post-truth era

501 Streetcar

It was February 1st. Following a poetry reading with many other creators and activists on January 20th, poet Moez Surani sent a package addressed to Secretary-General António Guterres of the United Nations. Enclosed in this package was his third book, ةيلمع Operación Opération Operation Oперация, a conceptual poem which doubles as a record of the world’s military operations over a span of 61 years. The book, Surani describes in his letter, illustrates “language at its most maximally debased.”

As we enter a post-truth era, this creative project is likely a forerunner to many that will deconstruct processes of meaning-making. Much the same way that Surani exposes the benign names of military operations as obscuring state violence, the very phrase “post-truth” embodies the phenomena it describes. As a purposefully neutral alternative to “lies,” the phrase “post-truth” obscures the power struggles involved in disseminating knowledge. The media frenzy over Conway’s use of the term alternative facts was rooted not in fear of a denial of reality, but rather a weaponization of falsehood.

It is important to note that the Oxford Dictionaries’ decision to name “post-truth” word of the year in November 2016 was coupled with the attribution of increased “post-truth” usage to two events that same year: the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. Prior to the referendum, data gathered by research company Ipsos-Mori revealed immigration was the primary concern of British voters; in a similar vein, a study conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University prior to the election revealed that white Americans were more likely to support Trump when reminded that non-white people would outnumber white people in 2042. Devaluing truth and meaning as social currency has rewritten the boundaries of belonging as one demarcated by fear.

As a purposefully neutral alternative to ‘lies,’ the phrase ‘post-truth’ obscures the power struggles involved in disseminating knowledge.

I was reminded of those boundaries just last week, but not in the abstract way that all those with outsider status are aware of their un-belonging. A white man had walked up to me as I was waiting for the streetcar at Queen Street West and Augusta Ave. He was in his late 40s, with sunglasses shielding his eyes. He began by asking if I was Chinese.

I said, instead, “Why are you asking me that?”

His face twisted.

“Don’t f— talk back to me, you f— Asian c—nt,” he yelled. “F— immigrant. Get the f— out of my country, you ch-nk!”

I stared at him. An elderly passerby hooked her arm in mine, a warm weight. The streetcar had arrived, I realized, but even as I got on the man was still hurling abuse at me. Passengers were frozen in a tableau of uncertainty as he got on the streetcar and continued to verbally degrade me with a ferocity that was indescribable.

“Miss,” a TTC officer said, from behind me, or very far away. “Miss, what’s going on?”

I ignored him. I thought if I had to say something, I had to save my strength for what was important. The man continued screaming, “Get out of my f— country,” and eventually I managed, “This isn’t your f— country, either.”

For the first time he seemed to realize he was not alone with me. He hurled a few choice curses and left the streetcar. Up to this point, none of the other passengers said anything. I touched my mouth and realized I had begun to cry. This entire assault on my dignity had happened in less than three minutes.

Many people said things, after.

“You’re all right now,” the TTC officer said.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” a woman offered.

I could not speak then. If I were able, I would have said: if you were sorry—if anyone here had been sorry—why didn’t anyone help?

*

On my initial call-out for essay submissions on the topic of post-truth, reader Allegra Colletti commented, “I have a BIG problem with the assumption that we are living in any sort of Post-Truth. There is an attempt to make that happen, but we don’t acquiesce.”

Unfortunately, this framing of resistance toward post-truth speaks to a lack of awareness of both ongoing political struggles over social histories and cultural legacies. The Oxford Dictionaries note that “post-truth” in its current meaning has existed conceptually since about 1992, but as the offspring of colonized people, I am aware that post-truth has existed long before now. Saying we have now “entered” a post-truth era renders invisible how lies have always been integral in political violence, from myths of white supremacy disseminated during processes of colonization to the construction of culturally threatening Others. Lies have always been present in our social, political, and cultural psyches; they are simply so normalized that to call attention to them requires a reconfiguration of what we have come to accept as knowable.

I could not speak then. If I were able, I would have said: if you were sorry—if anyone here had been sorry—why didn’t anyone help?

This normalization is undeniably what creative pieces like Jordan Peele’s Get Out address. A horror film that deconstructs the insidious ways in which white supremacy and anti-Blackness exist in contemporary liberal society, Peele’s work forces its audience to re-evaluate myths of a post-racial America. Kendra James praises the wit of the film in exposing white female complicity in racism. Of such betrayal, she explains, “I feel it every time I realize there’s a white women on my Twitter timeline who will tweet in earnest for Planned Parenthood while sparing only a perfunctory tweet for Black Lives Matter or the Standing Rock Sioux.”

post-truth era

Letter to the UN from Moez Surani

Evidence speaking to the transformative powers of the creative craft is readily available. Mere days after the presidential election, writer, composer, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda of the wildly popular Hamilton: An American Musical released the mixtape track, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” a powerful anthem addressing historical and contemporary xenophobia. The musical itself has been widely praised for centering women and people of colour in the narratives of nation-building from which these groups are often excluded. Its success is also largely due to the cultural relevance of the musical, which extends far beyond its immediate, literal audiences. Quotes of the musical have been widely used in contemporary protests surrounding the anti-Muslim ban, including calls for marginalized groups to “rise up.”

It’s also important to remember that pop culture continually proliferates and evolves long after the initial conception of the cultural object or creative industry. The character Princess Leia, who initially appeared in the 1977 film of the Star Wars franchise, continued to inspire protest posters thirty years later in the 2017 Women’s Marches. Members of the Harry Potter Alliance—modeled after the student resistance group Dumbledore’s Army in the wildly popular Harry Potter series—have used in-universe language to facilitate activist and charity work for more than a decade since 2005.

The Oxford Dictionaries lists two meanings for the entry “fiction”: one, “[l]iterature in the form of prose, especially novels, that describes imaginary events and people” and two, “[s]omething that is invented or untrue.” Given the meaning-relations established in creating the term, it comes as no surprise that fiction has traditionally been juxtaposed to fact. Yet all creative craft, in the “process of bringing something into existence,” necessitates forethought—that is to say, imagination. And much like fiction, the language of various creative crafts stands at one degree of separation from untruth.

Considering that art is inherently political for those whose existences have been made political, we must ask ourselves: who among us has the luxury of enjoying and creating art as a purely aesthetic experience?

It is precisely due to this nature of the creative craft that we must approach it with more conscientiousness and energy in the present. Beyond providing a blueprint for creative craft as a bastion of political resistance, these examples are proof that those who resist will inevitably adopt products of creative craft. This bears repeating: those who resist will adopt products of creative craft, whether or not their protests fall in line with the intention of the creators of the cultural product. If an increased social understanding of post-truth offers a new conscientiousness with which we can negotiate meanings with our audiences, we as creators must re-evaluate our relationship with communities beyond our own. We have the choice to resist post-truth rhetoric, to promote inclusion, to deconstruct what we have been made to fear—and we have the choice not to do so.

One might argue that artistic creations may be for pleasure, rather than politics, but this assertion requires critique. Considering that art is inherently political for those whose existences have been made political, we must ask ourselves: who among us has the luxury of enjoying and creating art as a purely aesthetic experience? Is creating ‘non-political’ art not also a political declaration of non-engagement, which is to say, is political neutrality not part of a post-truth rhetoric constructed to elide accountability?

The answers to both of the above questions are obvious. The answer to the following one is not: where will creative craft go from here?

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