By Kate Noble-Judge
From the success of Brexit to the rise of Trump in the US presidential elections, the term “post-truth politics” has emerged as one way to categorize the overwhelming sense that everyone, everywhere, is talking complete and utter crap (and generally getting away with it). Trump is perhaps the most cavalier post-truth maverick: I actually find it hard not to be a little bit impressed at the sheer scale of his truthlessness (like Will Ferrell and his Spanish-speaking dog in Anchorman: “You failed to say a single true thing in an entire presidential campaign? I’m not even mad- that’s amazing!”) The recent leave campaigns in Britain were comparable to Trump’s in audacity, scope and terrible hair: wild promises were made about what Britain exiting the Euro would mean, and these promises not only had an absence of evidence in their favour, but evidence that they were false. Meanwhile in Australia, very strange things indeed are happening to the very concept of accountability in politics, and everyone should probably be worried.
“So what?” we may sigh, “politicians have always lied.” Well, yes, they have. But there seems to be something new, and frankly obscene, about the fact that “post-truth” liars unabashedly acknowledge their lies, but refuse to take responsibility for them: as if it is just a churlish buzz-kill to insist on a factual basis for what political campaigns claim. Decades of careful media training in exactly how to mislead and obfuscate play their part in the linguistic wiggling routinely performed to avoid being held accountable for blatantly talking total bollocks. Take the comments by Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage about the notorious “350 million for the NHS” claim put forward by the Brexit campaign. Semantically, both took refuge in what semanticists call modal language, which is the language of possible, rather than actual, situations or events (this is a huge simplification of a massively complex linguistic subject, but it serves the purpose here). If I say something is possible I am not committing to its truth or falsity. Modal terms such as “possible” and modal auxiliaries such as “might” are therefore classic hedging devices: ways of qualifying or lessening your commitment to the truth of what you are saying. Ian Duncan Smith’s actual quote on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show is breathtaking in its vagueness, but he more or less said that an unspecified number of funding promises were just “possibilities” that were tangential to “main commitments”, which apparently differ crucially from promises in some unspecified way.
Which anyone with a passing understanding of semantics will understand is not just disingenuous but nonsensical. All promises are, in a sense, possibilities, and they are also, in a sense, commitments. You could say they are commitments to realize a given possibility within a contextually salient set of conditions. Duncan Smith is trying to claim that the commitment to fund the NHS with EU contributions was actually just a claim that such a thing was possible. He was thus retrospectively claiming that modal statements were made instead of promises: which just isn’t true. If anything the Brexit campaign was notable for its tone of certainty (in terms of semiotics, emblazoning a claim across a bus is about as certain as it gets.)
A different kind of modal language was used by Farage. Farage said of the “350million” claim that “he wouldn’t have” said it. “Would” here is a volitional modal: it is used to talk about events we want, wish, will or desire. For example the following sentence: ‘I would have studied my degree full-time, if I had been able to afford it’ is a volitional modal claim I have made many times. Here, Farage seems to be saying that if he had been the official Leave campaign, he would not have made such a claim. Yet he did make such a claim, and though his penchant for audacious lies is remarkable, he can’t honestly have thought that everyone listening would have forgotten about it. So this just jars horribly in my semanticist’s brain. Usually if we wish to claim that our own will would have been different than it was, there needs to be a qualifying conditional or something similar. If he had said “I wouldn’t have said that, if I had known it was false” my semanticists brain might be content (however dismayed the rest of my brain continued to be. One takes comfort in the little things…) But clearly, Farage cannot claim to have not known the statement was false, because there were far too many people calling it out. So he just leaves the modal hanging there, awkwardly: a bit like the UK’s entire social, cultural, economic and political future. Perhaps what he meant to say was “I shouldn’t have said that”— but that would be far too close to admitting responsibility (after all, “should” is a deontic modal: to do with responsibilities and obligations).
