world, when we are well aware it is an invention on the
part of the author. We are asked to suspend our disbelief when reading,
or watching, fictional narratives, and it is a process we take in our stride
in a culture that is steeped in narrative in all its many forms: literature,
film, and television provide us with a steady stream of this on a daily
basis. Conspiracy theory requires a similar response from us, although
it also wants us to remain in that state of suspended disbelief: not so
much ‘willing’ suspension, as the phrase has it, as ‘willful’. Fiction is of
course just that, made-up stories created out of authors’ imaginations,
intended to entertain or inform their readership. Authors may draw
on their own real-life experience to give the stories a realistic quality,
as many do, but they are still products of the imagination, and that is
what readers expect them to be, willingly entering into the world they
posit then departing once they close the book. For the duration it is real
and holds our attention that way, but only for the duration. Conspiracy
theory, however, wants to trap us in that world, as The Protocols of the
Elders of Zion so successfully managed to do with so much of its read-
ership, and it also wants to exert an influence over our behaviour that

© The Author(s) 2019 125

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

has significant political implications: the antisemitism that the Protocols

promoted so venomously helped lay the groundwork for the Holocaust.
Although fiction does want to have an effect on us, it is not to the
extent of controlling us in the manner of conspiracy theory. There is a
different relationship with truth being established in each case. Just as
Julian Baggini identified several types of truth, so the same can be done
with post-truth. Fiction and conspiracy theory constitute two contrast-
ing types of post-truth, the former having a positive effect on our lives,
the latter a negative. (The ‘noble lie’ could qualify as yet another form
of post-truth, potentially a positive one, although that does depend, as
we saw in chapter two’s example of it in action, on a lot of other fac-
tors; it may not appear as ‘noble’ to everyone in retrospect.) It is worth
exploring how we process fictional post-truth, and how we manage to
differentiate it from post-truth in its unacceptable guise—whether as
conspiracy theory, fake news, or alternative facts. In each case there is
a narrative line that bids for our attention, but our response to it varies
very considerably. One widens our worldview, the other narrows it.

With Apologies: The Early Novel

Fictional narrative is now just an accepted part of our lives, but it has
in the past sometimes been viewed with deep suspicion on the grounds
that it was peddling lies, pretending to be portraying a real world when
it was not. This was an issue that particularly exercised the religiously
devout, and the early novel in England came under attack from just
such quarters. John Bunyan is one of the main precursors of the English
novel tradition, and his most famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
was an inspiration to many early novelists, who drew freely on its
themes and narrative structure. Yet Bunyan felt the need to defend his
fictional writing from the criticism of friends, as his prefatory ‘Apology’
to the book is at pains to make us realise:

Well, when I had thus put mine ends together,

I shew’d them others, that I might see whether
They would condemn them, or them justifie:
7  ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth    

And some said, let them live; some, let them die:
Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so:
Some said, It might do good; others said, No.1

Bunyan was a clergyman, and a very devout believer whose major con-
cern in life was to pass on the truth of the Bible in his preaching. He
had already published his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief
of Sinners, giving a detailed account of his spiritual development and
how it led him to the ministry, an activity he took with the utmost seri-
ousness, choosing to go to prison for several years in the 1660s rather
than give up lay preaching, as the law of the time required.2 Such a
figure would be particularly sensitive to any charges of putting his reli-
gious mission at risk. To invent a story could be construed as invent-
ing lies, and to some of Bunyan’s Puritan peers, those who cautioned
him to ‘let them die’, that is what his fictional efforts appeared to be.
Bunyan convinced himself to go ahead and publish, however, insisting
to his readers that the narrative had valuable life-lessons to pass on to
them, that it really had the power to ‘do good’ in the wider world and
so should be given the benefit of the doubt:

Art thou for something rare, and profitable?

Wouldest thou see a Truth within a Fable?
Art thou forgetful? wouldest thou remember
From New-years-day to the last of December?
Then read my fancies, they will stick like Burs,
And may be to the Helpless, Comforters.3

Nevertheless, the suspicion of fiction as a way of propagating reli-

gious beliefs, and the lifestyle that they required of believers, lingered
on. Truth within fables was a difficult concept for at least some of the
devout to accept, and the fact that Bunyan expounded on the topic to
the extent he did in his Apology indicates how seriously he took the
objection. There had to be a definite didactic purpose to such a work
to justify using the fictional mode, and that was what he felt obliged to
get across to his readers, to put their minds at rest as well as his own.
Even then, there would be those who would say ‘No’, regarding it as a
risk not worth taking, and worried that it might lead the impressionable
S. Sim

reader to less wholesome material (of which there was no shortage in

circulation, even in such a religious age as the seventeenth century). The
early novel was for many a form of post-truth, therefore a social danger
that others were to be warned against: it pretended to be what it was
not, and there was no real need of it in one’s daily life. Truth for the
devout was to be found in the Bible, not in invented tales, no matter
how well-intentioned they may have been. Bunyan’s very clearly were,
but that still did not excuse them for many of his peers.
Daniel Defoe was the next generation on from Bunyan, and came
from a very similar religious background (that is, nonconformist); but
even he felt it was expedient to offer an apology of sorts, if in somewhat
tongue-in-cheek fashion, for presenting narrative to the public, as the
Preface to Moll Flanders indicates:

The World is so taken up of late with Novels and Romances, that it

will be hard for a private History to be taken for Genuine, where the
Names and other Circumstances of the Person are concealed, and on this
Account we must be content to leave the Reader to pass his own opin-
ion upon the ensuing Sheets, and take it just as he pleases. The Author
is here suppos’d to be writing her own History, and in the beginning of
her account, she gives the Reasons why she thinks fit to conceal her true
Name, after which there is no Occasion to say any more about that.4

The Preface makes several other references to the work’s protagonist

designed to convince the reader of the story’s real-life origins, as if to
absolve Defoe from any blame in adapting the narrative for public con-
sumption. Defoe is to adopt the same technique in other narratives,
such as his last novel Roxana, where the Preface assures us that,

this Story differs from most of the Modern Performances of this Kind,
tho’ some of them have met with a very good Reception in the World: I
say, It differs from them in this Great and Essential Article, Namely, That
the Foundation of This is laid in Truth of Fact; and so the Work is not a
Story, but a History.5

As in Bunyan’s Apology, Defoe is out to persuade us that there are

valuable lessons to be learned from reading this narrative; that the
7  ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth    

character’s immoral lifestyle as a courtesan should stand as a warning

as to what happens when we give into temptation, especially on the
scale that Roxana does, leading her to abandon her children in order to
seek out wealth through a series of liaisons with rich and powerful men.
Ostensibly, it is yet another truth within a fable designed for the public’s
moral benefit. The didactic quality of the narrative may be somewhat
questionable in this instance, however, with the author suggesting a cer-
tain degree of compassion for a character faced with a choice between
starvation or prostitution, as she is at an early stage—and with several
children to support after desertion by her husband too. The truth to be
learned from reading Roxana is very open to interpretation, and critics
have been divided about this down the years; it has been read as both
pro- and anti-women, for example. Nevertheless, claiming didactic ben-
efit becomes the standard defence of the practice of novel writing in
its early days, with authors understandably keen to defend themselves
against the charge of being liars.
Such apologies notwithstanding, fears about the novel genre’s impact
on its audience, and how it might have a bad effect on the nation’s mor-
als (and particularly those of younger readers, female most of all), con-
tinued to be expressed for years afterwards. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
was denounced from pulpits after its publication in 1749, for example,
its bawdiness considered scandalous by many.6 Even after the attitude
fell into decline, many authors went on with the practice of prefacing
their narrative with the claim that it was a true tale discovered by them
(see James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner of 1824, for exam-
ple7), so a history rather than a mere story. It simply turned into a liter-
ary device for drawing the reader into the tale, and examples can still be
found in contemporary fiction.

Fitting in, Twenty-First Century Style

The twenty-first century equivalent of Henry Ford’s 500,000-copy print
run of the Protocols is Donald Trump’s retweeting of anti-Islamic vid-
eos and messages initially put out by the notoriously far-right Britain
First party. In Trump’s case the retweeting went out to his 43 million
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followers (at time of tweeting in November 2017), as well as being

picked up and reported on by news media worldwide: Ford consid-
erably magnified. Although various issues have been raised as to the
authenticity of the three videos in question (as well as to the anti-­
Islamic interpretation made of them by Britain First), Trump’s response
has been much like Ford’s, that ‘they fit in with what is going on’. The
point was further emphasised by his press secretary’s response to wide-
spread criticism of the retweeting; that whether or not the videos were
real, the threat of Islamic terrorism that they appeared to illustrate in
action was. Since they fitted in with what the Trump administration
believed was the state of the world, and therefore the kind of things
that could be expected to happen there, that justified the retweeting as
far as they were concerned. Whether the videos were real or otherwise
was irrelevant. Once you get into that frame of mind, anything and
everything can be used to reinforce it—real, false, invented, misinter-
preted, it makes no difference because anything goes in the post-truth
game being played at this level. Disbelief is being suspended perma-
nently, making it all but impossible to carry on a dialogue with those
on the post-truth side of what is beginning to seem like an unbridge-
able cultural divide. At the very least this is an ingenious take on the
notion of truth within a fable: the fable guarantees the truth of the
truth argued to be in the fable. This is closed-circuit reasoning at its
most blatant.
Perhaps there is something of a warning to us in the retweeting scan-
dal as to how we relate narrative to our real-life experience. Fiction can
affect our behaviour and change our attitude to the world; novels with
a social critical theme can have such an impact on the public conscious-
ness, and there are many examples of this throughout literary history,
with names like Charles Dickens springing immediately to mind, his
novels bringing many of the social evils of his time to the forefront of
the public consciousness (child labour, and the poor quality of the edu-
cational system, for example). But in the manner of Bunyan’s Apology
it is because they contain potentially valuable life-lessons, not because
we believe them to be factually true. If fiction can be said to be a type
of post-truth, then it is a post-truth with good intentions (in the vast
majority of cases anyway), and we are not required to regard it as actual
7  ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth    

truth in the manner of Trumpian fake news. This is truth within a fable
as it should be; narrative designed to help us further develop our moral
sense, and improve our understanding of the world and relations with
our fellow human beings. Trump-trust falls well short of that.
It is those aspects of fictional narrative that led the American pragma-
tist philosopher Richard Rorty to argue that fiction should be consid-
ered a source of knowledge; one that in his opinion was more important
to us in learning how to deal with our world than philosophy was.
Rorty was a proponent of ‘a post-Philosophical culture’, where literature
and the various other arts were to be viewed as more meaningful than
yet more analysis of the ‘good old metaphysical problems’ that philoso-
phy has traditionally concerned itself with: ‘are there really universals?’,
etc. (the staples of a university degree in the subject for generations of
students).8 As he crisply summarises it: ‘Mathematics helps physics
do its job; literature and the arts help ethics do its’.9 Ethical problems
are standard themes in literature, and they give readers much food for
thought as to how to deal with them in their own lives—far more so
than philosophy, with its fairly abstract principles, does, in Rorty’s view.
Rorty is not one to become obsessed about the concept of truth, or
with trying to work out watertight theories for it. Outside of profes-
sional philosophical circles such metaphysical problems mean very little,
whereas the need to make value judgements and choose between com-
peting courses of action matters a great deal. Far better to be ‘postmet-
aphysical’ instead, so in typically provocative fashion he writes off the
entire discourse surrounding truth in philosophical history10:

Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the True or the
Good, or to define the word ‘true’ or ‘good,’ supports their suspicion that
there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course,
have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found some-
thing interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of
‘number.’ They might have found something interesting to say about the
essence of Truth. But in fact they haven’t.11

Relativism is not a problem in the real world for Rorty, only in the
philosophical one, and there are far more pressing issues to address
S. Sim

anyway than whether there is an absolute ground to guarantee the truth

of your statements (again, a psychological problem in the main). In
the real world it is a case of carefully weighing up the pros and cons
of any choice we are asked to make, and deciding what seems to be
the best thing to do under the circumstances (much in the manner of
Kosko’s ‘fuzzy weighted average’). If this is about, say, ‘detailed propos-
als for political change’, then ‘[w]hen such an alternative is proposed,
we debate it, not in terms of categories or principles but in terms of
the various concrete advantages and disadvantages it has’.12 That is
what Rorty is recommending we should do when we read fiction: con-
sider what advantages and disadvantages there are to be found from
reading it and thinking about it, in terms of engaging with others and
the problems of everyday life. The advantages or disadvantages of the
life-lessons it contains, for example, and how we might alter our behav-
iour in response to these. That, in effect, was what was happening with
Dickens’ readers. Applying such a method to post-truth would in the
main identify disadvantages (except in some cases of the noble lie), so
pragmatism does not really aid its cause either, even if it freely admits
there is no overall theory by which to guarantee the truth of our value
judgements. Instead, all such situations become matters of debate, at
which point we are at liberty to draw on fictional post-truth to establish
our position. It depends on the case we make using that source, and
then whether we feel we can justify this, both to ourselves and to others,
rather than to any pre-existing criteria deemed to have universal appli-
cation. Truth within a fable can yield relative certainty too, and we will
only reach this, as Rorty sees it, in classic liberal fashion, through open-
minded debate. If authors like Bunyan help us to reach that state, then
literature is doing its job efficiently, and performing a public service.
There is far more of a market for that kind of debate than whether there
really are universals.
Just to complicate matters, however, there are cases where fictional
post-truth can have adverse effects, as happens with copy-cat crimes.
Events of this kind can be generated by fictional narrative (or at least
claimed to be, in an attempt to shift the blame away from the perpetra-
tors), whether in literary or visual form. When this happens the wrong,
or at least unhelpful, life-lesson is being learned from the narrative,
7  ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth    

warning us that truth within a fable is not as straightforward a process

as we might expect—or want. It can be distorted to mean something
far more sinister than the author ever intended. ‘Death of the author’
carries risks in that regard; primarily, that readers will identify with
any immoral actions a given narrative portrays, to the extent of being
inspired to perform them in real life. This can run to violence against
others, at which point the boundary between fictional and conspiracy
theory post-truth is becoming dangerously blurred. If a reader were to
identify with the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
to the extent of committing a similar kind of murder, then I trust that
most of us would find that an unacceptable response to the novel’s mor-
alistic intentions (complicated though these undoubtedly are).13
A more benign blurring of the lines between fiction and real life
occurs with many film and television productions, particularly series,
when their fans can become obsessed enough by the narrative to dress
up as the characters and attend conventions celebrating the production
(the Star Wars franchise is particularly popular with its legion of fans).
This can be considered the acceptable face of copy-cat, because it goes
no further than pretending to be a fictional character, rather than taking
them as a real-life model. The fans are acting out the truth within the
fable, as they see it, but are aware that they are doing no more than pay-
ing homage to the power of the fable. It may be willful suspension of
disbelief in action again, but in a very knowing, even somewhat ironic,
way; at some point the costume has to come off, and you resume every-
day existence, just as you do when you close a book. It is no more than
a temporary game you have chosen to indulge yourself in.

Brechtian Truth in a Fable

Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic works offer a particularly intriguing approach
to the notion of truth within a fable. His aesthetic is based on the prin-
ciple of emphasising the staged, artificial aspect of his drama, continu-
ally reminding the audience that it is not real life they are seeing, or that
the actors are trying to convey either (the so-called ‘Alienation Effect’).
Actors are expected to make clear to the audience that they are playing
S. Sim

a part only, the aim being to discourage overly close identification with
their characters: ‘The actor must show an event, and he must show him-
self. He naturally shows the event by showing himself, and he shows
himself by showing the event. Although these two tasks coincide, they
must not coincide to such a point that the contrast (difference) between
them disappears’.14 The plays all have a didactic purpose (revealing
Brecht’s communist beliefs in the main), and are designed to make their
audiences think rather than simply have their emotions stirred, which
to Brecht was a fault to be found in most dramatic productions. We
are not meant to sympathise with a Mother Courage beset with misfor-
tunes, therefore, but to see her plight as the product of an ideologically
corrupt society that inevitably works to the disadvantage of the individ-
ual by distorting human relations.15 Mother Courage is as obsessed with
money and profit as her ideology is, and she will be made to suffer for
this, losing all her children as a result. There is a truth within the fable,
and that is far more important than the fable itself: Bunyan could agree
on this point, if that is not too far-fetched an authorial comparison to
make. The fable is to be treated as no more than a vehicle for the didac-
tic message it contains—a distinctly anti-capitalist, pro-communist
one, very much designed to help ethics do its job. To ensure that this
is how it is received, the audience must be kept aware at all times that
it is merely a fable it is watching, and that it is inviting them to reflect
on their ideological beliefs. In his own way, Brecht too feels the need to
justify inventing narratives for public consumption; writing carries that
kind of responsibility.

If we are going to talk about literary narrative as offering us truth within
a fable, then the criterion we ought to be using for this type of truth is
its social usefulness. Does it provide lessons that will help us deal with
the problems in our life? Can it, for example, genuinely help ethics
do its job, as Richard Rorty so confidently claimed, even if this pro-
vides no more than a relative certainty as to our decisions? Although
7  ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth    

copy-cat crimes do admittedly raise doubts as to such claims, they are

a relatively rare reaction to fictional narrative. It is more generally the
case that such narratives constitute a valuable resource for enabling
us to work through the ethical problems that arise over the course of
everyone’s life; a framework for thinking them through, and reaching
decisions we feel we can justify. As is well attested, The Pilgrim’s Progress
has had that positive effect on generations of readers right through to
the present day, influencing their thought and behaviour in the posi-
tive manner hoped for by its author, and the same point can also be
made about Shakespeare’s plays—as well as the work of a host of other
authors (everyone will have their own favourite who affects them in this
manner). The acceptable face of copy-cat mentioned above can also
affect the audience in a positive way. Brecht’s plays may not have the
same mass appeal, but their didactic message has been well received by
those sympathetic to his socialist views, and he is something of a hero
on the left in that respect. Neither does literature need to have a specif-
ically moralistic aim in order to provide food for thought: truth within
a fable can be found just about anywhere. There are ethical lessons to be
found in the Star Wars films, for example, as its fans would be quick to
tell you.
Suspension of disbelief pays dividends when it comes to literature,
and can quite possibly make us better human beings as we come to
appreciate the truth within the fable. Its social usefulness is obvious
when it has such an impact, but the same can hardly be said of the
suspension of disbelief required by post-truth (or conspiracy theory),
which works to create divisions within society and foment discontent.
Being an invented tale masquerading as a real-life event, the Protocols
could count as literature. What the work offers, however, is prejudice
within a fable, and its appeal is limited to those who share that prej-
udice and a commitment to a particularly hostile form of againstness
in the political domain. When scapegoating of this kind is going on in
a narrative, then it would not take very much debate to confirm that
it cannot have any claim to social usefulness. Not every fable carries a
truth within it.
S. Sim

1. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Parts One and Two [1678, 1684],
ed. W.R. Owens, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 4.
2. John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners [1666], ed. W.R.
Owens, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.
3. Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 8.
4. Defoe, Daniel, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders
[1722], ed. G.A. Starr, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 1.
5. Daniel Defoe, Roxana: Or, The Fortunate Mistress [1724], ed. John
Mullan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 1.
6. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones [1749], ed. R.P.C. Mutter,
London: Penguin, 1985.
7. The book is split into an ‘Editor’s Narrative’ and the ‘sinner’ Robert
Wringhim’s ‘Memoirs’, which have been handed on to the Editor
many years later for publication: ‘I have now the pleasure of present-
ing my readers with an original document of a most singular nature,
and preserved for their perusal in a still more singular manner. I offer
no remarks on it, and make as few additions to it, leaving every one to
judge for himself ’ (James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions
of a Justified Sinner [1824], ed. John Carey, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1981, p. 93).
8. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972–1980),
Brighton: Harvester, 1982, pp. xxi, xxix.
9. Ibid., p. xliii.
10. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989, p. xvi.
11. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, p. xiv.
12. Ibid., p. 168.
13. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment [1866], trans. Oliver Ready,
London: Penguin, 2014.
14. Bertolt Brecht, quoted in Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht

[1966], trans. Anna Bostock, London: NLB, 1973, p. 11.
15. Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the
Thirty Years War [1941], trans. Eric Bentley, London: Methuen, 1962.
7  ‘Truth Within a Fable’? Fiction, Truth and Post-Truth    

Benjamin, Walter, Understanding Brecht [1966], trans. Anna Bostock, London:
NLB, 1973.
Brecht, Bertolt, Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty
Years War [1941], trans. Eric Bentley, London: Methuen, 1962.
Bunyan, John, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners [1666], ed. W.R. Owens,
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.
———, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Parts One and Two [1678, 1684], ed. W.R. Owens,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Defoe, Daniel, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders
[1722], ed. G.A. Starr, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
———, Roxana: Or, The Fortunate Mistress [1724], ed. John Mullan, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment [1866], trans. Oliver Ready,
London: Penguin, 2014.
Fielding, Henry, The History of Tom Jones [1749], ed. R.P.C. Mutter, London:
Penguin, 1985.
Hogg, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner [1824],
ed. John Carey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Rorty, Richard, Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972–1980), Brighton:
Harvester, 1982.
———, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989.
A Post-Liberal Society?

