It was back in 2005 when Stephen Colbert first used the word “truthiness” on the Jon Stewart show. The audience bellowed their laughter and overnight the term took its place in our modern vocabulary. Colbert said he used it to describe the kind of politics that rejects reason and research in favour of “gut feelings” that someone feels regardless of the lack of facts. Now, some 13 years later, the term is etched in our thinking.
One of the clearest examples of how “truthiness” played out in real life occurred in the Republican Party’s 2012 primary race – a contest eventually won by Mitt Romney. In one debate, Romney’s key challenger, Rick Santorum, provided a strange example of what happens when governments get too involved in funding healthcare. As recounted by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, the candidate said:
“In the Netherlands, people wear different bracelets if they are elderly. And the bracelet is: “Do not euthanize me,” because they have voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands. But half of the people who are euthanized—ten percent of all deaths in the Netherlands—half of those people are euthanized involuntarily at hospitals because they are older and sick. And so elderly people in the Netherlands don’t go to the hospital. They go to another country, because they are afraid, because for budget purposes, they will not come out of that hospital if they go in there with sickness.”
In his Fact Checker column, Kessler noted that almost everything about Santorum’s statements was patently false. The only part that was true was that the Netherlands permit physician-assisted suicide, but that’s it. Not one person had been subject to involuntary euthanasia (better known as murder). Not one of the statistics voiced by Santorum was true, or even close to true. There are no such things as the bracelets referred to and Kessler found no evidence of elderly Dutch people fleeing to other nations because they were fearful of being euthanized.
But here’s the kicker. When Kessler contacted Santorum’s spokesperson, she refused to retract or apologize for the false information. Instead, she backed him, claiming that “Rick says what’s in his heart.”
And so we have it – truthiness. It’s what you want to be true, even if the facts say the opposite. The Netherlands complained openly about how their society was being portrayed and couldn’t believe it was all part of an official American election campaign. They publicized the reality of their health system, but it didn’t matter, since people were already divided on one side or the other and nothing – not even truth – was about to change their opinion.
This isn’t just what politics but we ourselves are in danger of becoming. Science, research, historical evidence – these formed the basis upon which the international order structured its dealings for human rights, climate change, education, health, economics, global citizenship, and government oversight. Not all of it was effectively implemented, but it did establish a framework upon which a remarkable era of peace and prosperity was built following World War Two. Now it’s not really relevant for wide swaths of our populations.
Politicians used to fret about being called out on their false statements, but now it is part and parcel of much of the democratic communication around the world. If you can mobilize the public by getting to their prejudice, by making them feel angry enough to confirm their suspicions without evidence, well, then, your chance of getting elected might increase. Many media outlets and journalists, like Kessler himself, are seeking to expose the “fakeness” of it all and grow alarmed when they realize fewer and fewer people care. It’s something that Aldous Huxley warned would prepare the way for authoritarianism.
When democracy becomes about what we want to be true as opposed to what is actually the case, turmoil ensues, anger proliferates, each side gets set in its ways, and compromise – that essence of true progress – becomes unworkable. You can’t build on what isn’t there. “The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism,” wrote Hannah Arendt. We have entered a political season where winning is everything and the consequences be damned. We’re about to discover how terrible that is going to be.