Fight ‘Post Truth’ with the Ancient Greeks

1GR-12-E1-B Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz Perikles, athen. Politiker, um 500 v. Chr. - 429 v.Chr. - 'Das Zeitalter des Perikles'. - (Versammlung der bedeutendsten Kuenstler, Dichter und Philosophen der Zeit). Druck, spaetere Kolorierung, nach dem Gemaelde, 1852 ff., von Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). E: The Age of Pericles / Foltz Pericles, Athen. politician, c.500BC Chr. - 429 BC. - 'The Age of Pericles'. - (Meeting of the most important artists, poets and philosophers of the time). Print, later colouring, after the painting, 1853, by Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). F: L'epoque de Pericles / Foltz Pericles, homme politique athenien, vers 500 av. J.-C. - 429 av. J.-C. - 'Das Zeitalter des Perikles' (L'epoque de Pericles). - (Rassemblement des artistes, poetes et philosophes les plus connus de l'epoque). Impr., coloriee post., d'ap. le tableau, 1852, de Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877).

‘“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”

You may have seen this quotation on your social media feed along with a still photograph of a younger Mr Trump (seemingly in interview mode) several times since it first emerged in October. It is attributed to ‘Donald Trump, People Magazine 1998’. But it’s now been checked out and it turns out that it’s a complete fabrication.

I must confess that I took this bit of ‘fake news’ to be 100% genuine – an ironic situation, given that the quote is itself about lies and gullibility. I feel a bit daft for not sussing it out.
Of course, an explanatory narrative for the success of such deception and fakery has emerged over the last couple months: market-driven algorithms behind my newsfeed ‘filter bubble’ interacted with my membership of an ‘echo chamber’ which in turn triggered my ‘confirmation bias’ concerning Mr Trump’s views and character. Furthermore, there are newly-emergent commercial and political drivers for the production of ‘fake news’. So, there is more of it about than ever before and some of it is quite sophisticated. Indeed, ‘fake news’ is alleged to be just one aspect of our arrival in an entirely new era of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics: misinformation, false promises and full-on lies, the triumph of ‘feelings’ over facts, the dismissal of scientific evidence and expertise (and so on).

But I think this declaration of an apocalyptic post-truth ‘era’ is premature and actually risks the fatalistic ushering-in of a state of affairs which has not yet really come to pass at all. If we elevate certain ‘post-truth’ tendencies and tactics to the status of an all-pervasive epistemological regime just because they proved particularly persuasive and viral in 2016, there is a danger that we will just throw up our hands in an act of final surrender.

Instead, we could take some inspiration from the orators and writers who inhabited (and often critiqued) the culture and discourse of classical Athenian democracy. But I am not saying this because I think Athens’ democracy was a paragon of political health and virtue (it wasn’t) or because it offers a close parallel to the modern western democracies of late capitalism (it doesn’t). I am saying it because these orators and writers knew how much of a threat deception and pandering to an excess of emotion could be to good decision-making in a polity. Lies, false promising and appeals to prejudice and anger were certainly a big feature Athenian political culture, but none of its orators and associated commentators think that these problems don’t matter or accept them as inevitable.

Here’s Demosthenes, for example: ‘In a political system based on speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are not true?’ This observation is part of a forensic attack on a political rival (Aeschines) whom he accuses of becoming a bribed agent of Philip of Macedon. He goes into some detail about how lies and misinformation can completely undermine the integrity of Athens’ two-tier participatory deliberative system. If the citizen-council (boule) puts forward provisional proposals for debate and final decision in the citizen assembly which are premised on the false information and advice of a bribed ambassador, the implication is clear: Athens is having its decisions manipulated by a foreign tyrant. Even if Demosthenes is himself lying about Aeschines here, he neatly articulates the way in which deception can completely reverse the likely gains of careful and considered democratic deliberation.


And then there’s Aristotle, whose treatise on rhetoric acknowledges the role of emotion in the making and accepting of persuasive arguments, but only in conjunction with the operations of syllogistic reasoning.  For Aristotle, rhetoric isn’t just about manipulating the crowd: the Aristotelian rhetorician considers both sides of an argument  and learns to spot and expose fallacious reasoning.  Aristotle believes that the truer and more just argument will win the day if it is framed and delivered appropriately.  He also stresses the importance of real knowledge and expertise in the field of political deliberation.

Or take Thucydides’ account of an assembly speech by an obscure orator called Diodotus. (We’ve heard of a lot about how the politician Cleon was or wasn’t like Donald Trump over the past few months and rather less about Diodotus’ narrow win over Cleon on the question of how to deal with the rebellious city of Mytilene). In this speech, Diodotus argues that the Athenian people have colluded with their most powerful political advisers in creating a climate where orators are afraid to give unpopular but good advice for fear of being suspected of bribery or to speak with genuine frankness in the assembly. He also rails against the danger of a democracy taking decisions ‘in haste and anger’ and asks the Athenian citizenry to think about their own responsibility as deliberators and voters:

‘If the man who persuades and the man who follows were damaged equally, you would judge more sensibly but as things are, there are times when in anger after a failure you punish the man who persuaded you for his misjudgement, rather than your own mistake for which you were collectively responsible.’

It is time for all of us to take more responsibility for our judgements. We need to get off our newsfeeds and timelines and take more time to understand the complexity of an issue, to sift the facts from the lies.  And we need to be less hasty and angry in our judgments. Somehow, we need to interact more directly with those whom we disagree and with those whose lives are a world away from our own.

But we also need to take deception, false claims and corruption on the part of our politicians more seriously. In a political system based on speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are not true?