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From Brexit, to Trump, to the Australian election: how can politics have meaning in a post-truth world?

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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  1. Duffa

    I believe Kate is saying a lot of truth here. Unfortunately some of the concepts are beyond my understanding. While acknowledging the paucity of understanding I will add my two cents worth. For communication to work there does need to an agreement on words and sentences, but it can be hard to break down sentences into easy chunks to explain why their use has been distorted or whether it is a misuse at all. I don’t recall hearing Mr Farage’s use of the word ‘would’ and it doesn’t seem to make sense, except in a dream like scenario where the speaker is suggesting someone about another place another time.
    The case of Trump’s speech though seems different he seems to have adopted a mode of bar room talk, based on assumption, prejudice, ignorance and fear that taps in a mood of a section of the community. A lot of his talk isn’t true or accurate but if is what others might be saying to their mates.
    As for Abbott he was making excuses for being inconsistent and possibly being dishonest, while Turnbull was trying to make a point (badly) that can be a difference between words spoken and action taking. That itself isn’t surprising, we all have intentions but get distracted or lack the will to carry out those intentions. The number of times I have gone to get just one thing at the super market and come home with a number of bags but never mind that. Turnbull failed because he didn’t give a full explanation, in this case he wasn’t wordy enough. It should be fine and sensible to change your mind in light of better knowledge and understanding – the heart of science. But when you do so you have to explain why no just jump around according to the latest bug in your ear.
    I don’t know if I have understood the heart of Kate’s article but for me the full understanding of language as important as the desire and opportunity to give better explanation. Of course it is the case that the speaker is attempting to obfuscate but it also the case that many times the listener is not prepared or not allowed to say I don’t understand what you mean and that is less about the structure of language (if that is the right way to say it) than using language as a communication device where both speaker and listener are using the same form of the language.

  2. Duffa

    Maybe you do have to have a better understanding of language to know if you speaking the same language (if I can use that expression)

  3. mark delmege

    I ‘could’ fly to the moon. I could have believed everything KRudd said in 2007 but I didn’t and you didn’t in fact we all knew he was stretching the matter in fact we hoped he was and he was. It wasn’t simply a core promise it was a flagrant untruth and we didn’t mind. Yes they all do it.
    But to tell you the truth what bothered me more about the whole election campaign was that the TPP wasn’t mentioned and the ICAC hardly at all. The TPP is supported by both major parties and it will affect our economic social cultural and political alignments for a generation or more – for the worse. And the failure of the media to push that angle or the lack of an ICAC just shows what an inadequate dismal lot of politicians and media reps we really have.

  4. Miriam English

    Thank you, Kate. Far from being esoteric or relatively unimportant I think what you’re describing is the beginning of a system that analyses in realtime the claims of politicians. I imagine some kind of annotation or a bar on the side or bottom of a TV screen or a video online which changes size and color according to the veracity of the politician’s statements so that they are called out, or unmasked literally as they speak. I wrote a science fiction book (see chapter 13) in which an overlay is developed for text, audio, and video that describes things as lies, or meaningless, or emotional blackmail in real time. In the story it produces an entire generation of kids who learn to easily distinguish bullshit from reality, undercutting politicians’ most loathsome tool.

    Keep up the great work!!! Your research could succeed where the law has dismally failed to control politicians.

  5. Sandra Hill

    Unfortunately many, if not most, people will believe anyone who tells them what they want to hear. It is shown in the way people continually vote for the party and pollies that lies to them, in the vain hope that this time they might follow through with their promise. It is a bit like gambling I suppose where it is always the next bet that might bring a pay off.
    I really can’t see this changing.

  6. Miriam English

    Sandra, it is changing.

    Ask Greens voters how many of them used to be Labor voters, but became disillusioned with their abandonment of many of their principles. Also note how the Greens vote and that of other progressive parties increases each election.

    The coalition between Liberals and Nationals is a result of the realisation that without such a pooling of voters they would have zero chance of ever gaining power again. They are losing votes. They have been furiously lying their heads off to confuse voters and gain a foothold, but that’s beginning to lose traction too.

  7. paul walter

    Yes. A fair judge.. a noble judge..

    Because you have also detected the stench of post-truth news reportage, including the outrageous example of Rupert’s ABC, I am over come of the milk of human kindness that eases my rancour and hope against hope that voters will hand me my pound of flesh with the ousting of the Turncow fascists.

