We are now so often told that we live in a “Post-Truth” world, one in which facts and reason are of secondary importance compared to emotion and gut instinct. The major political events of the last year have been dominated by lies, straw-man fallacies and misinformation thrown at the electorate from all sides of the political spectrum. Actual debate on policy is marginalised and drowned out by personal attacks and emotional appeals. This approach to public life has been lamented, quite rightly and understandably, by many in the media, especially those who supported the losing side. Whether this way of doing politics is here to stay, or will dissipate in the next few years, I do not know. What I do know, however, is that it has proven that in debate, in politics, or indeed in daily life itself, it is not good enough to be simply “correct”.
Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to attend a speech given by someone who did high-level work for the government. In it, he emphasised the point that in his meetings with elected government ministers, it was not enough to simply state the facts, no matter how true they might be. What was equally important was what he called “story-telling” – the ability to convey that information in the right way to appeal to those he was trying to convince.
This way of thinking seems blindingly obvious, and indeed it is; however, it has been forgotten, I think, by many who work in public life. There are many reasons for our modern rise in “post-truthism”, but one of them is the dismissive attitude of mainstream politicians and journalists to the concerns of the electorate and their attempt to crush emotion with facts. For instance, in Britain concerns over immigration has been growing for years; however, such concerns have generally been dismissed by the political class, who will crush it with the hard, but cold, economic data that immigrants contribute more to the British economy than they take out. Worst, they will disparage those concerns as simply racist, and ignore them as thus.
About a decade ago, David Cameron disparaged the United Kingdom Independence Party as being full of closet-racists and fruitcakes. This way of viewing UKIP and their views has continued in the mainstream media ever since; in the eyes of the electorate, they have appeared to be dismissing the concerns that UKIP raised. This year, in defiance of the mainstream message, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and Cameron has resigned as Prime Minister.
The United States has had one of the most divisive and bitter Presidential Election campaigns in recent memory. Hillary Clinton attacked Trump for his misogynistic, racist language (quite rightly, too) but made the cardinal sin of dismissing his supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. The Democrats may have lost the election at that moment.
The mainstream elite have spent far too long relying on cold fact, and disparaging views which don’t line up with those facts. Regardless of whether those facts are right – and I believe they generally are – this attitude has alienated vast swathes of our fellow citizens. When you feel hardship, feel discontented, it is not helpful for a cold, distant elite to dismiss your concerns as not lining up with the factual data. It makes you angry, and more likely to dismiss facts and ‘truth’ as not reflecting what you are experiencing. It leads you to conspiratorial echo-chambers and Breitbart. It pushes you to vote for a man who, on a daily basis, comes out with xenophobic, misogynistic and often-ignorant statements. It entices you to call for the incarceration of his contender, a woman who – for all her skill and experience – embodies the cold, dismissive, fact-obsessed elite that has ignored you for years.
I am not calling for the reduction of factual information in politics, far from it; however it has to be used in a different way. Truth should not be used as a weapon to silence views other than your own, to blast those with alternative views. Rather, those views should be accepted as legitimate concerns, and factual information should be used as a tool to support your own argument rather than a way to disparage the opposition.
This difference is subtle, but important I think. Mainstream politicians have become reliant on using facts in an intensely negative form – look at all the ways that pro-Remain politicians in Britain attempt to use economic data to suggest terrible collapse would occur if Britain voted to leave the EU. Rather than focusing on the positive benefits of European Union membership, they instead put their energies in trying to destroy the opposing campaign with cold data.
They failed. The British electorate was sick of being inundated in economic data and so ignored it, in favour of the Leave campaign, which, despite disparaging the EU (and immigration) at every turn, was ironically often more positive than the Remainers. The Remain campaign was labelled as “Project Fear” by their opponents; despite voting to Remain myself, I have to say I agree. It was an intensely negative campaign which failed, I think, partly because of its lack of a positive message. Relying on scaring people into submission, it seems, doesn’t work so well in the 21st Century.
The U.S Presidential Election was similarly negative. Clinton never really gave many memorable reasons why people should vote for her, other than the fact that she wasn’t Donald Trump. At the end of the race, her campaign focused, ironically, almost entirely on her opponent rather than her. The election appeared to come down to a decision about who the American electorate hated the least. To widespread disbelief, it appears to have been Mr Trump.
In such times, the message of hope given by President Obama eight years ago – “Yes we can” – seems like a distant memory. Politics has become incredibly negative in the West. Politicians seem to actively promote themselves as the lesser of two evils, rather than as a positive vote for change. If the mainstream politicians want to recover the ground they have lost to the populists, they need to be more positive and use facts as a tool to enhance a message of positivity, rather than as a weapon of suppression. Politicians should blow the dust off their copies of Hard Times by Dickens; “Fact” is important, but it is not good enough to rely on it entirely at the detriment of “Fancy”. People don’t want fear; they want hope. Tell the facts indeed, but don’t forget the story.