Everyone is talking about fake news these days. It is a topic of intense debate on both ends of the American political spectrum. But few seem to have noticed the shift in our understanding of truth itself, which has led to this moment. Fake news is a completely predictable phenomenon in a postmodern society.
It is tricky to pin down the beginnings of this problem — we could easily trace it back to the serpent’s words to Eve in the Garden — but certainly by the 18th century the seeds had already been planted. The so-called “Age of Enlightenment” shifted the perception of just how to ascertain truth. Figures like Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, and Kant championed human reason as an antidote to what they perceived to be the superstition of religion. A kind of hyper-rationalism emerged that changed not only how we understand the world but how we understand the direction in which the world is headed. N.T. Wright has described this as the Enlightenment’s “rival eschatology”: the resurrection of Jesus was no longer deemed the turning point in human history; instead, we are moving slowly toward a future in which human beings will be perfected by virtue of their own reason and abilities.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialism and major shifts in economics, politics, and technological development made people skeptical of the Enlightenment certainty that humanity would continue along a path of inevitable perfection. The modern world needed modern thinking to handle new challenges. Traditions were discarded, old institutions crumbled, and yet modernists persisted in believing that we could know happiness if we were willing to do the hard work of building new structures. A better world might not be inevitable, but we might create the world we want if we decide together what is good and bad, right and wrong, true and false.
Then came two world wars, atomic warfare, and the rise of both communism and modern capitalism. People looked around and found the world in tatters. The perfect world that had been promised by both the Enlightenment and modernism was nowhere to be found. We came to the conclusion that we cannot create a better world because there is no such thing as a better world. Right and wrong, good and evil, true and false are all just shadows that we have been running after. Outside of the individual and his or her experience of the world, there are no absolutes.
This is by and large the world we now live in. There are still vestiges of the old structures and certainties. Science, for instance, is viewed by many today as an impartial means of knowing and understanding everything about the world. When it comes to our daily approach to life though, postmodern personalism is king. No one can tell me what is good or true for me except me. I am the arbiter of my own personal good. The ultimate perfection of humanity is meaningless — only my attainment of my own personally defined goals is important. The purpose of society and of government is to provide me with as much freedom as possible to create my own happiness, however I choose to define that.
Take, for instance, the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Kennedy wrote, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” This dovetails with an earlier decision written by Kennedy in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey in which he wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In a postmodern society, each person determines meaning for himself or herself. The government is obliged not to interfere. The job of the state is protect and encourage us to determine our own sense of personal identity and then share that with the world. There is no truth outside of personal truth.
Regardless of how anyone feels about the outcomes of these two cases, it is significant that the postmodern understanding of truth has become a bedrock principle of our law. A modernist might well have come to the conclusion that same-sex marriage or abortion on demand are societal goods in need of government endorsement and protection, but he would have gotten to that conclusion by a very different path.
As this understanding of truth has become more and more built into our society, our willingness to agree to a basic set of facts about the world has all but disappeared. Since all truth is personal truth, the notion that anyone who does not explicitly share my values can give me an unbiased reporting of facts is ludicrous. No wonder then that the only institution of American life that seems to be more hated by Americans than the government is the fourth estate. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that Americans’ trust in mainstream media outlets to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly” was at thirty-two percent, an all time low. For those under the age of fifty, that number drops to twenty-six percent.
While our confidence in the mainstream media has declined, our partisanship has increased. A Pew study in the summer of 2016 showed that sixty-two percent of politically active Republicans and seventy percent of politically active Democrats are afraid of the other party — not the decisions of any individual politician, but the opposite party in general. Considerably high numbers in both parties also said they believed all people on the other side to be “close-minded,” “immoral,” “dishonest,” or “unintelligent.”
All of this makes sense in a thoroughly postmodern world. Tribalism in politics is only natural if the purpose of government and society is merely to safeguard my right to express my own identity and determine my own meaning. I do not need to agree with or even understand the philosophy behind my chosen party’s platform. All I need to do is to be associated with the group that is going to win the most stuff, therein insuring that my stuff stays secure. Besides, in a world in which the only available truth is personal truth, I have no reason to care about the consistency of my elected leaders and every reason to assume that not one of them really cares about me. Why not stick with my “side” and ignore the details?
All these factors provided the perfect preconditions for the emergence of fake news. There is no such thing as objective truth, so it does not matter if the story is right or wrong, written by a journalist or by a political activist. All that really matters is that my tribe wins power. Any means to that end is permissible. Add in the invention of social media — the ultimate postmodern toolbox — and there is no limit to what we might say or do to pursue our own ends.
The only surprising thing is the outrage that has emerged around the topic of fake news. Neither side of the political spectrum seems capable of agreeing on just what counts as fake news, but both sides are certain that fake news is abhorrent and ultimately the other side’s fault. Suddenly, we care about truth after having so long denied it, but if you scratch the surface, the issue is not really truth as such. The problem that we have with fake news is not that it is denying our ability to know objective and unbiased facts. Our problem with fake news is that our political enemies use it more effectively than we do.
The Church has a crucial role to play in responding to all of this. That role, however, is not to become just another political actor. Far too often, Christians have been co-opted by one political faction or another. Even worse, many American Christians have so imbibed the spirit of postmodernism that they honestly believe that the Church is just one more agency designed to aid us along the road to a more complete personal autonomy. None of that squares with being a disciple of Jesus Christ who told us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” not only for some people who choose to believe in him, but for all people because “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
As Christians, we are called to share the Good News about Jesus with the world. In a society that has embraced fake news and denied the existence of objective truth, that is an almost impossible task. Neither the word “good” nor the word “news” have shared meaning in our culture today. Our job, then, is to do what the Church has so often had to do and build from the ground up. We need to make the case not only for the ultimate truth of Jesus Christ but for the very idea of truth itself.
90 million people, roughly forty percent of the eligible voting population, did not vote in the 2016 election. Many today choose not to engage with any kind of news, fake or otherwise. Many realize that the structures we have built in the wake of postmodernism have failed to give us what we need, even if they cannot articulate why that is the case. The Church needs to be at the center of a truth revolution in our society. Despite the many deeply entrenched voices in our culture that continue to promote postmodern personalism, the Church needs to proclaim boldly and loudly that there is a real truth — one that is true for everyone — and that coming to know that truth in the person of Jesus is the only thing that can ultimately define us and the only thing that will ultimately satisfy us.