Post-truth politics: How to combat?
Since Brexit - no, even before Brexit - I have been scared.
Since Brexit, that fear has been given a name: post-truth politics.
Normally, once things have been given names the fear lessens. Not with this one. Post-truth politics sounds all very sanitised - like something future generations will study with the same barely-contained yawn as the post-war consensus, or post-Thatcherite consensus. Unfortunately though, this particular idea is one that does threaten our society.
It is hard not to sound exaggerated, but I can't see any way that this won't harm society.
Without writing a philosophy paper, I won't get into "what is truth", or interpretive versions of "fact". I have often found these debates make me hugely impatient. Whilst facts can be contested and debated, there are things in this world that just are.
What is dangerous about post-truth politics is that it has seeped into the way we do things at almost all levels. And finally, it has reached the highest level of politics. It is quite natural, therefore, for those in any political arena to wonder: what do we do about it?
What is post-truth politics?
As with any new concept, this has yet to be clearly defined. But the way I would describe it is this: politics that actively opposes the use of facts in political discourse, privileging powerful emotional responses over reasoned debate.
In many respects, it can be even worse than that - a politics where those who trust in facts are actively vilified.
We also have to be really clear. Many of these elements have always been around. People in politics have always held their own side's facts to be accurate and the other facts to be flawed. Increased focus on studying voting habits shows decisions are made on an emotional basis as much as a factual one - and suggest that this has always been the case. So to an extent we have to be careful not to oversell this concept. The extent to which there has ever been a "truth politics" (kinda needed to have a post-truth politics) is still in doubt.
However, there is one key difference this time. Over the past century, politicians have not often publicly attacked professionals, experts and evidence. They may have calmly and quietly ignored them (a separate issue), but not attacked the concept of evidence and experts.
Combined with the growing polarisation in politics, this is a dangerous mix.
So how do we combat post-truth politics?
Let's be clear. There isn't an easy answer. But I have identified four areas that need to change if we are to get our politics back.
1: "All the politicians are the same, they're the elite, they're lazy, they don't talk like us, they're not normal."
This is the first thing we need to address. And it isn't easy.
So much has been written about the gulf between voter and politician that it has become background noise. Like the Bristol Hum, only more of a UK Scream of Anger. Politicians are afraid of this Scream, but they don't know how to combat it. There are politicians like Trump and Farage, who are able to plug into the noise and vaguely direct it towards others.
What keeps me awake at night is the worry about what that vaguely directed UK Scream goes. Farage - or Johnson, or any others - does not control it. They just channel it, say the right words and hope for the best.
The answer is deceptively simple, but almost impossibly difficult to act on.
Community-based politics. Getting out and about. Being seen to care. Speaking to voters about what matters in their communities. Being open and honest about what bothers them - and equally open and honest about how that can be addressed. Live in your area. Understand your area. Care about your area.
The polls about trust in MPs often show a marked difference between "your local MP" and "MPs". When it is "MPs" as a group, trust is low. Trust in your local MP however, has consistently been higher.
So for politicians, the answer is that: get out there. Not just in surgeries and managed meetings - but be part of the community. For political parties, that means opening up, having public meetings in places that people are, not in places they used to be.
And for the political sector, lobbying organisations, etc, it means we need to change too. Hustings, for example - how many people still go to them? And how much do we actually care about what is said, if we are truly honest? Let's find out where people are and go to them. Hear their issues, and don't dismiss them, but work with them to find answers.
However - what this doesn't mean is that we need to pander to racism and aggression. Which leads me to...
2: "It is my opinion, you can't stop me saying it - I'm not racist I just care about my community. It isn't racist to be worried about immigration."
Right. This is something we have to tackle together.
Politicians have been cowardly. Not all of them. But most. The EU Referendum was lost for many reasons. But one of those reasons is the long-term refusal of most politicians to argue against anti-immigration and anti-EU voices. In short, they took early political gain and didn't count on the long-term pain.
It is my belief that being "anti-immigration" is racist. And I wouldn't do any favours if I just let people say what they like without challenging it.
We have to challenge these views, and keep on challenging them. It has never been more important.
But we still need to listen to point 1. We need to listen to voters and come up with answers that don't just offer easy solutions of hate and blame.
