If, like me, you came of age in the '70's, you'll remember this album cover:
And these lyrics:.
This ear-worm has been going through my head for the past few weeks, as I think back on the year that is now ending. The refrain started playing after I heard that Oxford Dictionaries had declared "post-truth" to be the "Word of the Year" for 2016.
Oxford defines the term as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." In other words, "feelings" now trump "facts".
I shouldn't be surprised at this development - in fact, none of us should. Anyone who follows philosophical trends in our society will no doubt have heard of the concept of relativism, summed up by theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer back in the 1970's as the notion that "the only absolute allowed is the absolute insistence that there is no absolute.” That was followed by post-modernism which, according to a brief definition at Wikipedia, posited that "knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, or political discourse and interpretation, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees."
And today, we have arrived at the notion of "post-truth." Here's how it works. There really aren't any objective facts anymore. Facts and "truth" are determined by how you "feel" about a particular issue. In the broad scheme of things, one could argue that it's this new reality that got Donald Trump elected. He was pretty loose with "facts", but appealed to the "feelings" of the electorate, and apparently did a better job of that than his main rival.
But this goes beyond presidential elections south of the border.
Let me give you a concrete example, based on a discussion I had with a fellow-Councillor - for the record, not someone from North Cowichan. It was over dinner at a municipal conference a few years ago. We were talking about local government responses to climate change. If you've followed my blog, you'll know that while I agree we need to deal with the effects of this phenomenon (flood mitigation, etc), I've long been highly skeptical of the notion that humans actually have a major impact on climate. But the person I was speaking with was definitely a "true believer" in anthropogenic global warming. Our discussion was amicable enough; she gave me the usual stuff about "97% of scientists agree", while I responded with statistics which indicated that, in spite of ever-compounding CO2 emissions in the past 20 years, the earth's temperature as measured by NOAA satellites had not warmed dramatically.
"When feelings outstrip every
we lose all sense
I shook my head and asked her how that was even conceivable. I felt a bit like Star Trek's Dr. Spock as I responded with: "That's not objectively possible. That's like me saying the china we're eating our meals from is black, and you insisting it's white. One of us has to be objectively wrong." But she wasn't buying it. "Nope. I just feel that we can both hold to our positions, because maybe we're both right."
Did you catch how she phrased her conclusion? "I just feel that we can both hold to our positions..." Yup. No matter the objective truth about climate change, her "feelings" would put an end to the discussion by determining that "maybe we're both right."
And the discussion did end there. I mean, how do you counter that kind of illogical nonsense? I felt as though I was losing in an effort to nail a block of Jell-o to a wall.
But we are starting to operate our society based on this kind of epistemological drivel. When feelings outstrip every other consideration, we lose all sense of proportion. In the US last month, college students were having their exams canceled because they "felt" sad about the outcome of an election.
On the gender file, we are now telling 6 and 7 year old children that binary gender identity is nothing but a social construct; that they can be boys or girls depending on how they "feel" on any given day. (And the federal government actually wants to make it a crime to not acknowledge and affirm those "feelings".)
And here's my point. I fear that governance - even governance at the local level - is starting to slide down this same rabbit hole. (When we elect to office people who can put forward - based on "feelings" - a proposition that two objectively opposing views on climate change might both be right, it's not hard to see what I'm talking about.)
Those who know me know that I'm a process geek. I'm very much one for doing things "by the book" when it comes to procedure and legalities. As municipal politicians, we have very clear laws and policies we have to follow when we make our governance decisions.
But what do we do when people "feel" like they were unheard by the process? The logical, historical answer would be that we work to amend the process to ensure better representation and more community buy-in. But today, there is an increasing trend to simply bow to the "feelings" of one or another vocal group by saying: "Oh, you didn't like the way we did that? Well, then we'll just undo it." Even though the way it was done followed - to the absolute letter of the law - the statutory process laid out for us. To be clear, I would have no problem with working to amend the processes that might need improvement, but local governments are starting to discard entire files simply because people didn't like how they were handled. Absolute foolishness.
I fear that this will not end well, folks.