Yet another ‘post-’ has come in for a lot of discussion recently, and that
is ‘post-liberalism’. Various commentators have been speculating as to
whether the West is becoming post-liberal in its ideological outlook,
and also as to whether that is a good thing or not.1 It depends what
one understands by post-liberalism of course, and we are faced once
more with the slipperiness of the prefix, which can be interpreted either
as meaning to go beyond a concept, and possibly improve it to make
it more responsive to cultural change, or to reject it entirely: full pres-
ence would seem to be lacking here. Post-Marxism has already had to
go through that process with the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal
Mouffe, who regarded themselves in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy as
going beyond Marxism but retaining its spirit (being ‘post-Marxist’ yet
also ‘post-Marxist ’, as they defined their position2), while their detrac-
tors in the Marxist establishment accused them instead of contradict-
ing the theory’s main principles to the extent of becoming anti-Marxist:
a clear differend. It is an argument that has not gone away within the
field, where traditionalists have never forgiven Laclau and Mouffe, and
the movement of thought that developed out of their work, for the
divisions they have created on the left. We need to bear the slipperiness

© The Author(s) 2019 139

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

in mind with post-liberalism, therefore, as we consider what role it is

currently playing in cultural debate, and how we should respond to it.
Does it really mean post-, or is it more like anti-? And might that sense
of anti- have been absorbed into how post-liberalism is now generally
being understood? As Yascha Mounk has summed the current situation
up: ‘Voters have long disliked particular parties, politicians, or govern-
ments; now, many of them have become fed up with liberal democracy
itself ’.3
Although the term has been around for quite a while now (John
Gray’s book on the subject came out in 1993, for example4), the notion
of a ‘post-liberal’ society would seem to be a particularly natural out-
growth of the post-truth phenomenon, where all the standard assump-
tions about how political life should be conducted are being turned on
their head. The idea poses many awkward issues because the West has
for some time now conceived of itself as an essentially liberal culture—
or at least it has set that up as an ideal by which to judge any society’s
development. A liberal culture emphasises democracy, free elections,
egalitarianism, and human rights, campaigning for these processes to be
put into practice around the world as a way of improving the human
condition. This is what Gray interprets as a ‘foundationalist’ liberalism,
and it has been a very powerful force in the modern world, ‘the political
theory of modernity’ as he describes it, providing a template for how to
follow the West’s example.5 That is its political side, but it also has an
important economic one, embracing free-market capitalism in at least
some form. Free-market capitalism is based on competition, and strives
to remove any barriers to this principle that are the product of tradi-
tion or cultural difference. From Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations
onwards this notion has been central to economic thinking in the West,
and at least in principle, each and every individual is supposed to be free
to pursue their goals in this market.6 As Smith saw it, everyone in soci-
ety gained from such a system, where individuals were encouraged to
realise their potential by competing against each other for custom, spur-
ring each other on to greater effort to succeed. In recent years neoliberal
economic theory has enthusiastically pursued freedom of movement for
capital across national borders, on the grounds that such globalisation
of finance and trade would be to the benefit of the entire international
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

community, raising living standards everywhere—in the developing

world as well as the developed West. The European Union has added
freedom of movement for individuals to the system, thus extending the
opportunities open to them in the jobs market.
While all of this may sound fine in abstract (except to old-style
socialists committed to the ‘command economy’ idea, perhaps, where
the state machine is in sole charge), it has created many social and polit-
ical tensions in recent years, being identified with a widening wealth
gap between the upper and lower echelons of society, as well as between
developed and developing nations. The effect of unbridled neoliberalism
has been dramatically to increase wealth at the top, and equally dramat-
ically lower it at the bottom (it is worth noting that ‘neo’, too, can be a
very slippery prefix). We have gone well beyond the point at which this
effect can be explained away as a mere aberration, to where it appears
to be systemic instead. In that respect, neoliberalism appears to have
left the ideals of liberalism well behind, and its recent performance does
indicate that neoliberalism’s objectives and ideals do not always con-
form to those of social democracy. Maximising returns for shareholders
does not necessarily improve the living standards or quality of life of the
majority; recent experience, backed up by a wealth of evidence, would
suggest that the majority is in fact falling badly behind on both counts,
and that resentment is steadily building up because of this amongst the
general public.

The Case for Reforming Foundationalist

A post-liberal society would be more sceptical about the virtues of neo-
liberal economics, as the left in general already is, and there is beginning
to be talk in some of the world’s leading economies about introduc-
ing more trade tariffs to protect themselves—backed up by a certain
amount of action on that front. Whether this will have the desired
effect, or merely lead to counter-productive trade wars of the kind that
created such fierce political animosity in the nineteenth and twentieth
S. Sim

centuries, is very much an open question (although warning signs are

already beginning to appear); but it does signal that the very notion of
what it means to be liberal is coming under increasing scrutiny, both in
its political and economic guise. Foundationalist liberalism is for many
thinkers urgently in need of reform, perhaps by means of a combination
of ‘social conservatism with greater economic interventionism’, as David
Goodhart has suggested, a combination of the beliefs of the political
right and left designed to overcome the historic divisions between them
(another example of the ‘Third Way’ principle).7 As ‘the political theory
of modernity’ liberalism also has to contend with the argument of many
social commentators that we have now passed into a state of postmo-
dernity, where the assumptions behind modernity no longer hold, and
changes to the system just cannot be avoided. That is the line argued
in Jean-François Lyotard’s highly influential polemic The Postmodern
Condition, which confidently asserts that the days of metanarratives like
liberal democracy or Marxism are over. He recommends that we adopt
an attitude of ‘incredulity’ towards them, treating them as relics of an
outmoded ideology.8 Lyotard’s is a post-liberal vision as well, but a very
different, politically far more radical one than either neoliberalism or
Goodhart could support, being opposed both to capitalism and social
conservatism. John Gray argues the case for some sort of combination
of these positions, calling it ‘postmodern liberal conservatism’, which he
defines as a ‘sensibility’ that recognises cultural differences.9
The problem in trying to reform the liberal project to take account
of such recent cultural shifts will be to ensure that the positive side of
social liberalism—which can be embraced by both left and right polit-
ically, each adapting it according to their own ideological concerns—
survives any changes that are made. Positive aspects such as human
rights and egalitarianism would have their advocates as essential com-
ponents of any reformed liberalism. The far left, however, would want
to see a degree of economic interventionism that could end up restrict-
ing personal freedom quite significantly (the return of the command
economy and the all-powerful state machine perhaps); while the far
right would push for far greater social conservatism than the West
has been used to for some time now, a conservatism that would most
likely clamp down hard on political dissent (the againstness approach),
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

as well as identity politics in general. Either of the latter two models could
be called post-liberal, or more correctly perhaps, post-liberal. Goodhart,
however, thinks post-liberalism should steer more of a middle course:

In its challenge to mainstream liberalism, postliberalism wants to com-

bine ideas from left and right in new ways and challenge some of the tired
polarities that clutter contemporary political debate: left v right; state v
market; individual v collective; self-interest v altruism; open v closed.10

‘Tired polarities’ aside (although they would not appear that way to
the alt-right, who positively thrive on them as a way of positioning
themselves on the political scene), we know that free-market capital-
ism can take more socially responsible forms than the neoliberal one,
and frequently has done so in the past. In the aftermath of the Second
World War, for instance, a welfare state oriented model became quite
common throughout Western Europe, providing extensive coverage
in areas like healthcare and housing provision. Even right-wing polit-
ical parties went along with this ‘cradle to the grave’ notion, recognis-
ing its general appeal at the time in the aftermath of the turmoil of the
Depression and the War. Neoliberalism opposes that model, however,
with the very high levels of taxation it requires, and has been a key ele-
ment in the movement to wind it down, which has happened to a sig-
nificant extent in most of the European countries where it had been
implemented. Reduction of welfare spending has been a goal of most
European nations for several decades now, allowing taxes to be cut as
neoliberalism argues is necessary to foster growth in the business world
(if nothing else, it has been successful in fostering substantial growth
in managerial salaries and bonuses, as well as in share dividends). That
is a trend, however, that could be reversed: a post-neoliberalism, with
the ‘greater economic interventionism’ called for by Goodhart perhaps
(I am not so sure of his social conservatism, however). The alt-right
would present a powerful barrier to any such reform, since economic
interventionism of almost any kind is anathema to their cause. They
want to wind down the power of the state, propounding the creed
of small government, with regulation kept to a bare minimum—
little more than basic law and order in more extreme interpretations.
S. Sim

Post-liberalism will look very different depending on who wins this par-
ticular battle of ideas.
The European Union is also under pressure to re-examine its com-
mitment to freedom of movement of people—a policy most liberals
would agree to, in abstract anyway—because of the social tensions that
the policy is generating. The general shift of individuals from weaker
economies to stronger ones that the policy has involved is increasingly
producing feelings of resentment amongst the populations of the latter.
It was clearly a factor of some note in the Brexit referendum, bringing
out some intensely chauvinistic, bigoted sentiments as the campaigning
became ever more heated. Liberalism’s ideals are not always being shared
at ground level, so there is a receptive audience for the post-­liberal
ethos—even by those who think of themselves as essentially liberal in
outlook. More worrying, however, is the changing attitude towards
human rights by professedly post-liberal thinkers, who have openly agi-
tated for action against immigrant groups and ethnic minorities, argu-
ing that their rights should be restricted—often basing their arguments
on fake news stories (Islamic culture has been particularly badly treated
on this score). Another key battle of ideas looms that will play a criti-
cal role in what post-liberalism ultimately comes to mean in the next
few decades. Some kind of balance needs to be struck between liberal-
ism and post-liberalism, but at the moment post-liberalism looks as if it
could be a serious threat to some of the most cherished ideals of liberal
democracy, in which case it has to be regarded as contributing to the
regressive tendency within contemporary culture already noted.
Liberal democracy does cry out for reform, as no political system
is ever entirely proof from this; but the issue is whether a post-liberal
programme is the way to achieve this, or whether it will just establish
the post-truth ethos even more firmly into the political mainstream
than it already is—with all the perils that would bring in its train. Post-
liberalism certainly appeals to the far right sensibility; indeed, for the
far right in the USA to be ‘liberal’ is the same as being unpatriotic, and
they use it as an insult, bandying it around frequently, especially dur-
ing election campaigns (Democrats are usually on the receiving end).
Liberal democracy, and particularly its social democratic form, is the
enemy as far as such thinkers go; that is what pressure groups like the
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

Tea Party were formed to campaign against, and they have become
important players in the internal politics of the Republican Party. The
far right in general leans towards social conformity and cultural homo-
geneity, and is more than willing to curb human rights in order to
achieve these aims. Extending those rights to others outside their cir-
cle tends, as they see it, to put their own privileges at risk, and they
will always be quick to defend those and the prejudices that underpin
them. The difference that poststructuralists and postmodernists cham-
pion so fervently is just as fervently hated by the far right, for whom
white supremacism is an article of faith, and diversity merely the road to
becoming the ‘pathetic, third-rate, also-ran, multicultural mess’ of Ann
Coulter’s fevered imagination. Difference versus homogeneity consti-
tutes a particularly intractable differend, and it is right at the centre of
the debate over what post-liberalism should be. Identity politics arouses
strong emotions for and against, and neither side is very much disposed
towards compromise.