Of course this might seem like so much pedantry, when really people have more to worry about than whether two unpleasant politicians are vandalizing the modal system in the English language. And I get it: I am a semanticist and while this sort of thing is “my jam”, most people find it about as interesting as the weather forecast hosted by Bill Shorten’s accountant. But— I can’t help thinking that being able to put your finger on these things is important. Moreover, understanding a bit about how semantics works quickly makes any reference to “post-truth” feel uncomfortably synonymous to “post-meaning”, and eventually: “post accountability”.
Not everyone agrees of course, but there is a strong semantic tradition of assuming that if we are to understand what language means, we have to tie it to truth in some way. Simple sentences like “Boris Johnson is a narcissistic danger to society” get their meaning, to some extent, from our ability to know what the world would need to be like in order for that sentence to be true. We thus can say we know what it means without knowing whether it is true or false, but its “truth conditions” are nonetheless important to that meaning.
However, once things like modals get involved this is a much less straightforward task: how do we say what the world would have to be like for a claim about possibilities or wishes to be true? After all: anything is possible, right? So it is tempting to assume that worrying about truth is out the window once you put the word “possible” in a sentence, and therefore you can say what you like. But that isn’t really so. If you say something is possible you are not making a claim about an infinite number of metaphysical, hypothetical and magical possible worlds. Language is far more pragmatic than that. If you claim something is epistemically possible (by using the word possible or modal auxiliary might for example) you are saying you can’t rule it out nor say it is certain. You are in effect making a truth conditional statement about the state of your own knowledge by asserting that you don’t have access to information to decide either way.
On this measure Duncan Smith could not, in any sensible way, claim that these statements were claims about possibilities: not just because they weren’t actually made using epistemic modal language, but because even if they had been, they would have been demonstrably false. “£350 million a week for the NHS” was never an epistemic possibility for those public figures who said it: they always knew it was ruled out by the information they had access to. The particularly manipulative and dangerous part of all this of course, is that the general public didn’t have the same access to the relevant information, and many seem to have assumed that 350 million pounds for their beloved and beleaguered NHS was not just a possibility: but well nigh a certainty and they voted accordingly. It was, in the context of a political campaign, definitely a promise: and promises have their own complex meanings and conditions.
Part of the meaning of a promise comes from the very act of uttering it. By promising something, you create an obligation of sorts, with variable and relativized conditions for how and why and when that promise must be delivered. (Again, this is a simplification of a hugely complex topic.) Promises aren’t “true” or “false”, but we usually have a very clear idea about what conditions are needed for a promise to be made or broken. I guess, for politicians, this lack or “true or false” is as tempting a grey area as it is for modals: if it isn’t about truth as such, maybe you can just say whatever you like. In Australian politics, the meaning of promises has been extraordinarily undermined and dismissed by Malcolm Turnbull, who, (in a statement errily echoic of Tony Abbot’s 2010 gaffe) more or less claimed that of course, political parties say one thing and do another. Promises are just a sort of policy roulette, don’t ya know…
This is a strange sort of linguistic insurance policy. It is hard to tell which is worse: the cynicism of the brexiters barely waiting a day before insisting they never made promises, just discussed magical possibilities, or two Australian prime ministers in a row casually admitting that promises in politics bear no resemblance to promises in any other context: as if it should be perfectly acceptable and OK with everyone by now that elections are just about fooling folks for long enough so you can stay in power. Either way: the very discourse where promises should be of the most serious and binding nature becomes a bizarre, parallel linguistic universe and promises are just another casualty in our new post-truth world.
Suffice it to say, if Nigel Farage couldn’t even bring himself to say “should” instead of “would”, it is unlikely anyone in the UK’s leave campaign will admit the scale and severity of their breach of trust; that their jolly parade of falsehoods constituted a serious abandonment of responsibility. In Australian politics, apparently, if a promise never needs to be retracted because it is removed of all recognizable meaning well in advance, then any idea of responsibility is already forfeit. These figures speak not in a normal discourse, but through the megaphone of a compliant and complicit media, and so the usual processes of refuting what I will charitably call “total bullshit”, disappear. As a consequence, “Post-truth” quickly engenders post-accountability in the very people who need to be scrutinized the most.
About the author: Kate Noble-Judge is in the final stages of her PhD in Semantics at Sydney University, and also holds a Masters in linguistics from Oxford University.
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