I am a big fan of Owen Jones' immigration dividend. Where areas that experience burdens from immigration are compensated. I also think we need to be much harsher on employers who knowingly pay under the minimum wage.
So, it isn't racist to be worried about the impact of immigration. But it is racist to be anti-immigration on principle. Because on principle, that means you just don't like people coming to the country. And that's so wrong it has to be passionately challenged.
But maybe we will run into point 3, soon, if we start arguing about evidence saying immigration is largely a positive - with some negatives that could be addressed.
3: "Yeah, but one of you says one thing and the other one says the other. The stats say the same thing if you read them another way. I'll just go with my gut, because you're both backed up by different evidence."
And this becomes my biggest issue.
The responsibility for this comes firmly at the door of the media. And particularly, the BBC.
The BBC, I believe, lost the EU Referendum for Remain.
And that is because of a totally dangerous and worrying interpretation of "balance".
"Balance", nowadays, seems to be to have two people on screen facilitated by a presenter who gives equal space to respond and equal weight to both views, never showing undue pressure on either one.
I don't agree with people that the BBC is biased. But I strongly believe the way it is currently interpreting the need for balance is one of the most significant contributors to "post-truth politics".
Let me give an example. How would the BBC approach a debate between an oncologist of forty years of experience, and a holistic therapist?
In this example, let's say the holistic therapist has said that crystals cure cancer. The oncologist, relying on trials and science, says quite clearly, "That is wrong. It is factually incorrect and dangerous."
In the current interpretation of BBC balance, the presenter would stay passive, and ask the holistic therapist to respond. "I would cast doubt on that evidence, oncologist. I believe that crystals make a huge difference. They are part of the fight against cancer."
The presenter doesn't get involved.
The viewer, importantly, is left with the impression that medical and scientific fact is left open to interpretation. Fundamentally, they are left thinking that the two bodies of evidence are equal and both worthy of being believed.
Which many (most?) of us would accept is bullshit.
What needs to happen, is that the BBC should re-interpret its view on balance. In that situation, the presenter should take a lead and show the viewer the different weight of evidence. Randomised controlled trials, medical trials over years of study, forty years of practical experience, numbers of those cured of cancer by conventional treatment, versus a holistic therapist who has no such evidence.
Now flip that example back to politics, and the EU Referendum in particular. "£350 million a week for the NHS!" say the Leavers. "Oh, that's a lie, according to almost every statistician we can find," say the Remainers.
And the BBC presenter stays silent.
Both bodies of evidence are seen to be the same.
The EU referendum is lost.
Post-truth politics is here to stay.
There is one challenge to politicians here. The BBC needs to be given a long-term charter, free of political interference at all. I would favour a 100-year lease, with a long-term settlement for funding, and then managed by a Board with a Government representative but with other Board members chosen by the organisation - or even public election.
And politicians would need to accept that the BBC is free to challenge and disagree, based on fact.
Which leads me to the final point.
4: "You're a vile human being! How dare you take this view, do you want children to die? Do you want us to live in a fascist state? Do you want to get millions addicted to drugs? Do you want to sell us out to corporate tyrants?"
The final point is for politicians.
Politicians have to, absolutely have to, stop attacking each other for listening to evidence. If the evidence is faulty, dispute it. If the evidence is minimal, ask for more. If the evidence is deliberately misinterpreted, correct it.
But all too often, if evidence-based policy is followed, it leads to a chorus of attack and recrimination.
Use of private providers in the NHS is one example. There is no reason why advocating this makes you a danger to the NHS. If you disagree on a moral basis that people should not profit from illness or suffering, then I share your concerns. But make it clear that is your basis for disagreement. Or if you are concerned about the examples of inefficiency from the private sector, then base your argument on that evidence, rather than snarling and snarling and snarling away.
My other example would be drugs decriminalisation.
Evidence has repeatedly shown that decriminalisation works. So why are we still in a situation where, when politicians suggest it, they are attacked for being soft on drugs?
We need to be better than that.
And on this issue, politicians need to lead the way - and to give each other the space to explore new ideas without being accused of being a tyrant, dictator, sellout, or any other less polite terms we have all heard.
And that's my four first steps to addressing "post-truth" politics.
A long post, but it is a big issue.
I just hope all those who care about politics, and our wider society, can start taking action soon.