Postmodern Liberalism?
John Gray’s Post-Liberalism is essentially pessimistic about liberalism’s
prospects, arguing that ‘the days of liberalism are numbered. Even as
it governs policy in the United States, liberalism is ill-equipped to deal
with the new dilemmas of a world in which ancient allegiances and
enmities are reviving on a large scale’.11 It is an assessment which rings
even more true now than when Gray made it in 1993; dilemmas have
just gone on piling up in the interim, courtesy of refugee crises, terror-
ist attacks, and financial crashes. His analysis is in part a response to
Francis Fukuyama’s claim in The End of History, published in the after-
math of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it communism as
a geopolitical force, that liberal democracy has finally triumphed over
all other political systems.12 For Fukuyama, liberal democracy was to
be considered the high point of humanity’s development, and all that
remained was to wait until all of the world’s nations had caught up with
the West in that respect. Few thinkers would agree with that assessment
now (even Fukuyama has modified his views to some extent13), and the
S. Sim

Trump presidency gives every impression of having jettisoned liberal

values altogether in its embrace of an alt-right ideology based on the
concept of againstness. Gray saw liberalism as a socio-political theory
in steep decline, and what has happened since bears him out, raising
the question of what, if anything, can be saved from the foundationalist
liberalism tradition, and exactly what character post-liberalism should
take if the original is no longer sustainable. Although he concludes that,
‘liberalism, as a political philosophy, is dead’, Gray argues that aspects
of liberalism in a general sense are nevertheless worth retaining if we
want to prevent a lapse into an authoritarian world order.14 That kind
of a lapse is what his notion of a postmodern liberal conservatism is
designed to obviate, a realignment to meet rapidly changing cultural
circumstances. This immediately signals that post-liberalism is going to
become an area of considerable ideological contention, that it can be
interpreted in two very contrasting ways; another polarity to add to
Goodhart’s list. Gray feels that the legacy of liberalism can still be devel-
oped, whereas the alt-right line is that liberalism is indeed dead and
good riddance to it; time for post-truth to take over the political sys-
tem. It is precisely movements of the alt-right kind that Gray is worried
about, and that make it so important to keep something of the spirit
of liberalism alive in our culture as a means of countering their malign
influence on our political life:

For, though it may be only one of the diverse forms of flourishing our
species has achieved, a liberal civil society is the form of society in which
we have made our contribution to the human good; and, in defending it,
we defend the best in our cultural inheritance, and the best that the spe-
cies can presently hope for.15

Gray brings out the problem that any of us have to face when confront-
ing the alt-right from the side of liberal democracy: how to defend what
is best from the tradition of liberalism while recognising its many flaws,
and trying to disengage oneself from those, making clear one’s oppo-
sition. The result is a reluctant liberalism perhaps, but still a recognis-
able one. Defending liberal democracy can only go so far if it means
taking on board phenomena such as neoliberalism, or a system which
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

has allowed the alt-right and its post-truth tactics to worm their way
into the very heart of the democratic process and put it under severe
threat. Neither can supporting liberal democracy in its broader sense
condone the resurgence of white supremacism, or the generalised anti-­
immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments that have become so widespread
in the last few decades throughout the West, all too often hiding behind
a dubious defence of freedom of speech. Siding with liberal democracy
is more a case of knowing what you are against than offering uncondi-
tional support for everything that has happened under that heading: a
form of againstness that can be recommended to the wider public with
a reasonably clear conscience. For Gray this is postmodern liberal con-
servatism, whereas I would want to amend that concept to postmodern
liberal social democracy, or postmodern liberal socialism, but his point
about the need to develop a new kind of sensitivity to cope with the
current situation stands. The goal would be ‘a society in which men and
women come to respect and cherish their differences and are ready to
act together to protect them’.16 All of the positions just outlined under
the label of postmodernism would be happy to support that, regard-
ing it as a basic building block of any society; whereas the alt-right,
with its hatred of multiculturalism, would be vehemently opposed.
Co-operation versus combativeness: difference and diversity are shaping
up to be critical areas of conflict in a post-liberal world, and attitudes
towards them as ideologically very revealing.

Illiberalism Rising
The rise of the far right throughout the US and Europe has brought in
its wake an upsurge of nationalism that is unashamedly extremist in its
aims, and has no intention of respecting or cherishing differences and
cultural diversity. Compromise with other worldviews amounts to sur-
render as far as they concerned. In Europe, this has involved a revival
of fascist-oriented political parties and movements that have made a
certain amount of headway on the mainstream political scene, and are
no longer to be treated as a mere fringe activity with negligible popular
appeal; instead, the appeal appears to be steadily widening. This trend
S. Sim

has to be considered part of the post-liberal phenomenon, although it is

not the only way that post-liberalism might develop, post-, as observed,
being a very flexible prefix. Post-liberalism could, as noted above, mean
a welcome move away from extreme neoliberalism, retaining the notion
of a free market but making it subject to a far greater degree of control
by government than is currently the case; recognising, in other words,
that it has to serve the wider public interest far better than it has been
doing of late under the globalisation brand. It is thanks to the excesses
of neoliberal market trading that austerity has become such a wide-
spread political response amongst Western governments, creating seri-
ous social tensions in various countries, particularly when the finance
industry itself appears to have escaped any really significant punishment
for its misdeeds. It is a common perception that the general public is
paying the price of the 2007–2008 credit crash not the banks, and that
neoliberalism has gone on largely as before.
The rise in nationalism, however, is not in the main fuelled by resent-
ment of neoliberal policies. It tends to be more about national identity
in a rather old-fashioned sense, with a white supremacist bias coming
to be very noticeable in the various nationalisms asserting themselves in
Europe, echoing that already present in the American alt-right move-
ment, with its hatred of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is an
identity politics that the right can endorse; one that is based on the
premise that it is superior to all others. Commentators have taken to
referring to this development as ‘illiberalism’. Immigration is more of
an issue in this context than economic theory (hence Trump’s obses-
sion with Mexicans and a border wall), and indeed neoliberalism need
not have too much of a problem accommodating itself to this kind of
post-liberalism. Capitalism is nothing if not adaptable in that regard.
Neoliberalism does not as such require political freedom of the liberal
democratic variety in order to operate: it has accommodated itself to
the lack of this in China well enough. Neither is it necessarily all that
concerned about human rights—as China again shows. It is set up for
financial entrepreneurs and the corporate sector, and they constitute an
elite whose primary objective is to protect their own narrow interests.
Profit matters far more here than liberal ideals, and that has clearly been
the pattern in neoliberal-led globalisation; as long as China produces
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

the consumer goods the multinational corporations require, then they

will not concern themselves too much with the repressive policies of
the Chinese government. The liberal aspect of neoliberalism applies to
financial freedom rather than political, and it can be detrimental to the
development of liberal democracy as traditionally understood if it is
allowed too much free rein, and most certainly to its social democratic
side. Its commitment to egalitarianism is little more than skin deep
(as its enthusiastic use of the tax haven system to maximise corporate
profit returns surely proves), and it could easily embrace the social con-
servatism side of Goodhart’s definition of the post-liberal project. Stock
markets can be very resilient, ideologically speaking.
The refugee issue tends to encourage the growth of post-liberal atti-
tudes, as can be seen in the reaction to the influx of refugees into the
West from the Middle East, fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq—
where the West has been a significant contributing factor in the region’s
socio-political problems, owing to its periodic military interventions
(the search for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ has had a particularly
messy aftermath). One would have thought that humanitarian consid-
erations would take precedence in cases like these, but ostensibly liberal
societies in Europe have been welcoming only up to a point. Initially,
refugees were accepted in and a genuine attempt was made to settle
them throughout the EU bloc of countries; that was what a liberal ethos
called for. Before long, however, quotas were being introduced to stem
the influx, and also to deter others from attempting to enter Europe
as public opinion turned against the policy. Immigration was a central
issue in the 2018 Italian national election, for example, prompting some
very unsavoury outbursts on the topic from several leading political fig-
ures, who clearly regarded it as a vote-winner (as it is proving to be in
several Eastern European countries). Liberalism, in other words, was
already turning into post-liberalism in its negative guise, anti-­liberalism
or illiberalism, and slipping away from its high ideals by adopting an
elitist attitude towards those outside its established boundaries. The
notion of it as a universalising tendency bringing socio-political bene-
fits to all humankind begins to disappear at such points, and it reveals
itself to be just one more flawed metanarrative with a gap between ide-
als and practice; if nevertheless one where such responses can continue
S. Sim

to be debated and remain open to change. That is a luxury that alt-right

thought does not offer its followers: its beliefs are set in stone, totally
impervious to debate. Cultural prejudice may be overcome even in a
backsliding liberalism, but not in alt-rightism.
Post-liberalism can go one way or the other, therefore, and we have to
choose where our loyalties lie. It is fair to say that the more that nation-
alism comes into the frame, then the more likely it is that we are sliding
towards the wrong side.

The Free Speech Dilemma

Liberalism, in its old-fashioned sense, is only too easy to attack, because
it encourages the expression of a wide variety of viewpoints, even if
this sometimes lands it in difficult situations when its defence of free
speech is put to the test by right-wing bigotry. There has been a spate of
problems over this issue in recent years, with the spread of ‘no platform’
tactics in the university system in both the USA and Europe, aimed at
preventing racists, for example, from giving talks to campus organisa-
tions. Accusations of political correctness from the right-wing media
predictably follow any successful implementation of this ban, and lib-
erals are always left in a quandary as to what the best course of action
would be in such circumstances. Censorship is not a position that liber-
als will ever feel comfortable having to defend, particularly in the con-
text of higher education where ideas of all descriptions are supposed to
be debated, and it is only too easy to make the act of no platforming
a racist speaker sound as if it merits that description. The far right, of
course, can present a united front on this issue, making them a formi-
dable enemy when it comes to debates over freedom of expression. They
can claim to be attacking prejudice, and that will always draw a certain
amount of public support from outside their own circles, lending the
movement greater public credibility, even if, as a New Scientist edito-
rial has succinctly put it, ‘[p]laying the free-speech card can often be
a Trojan Horse for smuggling some deeply unpleasant and reactionary
ideas back into society’.17 The irony is that when the far right achieves
political power its tendency traditionally has been to clamp down hard
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

on opposition, and thus to curb freedom of expression quite severely;

prejudice then comes back into play with a vengeance. That is some-
thing to beware of if an illiberal oriented post-liberal society becomes
more of a reality.

Which Post-Liberalism?
So it all comes down to what we understand by post-liberalism, which
in the standard manner of all ‘post’ descriptions is open to differing
interpretations as to its meaning. It can mean to develop liberalism so
that its weak points are addressed. Liberal democracy 2, perhaps, a new
improved version but with broadly similar ideals to its foundationalist
origins: a spectrum that could run from postmodern liberal conserva-
tism through postmodern liberal social democracy/socialism. Or it can
mean to turn sharply against liberalism, to the extent of ditching its
many positive achievements, such as the championship of human rights
and egalitarianism, in favour of a pre-liberal ethos that left the individ-
ual largely at the mercy of powerful vested interests: social conserva-
tism plus neoliberalism—and quite possibly extreme versions of each of
these. I would want to defend the notion of liberal democracy 2 (again,
interpreting this in a broad sense), but not any return to pre-liberal
values, and it is the latter that appears to be the goal of the post-truth
community. It is post-liberalism as a rejection of, rather than a develop-
ment of, liberal democracy that increasingly is being referred to in cur-
rent commentary, however, and that fits in with post-truth’s objectives.
It is not the improvement of liberal democracy that post-truthers seek,
but its replacement by a culture of militant againstness and a ‘positive
polarisation’ of the political landscape, where prejudice and gut feeling
are actively encouraged in the demonisation of such supposed enemies
as feminists, gays, and the Black Lives Matter movement. That can only
increase the threat of demagoguery in Western society, and it would be
naive to think that it could not infiltrate the system, or that it is proof
against any such move. Which post-liberalism wins this struggle for
public support can only have far-reaching implications for the future of
Western democracy.
S. Sim

1. See, for example, David Goodhart, ‘A Postliberal Future?’, Demos
Quarterly (17 January 2014),
a-postliberal-future (accessed 13 January 2018).
2. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy:
Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], 2nd edn, London and
New York: Verso, 2001, p. 4. I discuss the ramifications of this distinc-
tion in the Introduction, ‘Spectres and Nostalgia; Post-Marxism/Post-
Marxism ’, to my edited collection, Post Marxism: A Reader, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
3. Yascha Mounk, The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger
& How to Save It, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018, p. 2.
4. John Gray, Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought, New York and
London: Routledge, 1993.
5. John Gray, Liberalism, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986, p. 90.
6. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
Nations, Books I–III [1776], ed. R.H. Campbell, A.S. Skinner, and
W.B. Todd, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
7. David Goodhart, ‘The Next Big Thing? Blue Labour and Red Tory: The
Age of Post-Liberalism’, Prospect (October 2011), www.prospectmaga- (accessed 16 January 2018).
8. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge [1979], trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi,
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. xxiv.
9. Gray, Post-Liberalism, p. 271.
10. Goodhart, ‘A Postliberal Future?’.
11. Gray, Post-Liberalism, p. 250.
12. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, London:
Penguin, 1992.
13. See Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of
Prosperity, New York: Free Press, 1995, where the author is somewhat
more circumspect about the prospects for liberal democracy interna-
tionally, noting how resistant national cultures can be to large-scale
challenges to their traditional ways: ‘What cannot change nearly as
quickly is culture’ (p. 40).
14. Gray, Post-Liberalism, p. 284.
15. Ibid., p. 328.
8  A Post-Liberal Society?    

6. Ibid., p. 271.
17. ‘Hate Speech Is Not Free’, New Scientist (24 February 2018), p. 3.

Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man, London: Penguin,
———. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, New York: Free
Press, 1995.
Goodhart, David, ‘The Next Big Thing? Blue Labour and Red Tory: The Age
of Post-Liberalism’, Prospect (October 2011),
magazine/blue-labour-red-tory (accessed 16 January 2018).
———. ‘A Postliberal Future?’, Demos Quarterly (17 January 2014), quarterly. (accessed 13 January 2018).
Gray, John, Liberalism, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986.
———. Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought, New York and London:
Routledge, 1993.
‘Hate Speech Is Not Free’, New Scientist (24 February 2018), p. 3.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards
a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], 2nd edn, London and New York:
Verso, 2001.
Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
[1979], trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1984.
Mounk, Yascha, The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger &
How to Save It, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Sim, Stuart, ed., Post Marxism: A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
Press, 1998.
Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,
Books I–III [1776], ed. R.H. Campbell, A.S. Skinner, and W.B. Todd,
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth

Post-truth cannot be considered an acceptable part of any democratic

society, which ought to be run on the basis of reason and respect for
universal human rights rather than prejudice when it comes to its public
institutions. Even if we move past foundationalist liberalism that still
has to be the case; post-truth must not be permitted to fill the vacuum
that the decline of the liberal project potentially could leave. When prej-
udice is allowed to dominate then we run the risk of being manipulated
by demagogues with the power to sway their audience emotionally, and
only too prone to undermining human rights to achieve their aims. The
strength of their convictions swamps all other considerations. Once
that scenario develops then the death of democracy becomes a very
real threat, and truth would be even more at risk than it is now. Being
fed up with liberal democracy does not mean that a demagogue is the
answer. The twentieth century alone provides a host of examples of the
dangers that demagoguery can lead to—world wars, ethnic cleansing,
savage political repression, refugee crises on the grand scale, and so on.
There is no shortage of regressions from civilised behaviour to be noted
in recent history (we must always remember that liberal democracies are
in a minority amongst all the world’s nations), and they have left their

© The Author(s) 2019 155

S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,
S. Sim

scars on our subsequent social and political development. Nor is there

any shortage of demagogic figures around in our own century willing
to continue that sad tradition. Pulling no punches, Steven Levitsky and
Daniel Ziblatt call Donald Trump exactly that, on the basis of the early
stages of his presidency alone: ‘Not only did Americans elect a dema-
gogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once pro-
tected our democracy were already becoming unmoored’.1 Trump
is, however, merely one of several candidates internationally skilled at
devising truth-effects—and not even the worst (although his influence
as leader of the world’s richest nation might extend the farthest). It is a
pattern from which we have yet to escape, and have to be on permanent
guard against, because it really can happen anywhere. Complacency on
this issue just plays into the hands of the alt-right.
The post-truth lobby must be countered, therefore, and that is going
to mean a greater emphasis on fact checking when it comes to politi-
cal pronouncements, and, critically, online news sites, in order to frus-
trate their drive to deceive us through their tactics of lie, deny, invent,
silence. There is a pressing need to form more organisations dedicated
to this task, who will keep broadcasting their findings, no matter
how many times they are told by the post-truth lobby that ‘No. One.
Cares’. Even if it appears to do so more slowly, truth is just as capable
of going viral as post-truth, and the reason that you should care has to
keep being demonstrated. If not, then conspiracy theory will just keep
stepping into the breach to offer its own self-serving explanations of
events, in a bid to shape public debate to its own ends. It has become
such a well-worked technique that we can be taken in by it almost with-
out noticing. Fitting in with prejudice is easily established under those
circumstances, which delivers the wrong kind of post-liberalism, the
oppressive, illiberal, kind which seeks to overturn all the hard-won ben-
efits of Enlightenment liberalism. A post-liberalism that turns its back
on universal human rights is a post-liberalism to be avoided at all costs.
What is also required is a much higher standard for what can be
posted on websites—one is tempted to say that almost any stand-
ard would be an improvement on the currently anarchic situation.
Governments have the power, if they can be persuaded to use it, to
call for, and legislate to require from the relevant providers, far greater
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

controls of content than exist at present. It is a move in the right direc-

tion that systems are now being developed in the public sector whereby
news websites can be audited as to their credibility level. The American
Library Association (ALA), working through its ‘Libraries Transform’
initiative, has been particularly active on this front, with university
libraries throughout the USA devoting more and more attention to the
issue. California State University at Chico, for example, has developed a
programme called the ‘CRAAP Test’, which can be accessed as a work-
sheet by the general public. This growing movement will be explored
in more detail in this chapter, as it deserves all the encouragement, and
exposure, that it can get. As one of the figures behind the library cam-
paign put it: ‘When you think of the evolution of fakeness, and how
it can grip us, if we aren’t seeking the truth, I think the consequences
could be dire’.2 That is a warning well worth heeding, because the cur-
rent landscape of post-truth is a dire enough prospect to contemplate
without having to worry about how it could become even worse. Post-
truth will never go away entirely (the unscrupulous are always with us),
but its impact can, and must, be significantly reduced and countered
at every turn. Its claims can, and must, be disproved, and it has to be
challenged to provide proof every time around, such that the lack of
this is seen to be damning. Otherwise we can look forward to yet more
Bowling Green Massacres, which post-truthers, like Eco’s Simonini, are
always willing to invent to order, and alt-right supporters to absorb all
too uncritically.
The social media setup on the internet has to be made more socially
responsible too, since that is the main route for stories going viral,
thus providing a ready platform for purveyors of fakeness. The big
sites themselves ought to be keeping a much closer check on what they
carry—as is already being suggested when it comes to online porn and
racist hate material, which the net is awash with. At present the level
of monitoring is fairly variable, largely self-regulatory and not particu-
larly effective. Overall, there is a need for a code of conduct for the net,
which in the current climate of neoliberal economics is more like the
Wild West in the way it is operating: profit takes precedence for the
internet giants, whatever idealistic statements they may make about
their services. Facebook is in the process of exploring programmes for
S. Sim

filtering out fake news, so that sets something of an example for others;
although the fact that it has been so lax in the use being made of its
data, does not exactly inspire a great deal of confidence in such organ-
isations’ commitment to making the net a more reliable source (as the
Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed), and less a generator of tech-
nopessimism. That is not to say that filtering should be taken to the
lengths it has been in China, however, where state censorship is a real
problem, severely curbing freedom of speech and political opposition to
the ruling Communist Party. Yet a code of conduct with some degree
of monitored control from the public sector is long overdue; filtering’s
time has surely come, and one would feel that it ought to become a
priority of both the social media sector and Western governments. Post-
truth is at present being given far too easy a ride, and it is the ready
access to social media that turns this into such a critical issue. Anyone
can open a Twitter account, and anyone can invent a Twitter persona to
spread fake news that can proceed to have far-reaching political effects
(on national elections, for example). Having to find ways of reducing
the impact of fake news from a fake persona demonstrates just how des-
perate a situation we are now facing. Trolling has become a huge prob-
lem internationally, an organised industry expressly designed to distort
political debate for malicious ends, and the far right is becoming highly
sophisticated in its manipulation of the technique. A new Jenna Abrams
can come along at any minute, and as things stand we are very vulnera-
ble to such a development, particularly given the proven ability of fake
news to grab the attention of online readers and then go viral at speed
because of its novelty value.
More should be done at school level, too, to instill this sought-after
code of conduct into young people: it may not eradicate every instance
of post-truth, or the disposition towards believing it, but it could at
least raise awareness of what is going on and make some inroads into
the process. The more people there are who do care, and are repeatedly
being shown why they should care, then the less effect post-truth will
have on our political life. It is not the least depressing aspect of the post-
truth phenomenon that so many people are disposed to take in what
they are being told without bothering to check its factual content; not
everyone is interested in seeking out the truth at the expense of their
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

