The venerable Oxford Dictionaries recently proclaimed that its word of the year is “post-truth”. This neologism is described as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief”. Wait, we needed a new word to denote politics? Regardless of ideology, isn’t this what it has always been – populism flanked by its cousins spiel and spin? And with partisanship and propaganda, they make for three Ps in a pod.
What’s actually striking about this selection, though, is the rest of the shortlist, like Brexiteer, alt-right or even coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns, all of which, depending on your personal politics, could also describe a tumultuous, if not tortuous, election year in the United States. What’s even more startling is the word that post-truth succeeds: 2015’s emoji “Face with Tears of Joy”.
We have come a long way within a year, from a version of the smiley to aversion of the other. That other, again depending on a particular American’s political preference, could range between “illegal immigrant” to “White nationalist”.
It’s fascinating that post-truth hyphenates two words that seem increasingly divergent. The post, as in social media, has turned into a curation of reality according to personal likings and leanings. That is why these platforms are having a conversation over fake news. The late author Douglas Adams once wrote: “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” Fake news, similarly, goes by its own warp speed, bending reality.
There again you have the contesting claims of focusing on fake news or false narratives. That depends on the nature of the truth you prefer. Many, in recent weeks, were clamouring for those constituting America’s electoral college to rebel against Trump, citing an alleged Russian hack of the elections as reason. Much energy was wasted in getting electors to torpedo Trump’s progress to the White House. Those ‘faithless’ electors did show up this week, but twice as many actually ditched Hillary Clinton than Trump.
Champions of this pursuit, including Hollywood luminaries, have only managed to allow Trump to boast a trifle more about winning despite a rigged system with his usual raging against the elite and media machine.
His Cabinet may bring the usual power players to the field – billionaires, Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil executives, senators, member of the House of Representatives and generals – but he will get a pass since his flaws are being overlooked in the face of the onslaught to unseat before he has occupied the chair that matters in the Oval Office. This entire circus is a new divisive trend that is in Trump’s lexicon, “unpresidented”.
Those protesting that Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office, still about a month away, is illegitimate, using the usual professions of paranoia like Klansmen marching down Broadway, or seeking secession as in California, are making the chasm deeper. Not surprisingly, his honeymoon period lasted just as long as it took for him to return to ranting on Twitter. Even if he seeks to soften stances, hardline opposition will cause his return to irascible ways. The middle ground could already be broken.
Amid this pandemonium, there’s plenty of demonisation in place of debate (not that India is immune to this trend as evidenced by the demonetisation discussion). As we await more announcements from the president-elect, the devil will be in the details. But what is already evident is that we have entered a post-pragmatic world.
In a bizarre coincidence, Oxford’s counterpart in the dictionary business, Merriam-Webster unveiled its choice for the word of the year in 2016: Surreal. This choice was predicated on spikes in searches for the word through the year; connecting the principal trends of the year — a chain of terrorism incidents that continues into the waning days of 2016 and political upheaval.
In a year when the reality we have become familiar with has been twisted and turned into dark corners, that makes more sense. Here’s hoping 2017 makes for a return to, in a word, realism.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal