In this so-called era of post-truth, perhaps we need to examine the question: Was there ever an age of truth?
By Suvanshkriti Singh
Literature’s relationship with truth is long, complicated, and storied. Since time immemorial, the question of truth has kept many a philosopher awake at night, writing, in what one can only imagine was a chemical-fuelled frenzy, long tracts on its nature. Fiction, ironically or unironically, is inseparable from the question of the existence of truth, breaching it in letter, to honour it in principle. And, literature’s hurried, plebeian cousin, journalism, is devoted to determining its content and origin. Yet, this erudite obsession with the subject serves only to highlight our species’ collective failure to practise what we preach about truthfulness. So crucial to literature is truth that even these violations of our professed moral commitment to it have found space in history’s pages. Charles Mackay did with Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841 what Tom Phillips is now doing with Truth: A Brief History of Total Bullshit. Even the Oxford Handbook of Lies beat Phillips in the publishing race. All of which is to say that Phillips’s book, while only a drop in an ocean — admittedly, this particular ocean is more appropriately described as a large-ish pond — couldn’t have been better timed, or more brilliantly written.
In some ways, the short point of Phillips’s compendium of the many innovative ways humans across time and space have found of pulling a fast one is precisely what any connoisseur of American medical dramas could tell you — everybody lies. Always has, always will — it is how we survive family, work, and society. But, we, living in the age of social media that is fast gaining infamy for being post-truth, seem to believe that falsehoods are entrenched in our lives to a degree previously unprecedented, and with far greater— and graver — consequences. Could you blame us? When the president of a country in danger of losing its superpower status can believe more impossible things before ‘covfefe’ than the Queen of Hearts, and the prime minister of a country billed to be the next big thing can give him a run for his money, one might be forgiven for being a bit apocalyptic. Or, perhaps, the insistence that our times have it especially bad, lies-wise, is simply the modern manifestation of the need to make meaning of the senselessness of life.
Phillips, however, is an optimist of that unimpeachable empirical kind who derives his sanguinity from tragic realism. And, he is kind to share both, his fact-checker advantage of having a longue durée view of the history of humanity’s fallacies and his comic gift of blithe, irreverent writing, with his readers. Fake news is hardly new, Phillips argues, and to put the blame for the extent to which ours is an era of misinformation solely on social media, though, not unjustifiable, is to grievously underestimate the human capacity for mendacity; our very brains, after all, have evolved to make us better liars. On a more serious note, however, it ignores the strategic advantages that falsehoods have over the truth—there are more ways of being untruthful than its opposite, and the effort barrier to uncovering the truth through all those layers of deception, deliberate or otherwise, is too often too high to incentivise the exercise. Politicians today are no more or less unreliable than those of bygone centuries, using treachery either to get out of awkward or embarrassing situations, or to disguise the fact that they are “basically winging it” at their jobs—very often, both. History is no stranger to violence, even wars, resulting from politically-motivated lies. Nor is brutality fuelled by unsubstantiated fears and misconceptions a uniquely modern phenomenon—if we lynch, 16th century Scots witch-hunted. That possibly thousands of Jews were murdered across Europe in the 14th century, long before mass media was even on the horizon of human inventions, because of a popular, albeit delusional, infection paranoia is enough proof that ours is not a post-truth age simply because there never was an Age of Truth. Perhaps it might better illustrate how inextricable untruths are, and have been, from human lives that Benjamin Franklin — giant of science, statecraft, and philosophy — was also a “piss-taker extraordinaire”, who will probably “go down in history as one of the most prolific, skillful and innovative bullshitters,” PT Barnum be damned.
You may be excused for wondering, at this point, how this gloomy pronouncement invites any optimism. In part, the blame lies with this writer’s utter inability to imbibe even a tenth of the hilarity of Phillips’s writing in her review of his book. The better answer, however, is that the fact of there never having been a golden age of truth, rather than condemning humans to lives of deceit, is the very antidote to that ignominy.
As long as we can, in Phillips’s words, “appreciate that bullshit will always be with us, and the best we can ever hope to do is to keep it in check”, practical solutions to creating a “truthier” society abound. The takeaway is not entirely new, and it might not rid you of all the lies that you come across on the many apps through which untruths proliferate. But, Phillips’s wildly humourous narration of history’s big and small lies—it would be a cold heart indeed that couldn’t steal a chuckle from this book—his astute inferences, his simple, elegant, much-needed remedies, and, most of all, his obsession with Ben Franklin make for a compelling, unputdownable treasure. Buy this book, read it; Truth… shall set you free.