Oxford’s Word of the Year: Post-truthWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Each year, Oxford Dictionaries chooses a freshly popular word as its international Word of the Year. In the editors’ opinion, it’s the word that best reflects the mood of the culture at the moment. The choices can range from the sublime to the ridiculous; in 2015, it wasn’t a word at all, but an emoji, the “face with tears of joy.”
Still, given Oxford’s role as the preeminent curators of English vocabulary, the selection for Word of the Year carries a certain status, albeit mingled with a healthy dollop of irony. It’s sort of a linguistic rite of passage, a signal that the word in question has passed from trendy colloquialism into universal usage.
The winner for 2016 is “post-truth,” which Oxford defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Or in plainer English, “the facts don’t really matter, only my feelings do.”
Emojis aside, the folks at Oxford appear to have nailed it dead-on this time. Not only does “post-truth” capture the prevailing mood, it highlights one of our culture’s most basic beliefs about reality.
Beyond “post-truth politics”
“Post-truth” came into its own in 2016 thanks to two major political events: the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. Both were highly charged affairs in which people on all sides reacted with visceral, partisan emotion, often ignoring facts in favour of falsehoods that suited their position. The press dubbed this phenomenon, in which truth took a back seat to feelings, “post-truth politics.”
But the implications of “post-truth” run far deeper than mere politics. As the editors of Oxford pointed out, there’s been a rash of words in recent times with the “post” prefix attached: postmodern, post-colonial and the like. In many cases, this doesn’t simply mean “after,” as in post-game or postgraduate. Rather it’s a disavowal of what came before as no longer being important or relevant.
And so it is with “post-truth,” a word that sums up the current zeitgeist more accurately than Oxford may have intended.
A love affair with relativism
For decades now, western culture has had a love affair with relativism. Truth – objective reality outside of oneself – is increasingly felt to be unknowable or even non-existent. Consequently, any claims to know the truth are met with scorn in the public arena, or viewed as an oppressive bid for power. Instead of absolute truth, there are only “personal truths” – a euphemism for subjective desires that shift with time and circumstance.
Personal feelings as ultimate authority
In this truth-vacuum, the feelings of the individual have been elevated to the place of highest authority. Indeed, they’ve come to be equated with a person’s very identity, with reality itself. Thus to merely disagree with another’s “personal truth” is considered to be an act of hatred.
The greatest commandment has now become, “Follow your heart and do as you please.” And a second is like it, “Don’t you dare question how others follow their hearts and do as they please.”
Sadly the Christian church is not immune to this corrosive worldview. The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, recently commented on the problem in a piece entitled, “Progressive evangelical leaders meet to affirm doctrine of ‘sola feels.’” A humorous parody on the classic five solas of the Protestant Reformation, “sola feels” asserts that “one’s feelings are the supreme authority in all matters of theology and practice. . . . Thus, things that make us feel bad, those are wrong. The things that give us all the happy feels, those are true, right, and good.”
Frankly, it feels disconcerting to realize how much truth there is in this satirical observation.
Jesus and the truth
Jesus, it should be noted, did not place feelings ahead of truth, much less did He consider truth to be irrelevant or unknowable. Quite the contrary, He promised His disciples that they would know the truth, and that the truth would set them free (John 8:32). He Himself claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). He even confronted “post-truth” in His own day, in the form of Pontius Pilate’s sarcastic question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
But Pilate’s retort notwithstanding, Jesus affirmed that He’d come to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). That truth, grounded in the person of God, is knowable, objective and absolute. God is who He is, not who we might imagine Him to be. Accordingly, His creation – all of reality – is the way it is, the way He’s designed and revealed it to be, whether we recognize it or not.
Of course, the ultimate expression of God’s truth is found in the Gospel – not a feeling or a subjective belief, but an unchangeable historical event through which God reconciled the world to Himself.
No one can deny that feelings are also part of God’s created order. They’re a gift to humanity, one facet of what it means to be made in God’s image. But they’re not the core essence of who we are. They’re designed to respond to the truth and be shaped by it, not the other way around.
Feelings won’t save us or set us free. Only the truth can do that.
In a “post-truth” world, this may be the biggest challenge facing the church of Jesus Christ – to bear witness to the truth as her Lord did, regardless of the consequences.
Sources and further reading
Associated Press, “‘Post-truth’ selected as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” CBC News, November 16, 2016.
BBC Editorial, “‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” BBC News, November 16, 2016.
Andrew Calcutt, “The surprising origins of ‘post-truth’ – and how it was spawned by the liberal left,” MercatorNet, November 22, 2016.
Alison Flood, “‘Post-truth’ named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” The Guardian, November 15, 2016.
Denise C. McAllister, “The left decries our ‘post-truth’ society while pushing the ideas that fuel it,” The Federalist, November 18, 2016.
Carolyn Moynihan, “To tell the truth, it’s not a ‘post-truth’ world,” MercatorNet, November 18, 2016.
Wallis Snowdon, “Have we smothered the facts?: ‘Post-truth’ named word of the year,” CBC News, November 18, 2016.
Ed Stetzer, “An embarrassing week for Christians sharing fake news,” Christianity Today, July 13, 2015.
John Stonestreet, “A post-truth era?” BreakPoint, November 18, 2016.
John Stonestreet, “Post-truth, the word of the year: Feelings have replaced facts,” BreakPoint, November 22, 2016.
Amy B. Wang, “‘Post-truth’ named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” Washington Post, November 16, 2016.
A satirical article showing how “post-truth” has affected the Christian church, “Progressive evangelical leaders meet to affirm doctrine of ‘sola feels’,” Babylon Bee, October 26, 2016.
Oxford Dictionaries offers additional background regarding the selection of “post-truth” as its Word of the Year, available here and here.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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