Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today – a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, emitted in an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States, and sent flying across the world through social media accounts at lightning speed. Nationalism, tribalism, dislocation, fear of social change and the hatred of outsiders are on the rise again as people, locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.
This is not to draw a direct analogy between today’s circumstances and the overwhelming horrors of the second world war era, but to look at some of the conditions and attitudes – what Margaret Atwood has called the “danger flags” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – that make a people susceptible to demagoguery and political manipulation, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats. To examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the value of truth, and what that means for the world. [Continue reading…]