  8. wam

    I shudder when the government/public service use ‘review’ when the need is for an evaluation. An independent review seems even more evasive when the ‘independent’ is ‘dependent’ on terms of reference set by the reviewees.
    The watermelon loonies, like the redsunderthebed dlp of the fifties, were sects within labor but eventually abandoned the principle that caused the rift much like the pragmatism of diludbran will debase the principles of the current loony party.

  9. Miriam English

    wam… “diludbran”… you keep saying this… what is it? I guess that you are probably using it as some kind of obscure insult by distorting a person’s name, but makes it impossible to understand who or what you are referring to (or even how it is insulting).

    I really wish people wouldn’t insult others by making fun of their names. It is like those who insult Christensen because he is fat — yes he is fat and he is a horrible person, but many lovely people are fat. To make fun of people because of irrelevant attributes is childish and actually reflects badly on the person who is calling names.

  10. corvus boreus

    Miriam English,
    A corvid attempt to interpret the words of wam.

    “Diludbran” seems to be a word-composite of senators DI-Natale and LUD-lum, and house member BRAN-dt.
    Apparently, this terrible trio have been actively seeking to marginalise women from the Greens (aka “loonies”) power structures and decision making processes, possibly on account of them secretly being reactionary Catholic misogynists.

    As for the reason behind the ‘watermelon party’ being habitually referred to as “loonies”, from what I could glean, this initially stems from something to do with an occurrence near Lake Pedder last century.
    I am uncertain as to whether wam’s personal perception of Green lunacy is worse aggravated when they stubbornly maintain idealistic principles, or when they pragmatically accept impalatable political compromises.

    Ps,I may have misinterpreted.

    Pps, If you want to see some real ‘loonies’, take a look at the main chasers for places in the NSW senate allocation thus far;

  11. Miriam English

    Thanks for the explanation corvus.

    Oh dear. How depressing… Pauline effing Hanson got more votes in QLD than the Greens. Looks like the perfect excuse to bury myself in writing and computer programming for the next 3 years and ignore humans for a while. Even better, maybe now is the time to get back into Artificial Intelligence. Numenta are having great successes and their work is Open Source.

    Maybe this kind of shock is what we need. If a progressive party had gained control then they might have been blamed for the economic problems that will result from accelerating global climate change over the next few years. Now the jerk conservatives can take full blame. ….Of course, we’ll still be screwed, but it might be what we need to swing the pendulum back.

    The stupid reasons people vote….

    While I was handing out How To Vote cards yesterday one woman was talking about why she likes Barnaby Joyce. She likes that he sounds like an ordinary muddled person. I felt like asking her if that would be an acceptable way to choose the brain surgeon who operates on you, or the airline pilot flying you somewhere, but I refrained.

    Another person was furious about the signs about needing to protect Medicare. I didn’t bother to ask her why she was angry about that. She looked very wealthy and probably figured that being surrounded by sick people doesn’t affect her.

    Another person I overheard going on and on to someone else about how we can’t afford all this expenditure inside Australia. I didn’t bother pointing out that money spent in Australia helps to power our economy and returns to the government in the very next tax cycle, nor did I ask if it was okay to instead spend countless billions on companies and individuals that took the money out of Australia. [sigh]

    But on the whole, most people were polite and sweet. So how the hell did we get to where we are?

    I’m going to take a vacation from the human race for a few years.

  12. cornlegend

    Miriam English
    “I’m going to take a vacation from the human race for a few years.”
    I was going to too, but am delaying it for a couple of months to sit back and watch the shit hit the Liberal fan

  13. corvus boreus

    The Nova-anglians showed that ‘salt of the earth’ trait where people choose their political representation based upon a lack of intellectual intimidation, placing their trust in the candidate best displaying the reassuringly sub-mediocre qualities of inarticulate irrationality in speech, demonstrated incompetence in deeds, and that endearingly human quality of a weakness for succumbing to temptations of the sticky hand variety.
    We neighboring Cowperians also failed our collective IQ/EQ test and returned the incumbent sucker-fish.

    As you say, depressing stuff, but mere foul little chunks in the context of a very large and rather mouldy shit sandwich facing us.

    The next few months seem like a very appropriate time to tackle some of the more locationally remote jobs on the works program (ones involving campfires under clear stars), then take some accrued time-off, for both personal admin and a bit of recreational exploration of some of the bits of the bush that haven’t been buggered too badly yet.

    Clean air, deep breaths.

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