Op-Ed: Nothing new about this post-truth world

Fake news and a post-truth world is not new according to Dr Michael Macaulay, who points out that Plato was a proponent of 'noble lies' thousands of years ago.

Plato walks with Aristotle in a fresco by Raphael.
Plato talks with Aristotle in 'The School of Athens' (Italian: Scuola di Atene), a famous fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael.

The extent to which we are living in a new world of fake news is open to debate. The more concerned among us will point to the normalisation of deceit in public discourse as qualitatively more worrying than in previous decades. Others may suggest that political debate has always been dishonest on some levels, although perhaps not as wilfully as we currently assume.

A more radical perspective might be celebratory, even triumphant. After all it was only a few years ago that people hailed post-truth as something called post-modernism.

I'm not going to debate the merits of current levels of political honesty. Instead, I want to talk about one of the dirty little secrets of political discourse in the Western world. Anybody who has encountered it knows it. Barely anybody talks about.

The secret is really simple. Thousands of years’ worth of political philosophy—many of the canonical classics right up until the end of the 20th century—have promoted, praised or practiced deceit.

You can begin with Plato. He not only suggested that 'noble lies' be told to the populace to keep them loyal, but argued that a leader’s education should be manipulated to inculcate a sense of patriotism and duty. There was no room for truth, except of the partial kind through a blend of censorship and restricted content. Sounds remarkably familiar.

Aristotle's Politics was in many ways more benign, and his famous declaration that "He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god" rarely fails to inspire.

That is, until we recall that the political life did not pertain to women; or slaves; or those outside the polis. Factor in this inherent and unashamed elitism, and Aristotle does not seem a million miles away from the dehumanising effect of modern political rhetoric.

St Augustine's City of God perpetuates a different kind of deceit; that of predestination and man’s unquestioning obedience to a ruler, no matter who that ruler may be. When Augustine writes "Earthly kingdoms are given by Him to good and evil men alike", he is telling us to accept our lot and that no matter what tyranny we live under, we should do so without murmur. He places an imposition on man not to try and effect any change, even against authoritarianism.

Machiavelli, of course, exhorted us to act like both fox and lion, but at least his leadership advice was entirely context-bound, a fact either forgotten or ignored by the majority of his detractors. There was never an indication that deception was a universally regarded standard of behaviour.

What about the great social contract theorists?

Social contract theorists still inspire much of our political thinking to this day, yet nobody has signed a social contract. Nobody ever has. The whole concept is nothing more than a convenient fiction. The lecture will show how these great writers such as Locke, Hobbes, etc. used this fiction as a means by which to offer post-hoc rationalisations for their own status quo.

In among all of this some people gave more realistic explanations. Rousseau, of all the social contractarians, was honest enough to admit that: "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine', and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society."

Burrowing forward, even a modern giant such as Rawls can be seen in this tradition. Directly situating his work in terms of social contract, Rawls describes his own version of it, the original position, as "a purely hypothetical situation characterised so as to lead to a certain conception of justice" (my emphasis).

The construct does not, of course, invalidate his principles of justice, nor suggest that they are inherently bad, but it clearly shows that they are the product of a rigged game, designed to appear neutral but resulting in pre-ordained principles.

And on it goes. Lying is neither a new problem, nor one that affects political practice. It is a cornerstone of political philosophy as well or, in other words, post-truth, schmost truth.

Associate Professor Michael Macaulay will be expanding on his research in a Spotlight Lecture, 'The lies about post-truth politics'. on Thursday 13 April. He will be joined by Professor Simon MacKenzie from Victoria's Institute of Criminology.

  • This commentary originally appeared in The Newsroom 10 April, 2017.