I prefer my facts to yours

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THE fake news that circulates these days is being blamed largely on the internet. But the genesis of fake news actually lies in the fallout from the aesthetic and literary revolt brought about by post-modern theory.

There were some good things about post-modernism. It was right to question the assumption that human progress was inevitable. It was also right to criticise the domination of history, the arts, and books, by white males (usually dead). It also brought into academic and cultural life a playfulness and love of irony which was a contrast to the earnestness of what had gone before.

The dark side, though, was the abandonment of interest in truth; for post-modernist claims to truth involve a denial of bias. In fact, the notion of truth is flawed; all narratives must be taken seriously, no matter how divergent from one another.

No single narrative can be taken as universal; nor can any be discounted. We are free to choose the version of history which most resonates with us; the lifestyle that expresses who we think we are; the aesthetic that we feel most at home with.

It is, as has often been pointed out, the perfect philosophy for a consumerist society. Academics and other pundits must be up front about their ethnicity, class, and gender background. Their views are considered authentic only if they conform to where we know they are coming from and what bias they hold. Truth is not the issue here, but sincerity.

All this is undermining serious journalism, just as it is undermining education and our way of doing politics. The labour of traditional journalism is to establish what happened, who was involved, when, and where. This is expensive and difficult, and it is certainly true that the internet can offer many cheaper and unverified alternatives.

When it comes to education, a malign form of political correctness is undermining the ability to think critically. Views thought too challenging or upsetting are simply ignored. Politics is affected because the politician’s task of marshalling facts into an argument, and attempting to persuade, can now be pursued just as effectively with fake facts, backed up by high emotion.

In this new media world, interpretation is all. It is my story against your story. And, because of the ultimate contempt for facts, the differences that divide people have a new potential for generating violence. Islamic State recruits people on the basis of an outrageous narrative of injustice and despair.

Donald Trump was also culpable, however, when he retweeted the Britain First videos. He showed a contempt for facts that cannot be excused or forgiven. What he did is a fact, but, where there are no facts, there can be no responsibility, let alone repentance.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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