prejudices. The Trump phenomenon has thrived on that, so we have

been warned as to the implications. Trump-trust is bad for any nation’s
health, and can only exacerbate social divisions; it has done more than
enough damage on that front already. Differends ought to encourage
creative solutions, rather than the denial of their legitimacy that they
standardly receive from the post-truth side. Denialism is never a good
sign in the arena of public debate, where evidence should be examined
as dispassionately as all concerned can manage—something which is
long overdue when it comes to the topic of climate change, as a notable
case in point.
There is no easy way to overcome post-truth, so engrained has it
become in our culture, but it has to be confronted at every opportunity,
otherwise we really are leaving ourselves exposed to the rise of dema-
goguery. Activism is the only way to curb the spread of post-truth and
the prejudice it seeks to harness: prejudices which are there just under
the surface of civil society, and, as the political events of the last few
years have repeatedly shown, are extremely easy to inflame as well.
Understandable though it is to give up in despair when the other side
does not appear to be listening to your arguments, or at all receptive to
evidence that casts doubt on their beliefs (meaning that Barack Obama’s
birth certificate just has to be a fake), post-truthers must be kept under
attack in the public realm, continually being forced to explain their
position. The more they have to do so, then the more gaps that will
appear in their exposition, and the less credible they will become—
outside their own circles at least. It has to be an ongoing, unrelenting
process, because that is what the circumstances demand; the political
middle ground is there to be fought for, and society will become more
or less illiberal depending on who succeeds in gaining the upper hand.

The Fact Checking Industry

If fake news has become an industry, then it is a positive sign to report
that fact checking is beginning to build up an alternative movement
committed to taking it on, with the aim of undermining the growing
hold it is exercising on public discourse. That has to form a critical
S. Sim

part of the long-term campaign that is going to be necessary to curb

the impact of the post-truth establishment (it may not be enough on its
own, as James Ball has argued, but it has to be developed as much as it
can be3). Organisations such as the ALA have taken it as an important
element of their public remit to counter the post-truth phenomenon,
helping to generate methods by which to measure credibility in news
reports, as well as raising public consciousness as to just how serious an
issue this has become in the contemporary world. The objective is to
encourage us to look beyond mere truth-effects to determine if there is
any reality behind them. An interesting development in this area has
been increased collaboration between libraries and journalism degree
courses, to make students more aware of how the fake news industry
works. At the University of Michigan this has led to a module entitled
‘Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda’ coming on to the syllabus in the
2017–18 academic year. The objective is to teach what has been called
‘news literacy’ (there is already a Center for News Literacy at Stony
Brook University in New York), such that the ‘evolution of fakeness’ can
be more easily identified. It is an idea which deserves to be more widely
adopted within the higher education system, given that journalists in
the mainstream media are in the front line in combating the effect of
the fake news industry; they are the ones with the greatest incentive to
unmask post-truth for the fraud and social menace that it is. The notion
of a free press does not mean much if the long-established professional
standards of the industry are going to be so systematically violated
by alt-right factions in the name of againstness; standards such as the
necessity for evidence and evidence checking, plus the duty to report on
events rather than to invent them for ideological gain. Accountability to
one’s peers is surely a minimum requirement in this area, and when this
is not forthcoming then alarm bells should start to ring—and loudly.
Matthew D’Ancona sums up how it feels for a professional journalist
when those alarm bells do start ringing:

I would be betraying my trade if I stood by as its central value—accu-

racy—was degraded by hucksters and snake-oil salesmen. Those of us
who work for the print media get things wrong, but we are also held to
account for our mistakes: rightly so.4
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

Without accountability we are at the mercy of those whose aim it

is to arouse gut feeling in their readership, and to make opinion and
advocacy stand in for facts and objective reportage. D’Ancona is
rightly appalled at how this development has crept up on us, with its
market-driven approach to truth. Evan Davis, on the other hand,
although as concerned about accuracy as his media professional peers,
is more sanguine about the situation we are in, arguing that ‘we don’t
need to agonise too much over the particular challenges to the media
in the so-called post-truth era. The best it can do is get on with its job
as honestly and effectively as possible’.5 This is sound enough advice,
although one does wonder if it underestimates just how much of an
impact the ‘hucksters and snake-oil salesmen’ have had, and how much
the media situation has altered in such a short time. The problem is
not the performance of the mainstream media, it is whether it is still
reaching a receptive audience looking for balance in its news reportage;
that is, for facts (partially true, at the very least) rather than alternative
facts. Davis also makes the point that there needs to be ‘some media
platforms that are shared by everybody’, with the BBC being an obvious
example.6 But again, this assumes that there is an audience that actually
is sharing this platform, whereas the evidence would indicate that many
of them are abandoning the mainstream media for their online counter-
parts, which are telling them what they would like to hear rather than
sticking by the professional creed of accuracy. It is because that is so that
‘Fake News Travels Faster’. We are back with the problem of how many
of our fellow citizens are actually seeking truth rather than just ‘novel
information’ to spice up their prejudices. Brexit and the Trump presi-
dency give us much food for thought on that score.
The CRAAP Test acknowledges that the problem mainly lies online.
It is designed to evaluate research sources, particularly those found on
the net, the acronym being derived from the categories that it specifies
for checking: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose. In
each case the researcher is asked to score each category’s questions from
1 (unreliable) to 10 (excellent), and then to aggregate the scores for each
section. Anything below 30 overall is rated as ‘unacceptable’, with scales
above that running from ‘borderline acceptable’ (30–34) through ‘aver-
age’ (35–39) and ‘good’ (40–44) to ‘excellent’ (45–50).7 The questions
S. Sim

are pointed: ‘Is the information fact? opinion? propaganda?’, for exam-
ple, or ‘Is the information supported by evidence?’. Submitting the
Bowling Green Massacre to the latter question, or to the further query
‘Can you verify any of the information in another source?’, would soon
suggest that unacceptability was the only proper response in this case.
Even the mayor of Bowling Green has gone on record to deny that any
massacre took place in the town; although you would have to be scep-
tical about the report in the first place to seek out that information—
which rules out confirmed Trump-trusters.
While it would be difficult to evaluate every story on online news
sites by applying the Test Worksheet, its general principles could cer-
tainly be kept in mind, and if real doubts began to creep in then it
would be worth referring to its list of questions in more detail. If this
can sound somewhat long-winded and a tedious chore to have to
perform, it is only a formalised version of what many of us do in an
informal way when coming across reading material for the first time—
especially if it is making wild claims which do not seem to tally with
our everyday experience. When that happens, and the claims sound just
too novel, then we start to wonder if other sources are saying the same
thing, and generally try to find out. In effect, we are trying to determine
the level of accuracy involved, and checkable evidence really does need
to be forthcoming to decide that. That is precisely what is not being
looked for by supporters of the alt-right, however, who are prepared
to accept whatever fits their worldview without any further corrobora-
tion: ‘In Trump We Trust’ applies right down the line for this group.
Nevertheless, the point needs to keep being made about checkability,
since it constitutes a crucial aspect of ‘news literacy’, and that is a skill
which ought to be developed as much as possible, and as widely as pos-
sible. ‘In Trump We Should Not Trust’ without verification from sev-
eral other sources, and not just other alt-right ones either, since they
are generally all operating on the basis of Trump-trust; they constitute a
closed circuit in this respect, feeding off each other. News literacy used
to be largely a case of being sensitive to spin, of the interpretation that
was being imposed on events by commentators and vested interests, and
the mainstream media has been as guilty of engaging in this as almost
all political parties (particularly those in government) have. But news
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

literacy requires us to go well beyond that, to the point of having to

determine whether a reported event even occurred, and that is going
to involve quite a radical shift in attitudes towards the whole concept
of news, which post-truth has contaminated by its practices. It is a sad
comment on our world that we have to be this wary, but we have no
alternative given the way the online media have developed. News is now
at the forefront of the culture wars, and it is where they will be most
bitterly contested.

Reflections on Regression
A society that has gone into regression about truth, and what it sym-
bolises culturally, can become better or worse: more respectful of truth,
or less. Regression is not a trend that can be ignored, it demands that a
stance be taken on it. Those of us who want to be on the respectful side
need to develop a battery of techniques that reveal the unacceptability
of the politics of againstness of the Trump-Coulter-Breitbart camp,
and the way in which it is poisoning the contemporary political scene.
That does not mean reverting to the same dirty tactics of fake news and
alternative facts that they deploy—even if these might well find a ready
audience with the anti-Trump constituency as appropriate revenge for
his antics (and there are some such unverified stories already doing the
rounds). Instead, it means painstakingly cataloguing everything ques-
tionable about what they are claiming, and getting it out into the pub-
lic domain over and over again to create a running commentary that is
always available for inspection. It has to be made clear what is invention
and what is interpretation: only the latter deserves to have a place in the
political arena, the former is bad faith at its worst that no amount of
underlying grievance can ever justify. Unless there is a concerted ongo-
ing challenge to post-truthers, then politics will continue to coarsen and
againstness will have won, leaving us with a system skewed towards a
particularly negative style of post-liberalism that will be dedicated to
the destruction of any opposition. Not everyone will change their views
about such matters, hardliners will no doubt continue to resist, deny-
ing the validity of evidence they do not like and holding fast to their
S. Sim

