What Carlo Collodi’s Classic Helps Reveal About the Post-Truth Phenomenon.
By: Jessica Ní Mhainín
In Pinocchio the notoriously dishonest puppet is compared to a hare, a goat, a fish, a frog, a bird and a dog. When the former Irish Prime Minster, Bertie Ahern, was confronted with evidence that contradicted a statement he had previously made, his response might indeed have resembled that of a croaking frog more than that of a human: “It is not correct, and if I said so, I was not correct — I cannot recall if I said it, but I did not say, or if I did, I did not mean to say it.”
But that was in 2008 when prattling long-nosed politicians still had the capacity to make themselves into March hares in the eyes of the public. Liars of the ‘pre post-truth era’, that is to say in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, had that in common with Pinocchio: proven falsehoods made their creators look (almost universally) like undignified fish.
Proponents of post-truth politics have been driving and exploiting the public’s changing perception of liars in an effort to move away from this demeaning representation. They have been working strategically to empower and legitimize themselves and their untruths.
What differentiates ‘pre post-truth’ liars from the emerging post-truth variety is their engagement with the lie. ‘Pre post-truth’ liars have tended to concentrate on making the lie itself more convincing, while post-truth liars tend to alter the portrayal of reality surrounding the lie. They have brought the notion of a single truthful narrative into question. Denying the objectivity of truth is the hallmark of post-truth.
This concept has been exemplified by the events of the last week. Despite photographic evidence proving otherwise, the White House’s Communication Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted that President Trump drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” The following day when an NBC news anchor challenged Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, about Spicer’s comments she stated that “there is no way to really quantify crowds.” Once the concept of a single truthful narrative has been dismantled, what Conway calls “alternative facts” can begin to seem legitimate. Spicer seemed to reinforce their legitimacy on Monday when he said “we can disagree with the facts”.
In the ‘pre post-truth’ era, liars tended to be lone wolves. This was simply down to the fact that others were unwilling to be implicated in their dishonesty. But, if Spicer and Conway’s recent media interactions are anything to go by, dishonest politicians of the post-truth era can rely on the solidarity of their colleagues to help convince their audience of the “alternative facts”. This strategy lends credence to their untruthful statements and gives post-truth liars the option to resist the kind of ridicule to which their predecessors had no choice but to accept.
Conway reserved the right to reject host Chuck Todd’s ridicule during her interview with NBC. He had laughed at her claim that the number of attendees can’t be proven “one way or the other.” She responded by claiming the moral high ground, “I’ll just ignore it. I’m bigger than that.”
The liars of the post-truth era are bigger, but not in the moral sense. They are no longer powerless and innocent like frogs, hares, or fish. They are not even like lone wolves that can be taken out by a single blow. Post-truth liars are a new type of animal. They travel in packs and they prey on fear.