prejudices. That, unfortunately, is just the way of the world, as we know

from the history of conspiracy theory, which can always find someone
to believe in its far-fetched narratives (as the Protocols surely will go on
doing). Enough of the public might come to change their views, how-
ever, to alter the balance in terms of political debate for the better. That
has to be the hope, and the goal, anyway: to increase the ranks of those
seeking truth. There are still people out there who can be persuaded
to be more careful about what they take on trust from the media (par-
ticularly the online), and the relevant information must be available to
help them—plus a commitment to carry on delivering it. It has to be
an exercise in marginalising post-truth, and it is likely to be a long hard
haul; but as activists have warned us, ‘the consequences could be dire’
if we do not keep going. The againstness faction certainly will not stop
their campaign, and that goes whether or not Trump is still around to
be their figurehead. Other Trumps will no doubt keep on emerging, and
other Bannons and Coulters too, one has to assume (and that is a very
sobering thought).
Regressive phases always make more sense, and are easier to explain,
when they happen in the past. We can identify all the social and polit-
ical elements that combined together in the turbulent post-First World
War period to create conditions conducive for the rise of fascism, which
rapidly became such a dominating force on the European political
stage through the 1920s and 1930s. Lessons were learned from that
situation that have helped to keep fascist impulses at bay through into
our own century; a fringe phenomenon with a low profile politically.
Nevertheless, a lapse back into authoritarianism and totalitarian politi-
cal attitudes is always a distinct possibility, and it does look very much
like it is in the process of occurring now; what was recently fringe is
becoming steadily less so. Post-truth is the most visible symbol of this
lapse, and the most depressing aspect of it is that it is threatening to
become the new normal in the political realm. Levitsky and Ziblatt
make the very valid point that because Trump and his ilk lie and invent
to the extent they do, something like post-truth fatigue can very eas-
ily set in as we become ‘desensitized’, which means that they might
be allowed to get away with more and more deception as we drop our
guard.8 That is a phenomenon we really must watch out for; switching
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

off is not a solution. Online death threats to those who oppose gov-
ernment policies, especially coming from the far right, also seem on
the way to becoming the new normal. Brexit is now yielding a steady
stream of these in the UK, and to criticise the Trump presidency in
the USA is to invite a similar response from an army of online post-
truthers, always ready to launch a viral onslaught against even the mer-
est hint of criticism of their heroes and their beliefs. There is no fuzzi-
ness about a death threat; it is there to be read by anyone. It is difficult
to legislate against such conduct, which the anonymity offered by the
net very much encourages: yet another peculiarly twenty-first century
dilemma for us all to ponder over.
Eventually, we come back to something very basic here, and that
is personal conduct. Only a shift in social behaviour can significantly
lessen the incidence of death threats and bullying tactics, and there is
no quick and easy route to achieving this end; although more can, and
should, be done to police the net for such posted material. To suggest
that at least part of the solution lies at the level of the personal might be
seen as a counsel of despair, especially in the toxic atmosphere of cur-
rent politics, where there is a growing desire to find a big idea to sort
everything out (given a recent history of big ideas like communism and
fascism, we should be careful what we wish for from this quarter, how-
ever). The sense of urgency behind that can be well understood, yet it
will only be through a change in social mores that we can find a way
out of the situation that we are currently stuck in, where post-truth
is in effect setting the agenda for public debate. To reiterate the point
consistently made throughout this book, we have to realise that post-
truth is an ideological movement, rooted in a notion of againstness that
is profoundly anti-democratic in character, and committed to generat-
ing as much division within society as it can to gain political advantage.
This is not just some esoteric philosophical debate about the concept
of truth that we are engaged in, but something culturally fundamental
that affects our everyday life; it is about power, who wields it, and how
accountable they are. Liberal democracy 2 and illiberalism are two very
different beasts, and unless we keep post-truth fatigue at bay we shall
find ourselves stuck with the latter; neither will it be an easy condition
to extract ourselves from once it has taken hold.
S. Sim

Julian Baggini also sees personal conduct as the key to reduc-

ing the impact of post-truth, and recommends several steps we can
take to make ourselves less open to its lures: ‘We should be sceptical
not cynical’, for example, and realise that ‘[r]eason demands modesty
not certainty’.9 To reach such a conclusion, however, is implicitly to
acknowledge the scale of the problem we face: that it all comes back to
the individual, that there is no magic bullet to put everything right. Yet
it is a magic bullet that those most concerned about post-truth proba-
bly want to be offered; some quick resolution to the situation such that
the perpetrators of post-truth can be neutralised and lose their power
to influence public opinion to the degree that they now do. Being told
to monitor, and hopefully amend, your own conduct, is never going
to resonate to the same extent, although it holds the key to any long-
term answer to post-truth. Legislation would be unworkable with this
issue, but there is nevertheless still an important role that governments
and public organisations could play in helping to raise public awareness
about the harm that post-truth is doing to our society, in order to pro-
mote more self-reflection on the situation. Official campaigns could be
mounted urging caution against believing everything you read on the
net without checking its reliability very carefully (developing an inter-
nalised CRAAP Test, as it were); also to encourage a sceptical state of
mind when dealing with online material in general, as online is not
going to go away. Such campaigns have had an effect with smoking,
reducing the incidence of this in public places quite dramatically within
just a few years, and demonstrating that individual behaviour can be
changed if enough educational effort is put into it: that has to be a
belief in any culture professing a liberal character. Slowly but surely, sex-
ual harassment is beginning to register in the public mind as b­ ehaviour
that can and should be made completely unacceptable in human rela-
tions as well, thanks to the efforts of various campaigning groups
such as #MeToo. The net has to be the next target for such a public
awareness campaign, with the aim of raising the level of news literacy
throughout the population. As with smoking, it will not eradicate the
problem altogether, but if it manages to sow seeds of doubt in the pub-
lic mind about the overall credibility of online news, or what they find
posted on the major social media sites, then that would be a significant
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

start to addressing the social menace posed by the post-truth industry. A

laissez-faire attitude to this has signally failed to work: fakeness has just
kept on evolving, and will continue to do so as long as it is taken at face
Even if legislation of personal conduct would be unlikely to have
much of a significant impact, given the anonymity that most of the
social media offers to those who wish to fling around insults or issue
death threats, something along those lines is nevertheless desperately
needed to enforce greater vigilance on the part of social media plat-
forms in general. That is the only way to cut down some of the worst
abuses of freedom of speech that we see occurring on social media with
such depressing regularity: go back to the source of delivery, and mon-
itor that scrupulously, as commentators like Andrew Keen, an outspo-
ken campaigner for regulation of the sector, have been advocating.10
Death threats should never be allowed to make it past this stage, where
a policy of no platforming would be entirely justified: the validity of
such threats can hardly be checked after all. The notion that freedom
of speech could ever be thought to apply to things like death threats is,
the more one thinks of it, quite bizarre anyway; this goes way beyond
the realm where accusations of political correctness could even be sug-
gested. Indeed, it has to be one of the most damning indictments of
the post-truth landscape that the death threat has become such a stand-
ard tactic of public discourse, so readily adopted to signal profound
­disagreement—even with members of one’s own political party in var-
ious cases recently. For the hardline post-truther there cannot be even
the glimmer of opposition to one’s beliefs—that is the unforgiveable sin,
regardless of who commits it. It hardly needs saying that this is about as
anti-democratic as one can be, depressingly reminiscent of the dark days
of fascism and communism in the last century, when dissent was treated
as if it were treason, and punished accordingly. Death threats push us
down that road.
Enterprises like this book are essentially diagnostic in character,
designed to investigate what has gone wrong ideologically to make post-
truth turn into such a mainstream activity; but if there is never any
overall, failsafe, solution to this trend, then there are obvious abuses
that can and should be targeted and minimised. Post-truth will only be
S. Sim

minimised by incremental steps, and all of us can play a part in that

exercise. It has only become mainstream because collectively as a society
we have permitted it to do so—whether from gullibility, naivety, or a
misplaced optimism about human nature (not to mention the gradual
onset of post-truth fatigue). A healthy dose of scepticism is well worth
developing throughout all levels of society instead. (Contra-Baggini, a
degree of cynicism might not go amiss in certain cases either; you can
reliably expect the worst from Breitbart, Bannon, or Coulter.) We live
in an information-saturated culture and there is no way that we can take
it all on trust anymore, not when so much fake news is so readily being
manufactured by so many alt-right sources—as well as by those in posi-
tions of power who share their political outlook and ideological goals.
Democracy depends on us individually exercising as much caution as
we are able to in processing what the news outlets are telling us, rather
than allowing ourselves to be led by our gut feelings in the manner of
the Trump-trusters. That is the least we can do if the threat of dema-
goguery is to be faced down.

Even if we have to concede that truth will always be a problematical
entity to pin down with absolute precision, and that we may often have
to be satisfied with a Bayesian-style probability (based on the weight
of evidence available and the informed guessing that it sanctions), or
a Lyotardean relative certainty, even a degree of fuzziness perhaps, nev-
ertheless we can say what it is not, and that ought to be enough of a
basis on which to defend it from the anti-democratic schemes of post-­
truthers anywhere. Relativism is no barrier to doing so; we could even
say that it offers extraordinary opportunities to find pragmatic ways
round the lack of absolute certainty, such that we can confront the
claims of post-truth with a degree of confidence. Post-truth is not just a
trend, it is a long-running historical phenomenon which has come into
its own in an era of social media with global reach and instant impact,
accompanied by political disillusion on the grand scale amongst the
general public. This has magnified its effect in a manner that conspiracy
9  Conclusion: Countering Post-Truth    

theorists of the past could only have dreamed about (a twenty-first

century Simonini would be in his element in such an environment).
Surrounded as we are by accusations of fake news, and the cynical offer
of alternative facts if what the mainstream media are telling us does not
‘fit in’ with our worldview (as if truth were a matter of pick and choose
what you want), plus a political class that has enthusiastically embraced
againstness as its method of turning prejudice to ideological advantage,
it is all too easy to fall victim to despair and decide to opt out of the
political process altogether. The Trump phenomenon alone is enough
to induce such a condition in almost any of us, being something that
seems so alien to our culture as we have known it, symptomatic of a
breakdown of a whole series of unwritten conventions that kept a
sense of order in the liberal democratic political realm. Understandable
though such a reaction would be, we should nevertheless do our utmost
to resist it, as it would simply clear the way for some version or other of
Trump-trust to take complete control of the public realm: evil triumphs
if the good do nothing, as the old saying has it. Truth can, and should,
be defended, no matter how slippery a concept it is, otherwise the social
and political consequences will indeed be dire. Accuracy must not be
allowed to become a thing of the past. The evidence is out there if we
put the requisite effort into finding it, and then ensuring that it is made
highly visible in the public domain.
To reiterate the points made at the beginning of the book: if you
are on the liberal democratic spectrum then you know what you are
opposed to, what you do not want to happen politically, and where you
do not want society to go. Even if we accept that a post-liberal culture
looms ahead of us (just as we have had to with a postmodern), it is vital
to prevent it from being taken in the direction that post-truth has made
only too clear it is determined to push towards. Post-liberalism has to
stand its ground against post-liberalism.

1. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History
Reveals About Our Future, New York: Viking, 2018, p. 9.
S. Sim

2. See Arielle Dollinger, ‘Can Librarians Save Us from Fake News?’, vice.
com/…/pgwwgz/can-librarians-save-us-from-fake-news (accessed 2 January
3. See James Ball, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, London:
Biteback, 2017.
4. Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to
Fight Back, London: Ebury Press, 2017, p. 3.
5. Evan Davis, Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What
We Can Do About It, London: Little, Brown, 2017, p. 294.
6. Ibid.
7. ‘The CRAAP Test Worksheet’,
instruction/handouts/craap (accessed 1 January 2018).
8. Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, p. 201.
9. Julian Baggini, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth
World, London: Quercus, 2017, p. 107.
10. See Andrew Keen, How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital
Age, London: Atlantic, 2018.

Baggini, Julian, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World,
London: Quercus, 2017.
Ball, James, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, London: Biteback,
‘The CRAAP Test Worksheet’,
handouts/craap (accessed 1 January 2018).
D’Ancona, Matthew, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back,
London: Ebury Press, 2017.
Davis, Evan, Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can
Do About It, London: Little, Brown, 2017.
Dollinger, Arielle, ‘Can Librarians Save Us from Fake News?’,…/
pgwwgz/can-librarians-save-us-from-fake-news (accessed 2 January 2018).
Keen, Andrew, How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age,
London: Atlantic, 2018.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History
Reveals About Our Future, New York: Viking, 2018.

Abrams, Jenna 33, 34, 158 Baggini, Julian 85, 88, 94, 106, 118,
alternative facts 16, 19, 28, 35, 57, 121, 122, 126, 166, 168, 170
59, 65, 70, 93, 119, 126, 161, Ball, James 60, 160, 170
163, 169 Bannon, Steve 30, 32, 58, 164, 168
alternative medicine 27–29 Barthes, Roland 101, 102, 111, 120,
Althusser, Louis 54, 55, 60 121
alt-right 17, 24, 25, 31–33, 36, 38, Bayesian analysis 83, 92, 93
48, 75, 143, 146–148, 150, BBC 34, 36, 38, 161
156, 157, 160, 162, 168 Benjamin, Walter 109, 136
Amazon 20, 45 Black Lives Matter 31, 148, 151
American Library Association (ALA) Blair, Prime Minister Tony 41
157, 160 Bowling Green Massacre 70, 82, 88,
Anselm of Canterbury 70, 76 157, 162
antisemitism 43, 45, 46, 48, 51, 126 Brecht, Bertolt 133–136
Aristotle 105 Breitbart News 24, 30, 48
atheism 74 Brexit 16, 17, 25, 31, 144, 161, 165

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under 171

exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
S. Sim, Post-Truth, Scepticism & Power,

Britain First 129, 130 Defoe, Daniel 128, 136

Buddhism 69 Democrat Party (USA) 25
Bunyan, John 126–128, 130, 132, denialism 13, 18, 27, 34, 57, 112,
134, 136 159
Bush, George W. 41, 42, 59 Depression 59, 143
Derrida, Jacques 5, 8, 71, 77, 90,
97–104, 107–111, 119–121
C Diamond, Larry 58, 59, 61
Cambridge Analytica 158 Dickens, Charles 130, 132
capitalism 56, 140, 142, 143, 148 differend 22, 32, 57, 71, 82, 105,
Caputo, John D. 71–73, 76, 77, 102 112, 115–118, 139, 145, 159
censorship 150, 158 dogmatism 80, 84, 85, 88, 115–117
Cezanne, Paul 103 Dostoevsky, Fyodor 133, 136
Christianity 45, 63, 64, 67, 71–73,
climate change 13, 26–28, 159 E
Clinton, Hilary 24, 25, 32 Eco, Umberto 46, 60, 157
coherence theory 81, 106 Einstein, Albert 93
communism 2, 8, 23, 36, 48, 54, 55, Enlightenment 3, 58, 156
145, 165, 167 European Union (EU) 25, 141, 144,
Conservative Party (UK) 43 149
conspiracy theory 15, 22, 44–46, événements (1968) 105
48–50, 75, 82, 125, 126, 133,
135, 156, 164, 168
correspondence theory 81, 82 F
Coulter, Ann 15, 19–22, 37, 58, 76, Facebook 157
82, 145, 164, 168 fact checking 28, 30, 156, 159
CRAAP Test 157, 161, 166, 170 fake news 2, 7, 11, 12, 16, 17, 20,
Creationism 65, 66, 70, 75 24–26, 30–33, 35, 36, 48, 52,
credit crash (2007–8) 55, 148 59, 65, 66, 70, 81, 88, 89, 91,
94, 99, 104, 126, 131, 144,
158–160, 163, 168–170
D Farías, Victor 110, 111, 121
D’Ancona, Matthew 65, 76, 98, 99, fascism 2, 17, 99, 112, 164, 165,
119, 160, 161, 170 167
Davis, Evan 50, 52, 60, 161, 170 feminism 31
death of the author 111, 133 Fielding, Henry 129, 136
deconstruction 5, 72, 73, 97, 99, First World War 18, 164
100, 103, 105, 107–109 Ford, Henry 43, 44, 129, 130

Foucault, Michel 97, 117–119, 122 Islam 31, 32, 63, 64, 67, 73, 102
Fox News 24
Fukuyama, Francis 145, 152
fundamentalism 37, 67, 68, 73, 75, K
114 Kant, Immanuel 108
fuzzy logic 17, 86, 87, 106, 107 Keen, Andrew 167, 170
Kennedy, John Fitzgerald (JFK) 44,
G Kosko, Bart 37, 87, 88, 94, 95, 106,
globalisation 114, 140, 148 107, 117, 121, 132
Goodhart, David 142, 143, 146, Kuhn, Thomas 92, 93, 95
149, 152
Gramsci, Antonio 54, 60
Gray, John 8, 140, 142, 145–147, L
152 Labour Party (UK) 42, 43, 48
Laclau, Ernesto 55, 56, 60, 61, 72,
77, 139, 152
H Lenin, V.I. 52, 53
Heidegger, Martin 98, 108–112 Lévi-Strauss, Claude 101
Hinduism 69 Levitsky, Steven 3, 4, 8, 156, 164,
Hitler, Adolf 43 169, 170
Hogg, James 129, 136 liberal democracy 2, 3, 15, 99, 140,
Hollaender, Friedrich 47 142, 144–147, 149, 151, 152,
Holocaust 13, 18, 44, 51, 58, 111, 155, 165
112, 126 liberalism 4, 140–146, 149–151,
Horner, Paul 33, 38, 98, 99 155, 156
Hubbard, L. Ron 68 libertarianism 3
Hume, David 88–91, 95, 107 Libraries Transform 157
Lipstadt, Deborah 37
Lyotard, Jean-François 6, 8, 22, 37,
I 71, 73, 77, 87, 95, 97–99,
identity politics 143, 145, 148 104–121, 142, 152
illiberalism 147, 149, 165
immigrants 50, 82, 113
internet 7, 25, 33, 157 M
Internet Research Agency 34 Marxism 51, 54–56, 72, 109, 120,
Irving, David 18, 37, 44 139, 142
ISIS 31, 32, 45 Marx, Karl 2, 8, 54, 60

Merridale, Catherine 52, 53, 60 Patterson, John 32

metanarrative 98, 109, 112, 114– Percy, Martyn 19, 37, 74, 77
116, 118, 142, 149 phenomenology 108
#MeToo 166 Pius XII, Pope 69
modernism 23 Pizzagate 24, 25
modernity 37, 140, 142 Plato 108
monotheism 63, 64, 67, 72, 73, 102 post-feminism 23
Moore, Michael 32 post-liberalism 4, 139, 140, 143–
Mormonism 68 146, 148–152, 156, 163
Mouffe, Chantal 55, 56, 60, 61, 72, post-Marxism 61, 72, 139
139, 152 postmodernism 23, 37, 73, 98, 117,
Mounk, Yascha 8, 140, 152 147
multiculturalism 147 poststructuralism 98, 117
power politics 17, 18, 42
pragmatism 107, 132
N propaganda 24, 31, 36, 51, 52, 54,
Nagle, Angela 12, 14, 37 57, 61, 160, 162
nationalism 114, 147, 148, 150 prosperity gospel 74, 75
National Rifle Association 45 Protestant work ethic 74
Nazism 110–112 Protocols of the Elders of Zion 42, 125
Neiwert, David 24, 37 Putin, Vladimir 35
neoliberalism 114, 141–143, 146,
148, 149, 151
news literacy 160, 162, 166 Q
9/11 44, 49 quantum mechanics 87, 93
Nixon, President Richard 30

O Reagan, President Ronald 32
Obama, President Barack 19, 23, 33, relativism 5, 7, 65, 72, 79, 81, 84,
44, 45, 82, 159 90, 97–101, 103, 105–108,
Occupy 32 110, 112, 113, 117–119, 131,
Olympic Games 35 168
Orwell, George 53, 60 Republican Party (USA) 145
Roosevelt, Eleanor 30
Rorty, Richard 131, 132, 134, 136
P Rove, Karl 42, 59, 64, 87
paganism 73 Rovelli, Carlo 90–92, 95
Palin, Sarah 32 Runciman, David 3, 8

Russian Revolution (1917) 48, 56 45, 48, 58, 70, 75–77, 82, 94,
104, 115, 119, 129, 130, 145,
148, 156, 159, 161, 162, 164,
S 165, 169
Salmon, Peter 98, 119, 122 Twitter 11, 24, 33, 158
scepticism 5–7, 13, 65, 66, 80, 84,
85, 91, 92, 94, 98–101, 103,
105, 113, 117–119, 168 U
Scientology 68, 69 Ussher, Bishop James 65
Second Gulf War 41
Second World War 58, 143
Sextus Empiricus 80, 81, 83, 84, 86, V
94, 98, 101, 104–106, 118 value judgement 6, 7, 74, 97–99,
Shakespeare, William 135 102, 104, 105, 108, 118, 119,
Smith, Adam 140, 152 131, 132
social democracy 141, 147, 151
socialism 55, 110, 147, 151
Socialisme ou Barbarie 110, 112 W
socialist realism 51, 54 Wendling, Mike 31, 33, 38
social media 25, 31, 34, 157, 158, white supremacism 24, 75, 115, 145,
166–168 147
Solokov, M.G. 52 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 89, 95
Sontag, Susan 109, 121 Wolff, Michael 25, 37
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty 5, 8
Stalin, Josef 52, 53
Stone, James V. 83, 85, 94 Y
structuralism 23, 101, 102 Yale School 120
Suskind, Ron 59

T Ziblatt, Daniel 3, 4, 8, 156, 164,
Tea Party 115, 145 169, 170
terrorism 23, 130 Zinoviev, Grigory 42
Third Way 142 Zinoviev Letter 42, 45, 48
trolling 34, 158 Žižek, Slavoj 50, 60
Trump, President Donald 14–16,
18–22, 25, 26, 30–35, 37, 38,