Welcome to the post-truth generation
Fake news, dishonest politicians and half truths: why is it now OK to lie?
Love your new haircut; sorry to cancel,working late; of course yellow is your colour… Which of these statements is true, which is false, and does it matter either way? We’re living in a post-truth age. Whether it’s a hashtag or news headline, your BFF or a president, knowing who and what to believe has never been more complicated.
ELLE asked five debut authors about the lies they tell and the
truths they speak. Oh, and seriously – it is a great haircut
‘IF SPEAKING THE TRUTH, EVEN WHEN THAT’S DIFFICULT, IS BEING A BULLY, THEN I’LL BE THAT’ Luvvie Ajayi, cultural commentator and author of I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual (Henry Holt & Co)
One of my biggest core values is honesty; telling the truth about life is of utmost importance to me. Lying is something
I try my best not to do, because whatever I say, I feel like I need to be able to stand by it. Plus, to tell a lie is to add something else to my brain’s rolodex of things to keep track of, and who has the time? I’d rather catalogue senseless pop-culture trivia, like the fact there are 14 actors who appeared in the Harry Potter films who have also been in the Game of Thrones
TV series. You’re welcome.
I’m not saying that, from time to time, lying is something we need to do to function in the world. Yes, your son burned the toast, but you might give him a high five and say it tastes OK to encourage him to try again later. Sure, you tell your best friend that her tennis game is getting better, even though she misses most serves. Those are small things and, in the larger scheme, they don’t do much damage. But lying about who we are, what we believe in and the things around us that influence larger systems is detrimental to all of us.
As a writer and culture critic, I’m known for speaking my truth, even when it ruffles feathers. After all, I’m the author of a book called I’m Judging You. I consider myself a professional troublemaker, and many agree, because I am the person who says what people are thinking but won’t say. Like when your really loud aunt who loves Facebook posts a link to a site that isn’t real, and is outraged by whatever ‘news’ it’s spouting. I’m the person who rolls through to tell her to delete it because it’s not real. And people come behind me to co-sign, but I have to be the one to say it first. Or the fact that the new make-up trend of contouring and highlighting has people looking like cartoon villains. A make-up artist tried it on me once, and I promise I looked like Cruella de Vil’s twin. I’m the person who will write an opinion piece about how the world goes to hell in a handbasket because, historically, ‘good people’ have allowed bad people to do bad things.
I’m the person who recently went on a Twitter rant, telling bloggers to speak up when injustice happens, even though it might not fit their ‘brand’. Why? Because real people are being affected by what’s happening in the real world. Colour me shocked when that simple challenge was met with a severe backlash. Those who felt my appeal was a personal affront called me a bully. If speaking the truth, even when that’s difficult, is being a bully, then I’ll be that.
My opinions, although often tough to swallow, are based on consideration of facts and logic. That is necessary, and it makes me uncomfortable to know that others do the opposite.
There is no doubt that social media has helped create this throne of lies we’re sitting on. With the information superhighway at our fingertips, we should be more discerning about what we consume. Google is open 24 hours a day and doesn’t even charge you for parking, but people won’t visit it to get the information they need. Instead, they will rely on whatever comes across their social media timeline, regardless of the source. The internet has ruined our ability to know what’s real, what’s fake and what needs to be questioned or disregarded. This information is getting just as much consideration as bona fide news, and that is the problem. I’ve fallen for fake news in the past, but then I realised I just need to ask myself three questions: does this seem believable on the most basic level, is the website reputable, and is this news reported elsewhere?
It grinds my gears to see how fast fake news spreads on the web now. Every other day, celebrities who are alive and well find out that they’ve died via the internet. Do you know how many times Morgan Freeman has been killed by the internet? Too many to count. But Morgan was Jesus’ locker partner in the third grade, and he will not succumb to these hoaxes!
There are, and of course always will be, the conspiracy theorists who think Beyoncé had a phantom pregnancy and Blue Ivy was delivered by a surrogate. Or the people who are convinced that Elvis Presley is still alive and well. Those people can’t be helped.
Lies aren’t just harmless. We see what happens when people take falsehoods and run with them. At the minimum, it’s annoying. However, on a large scale, things like the EU referendum result and the outcome of the US presidential election actually happened. People allowed fake news to inform their political choices, which had global ramifications that aren’t easy to come back from.
Sometimes, fake news is meant to be satirical. But satire doesn’t just mean
‘tell a lie and put a winky face behind it’.
As a humorist, I think it’s lazy, and ‘satire’ cannot be a get-out-of-truth card. You cannot use the guise of satire to be libelous, because all it does is remove accountability from someone who is being irresponsible. Not all satire is bad, but the line between lambasting culture by poking fun with irony and tricking people into believing you’re giving them news is too thin. In this post-truth world, where critical thinking seems to be on permanent vacation, here we are. People have to ask themselves how this loose definition of satire is damaging our world.
Where do we go from here, though? Start by telling your friends who question nothing to take a stand every time they’re outraged about fake news. And those of us who are truth-tellers need to recommit ourselves to speaking up. It might get more difficult, but these are the times when it is most necessary. We cannot let this ‘post-truth’ atmosphere silence us, because a whisper of truth still matters in an echo chamber of lies.
‘I REIMAGINED THE ROAD TRAFFIC ACCIDENT THAT KILLED HIM, PIECING TOGETHER ALL I KNEW ABOUT THE EVENT AND ADDING A DIFFERENT ENDING, WHERE HE EMERGED FROM THE WRECKAGE’ Ayobami Adebayo, author of Stay With
Me (Canongate), published in March
If I had to pick the day I decided to let people believe my father was still alive, I would choose the day before his funeral. I was at our pastor’s house in Ilesa, Nigeria, playing in front of the parsonage with his two daughters. The radio was on inside the house, and we could hear the broadcast as we played a game of tag. Although I’d been spending a lot of time with them since my father passed away, my playmates didn’t talk about my father or what had just happened to him. We played games, chatted about what we wanted for our next birthdays – my sixth birthday was a few months away – the pastor’s wife plied me with snacks whenever I seemed subdued, and it was easy to pretend that my world hadn’t recently been upended. Then, that evening, the local radio station ran my father’s obituary.
The game of tag stopped as soon as my father’s name was mentioned. My playmates stared at me as the voice on the radio reeled out the raw facts of my father’s life: date of birth, date of death, funeral arrangements, and survivors, of whom I was one. Whatever the pastor had told his daughters about tact hadn’t prepared them for this moment. After what felt like a million years, the obituary, which was sponsored by a charity my father had presided over, ended. But the girls continued to stare, as though a third eye had appeared on the bridge of my nose.
About a year later, my family moved to another town, I started attending a new school and my classmates presumed that, like them, I still had a father. When they talked about their fathers’ idiosyncrasies, I would talk about my father, too, always in present tense. When older people greeted me by asking, ‘How is your dad?’ I simply said, ‘Fine.’ I deflected direct questions by reaching for stories about him and framing them as though the events had happened just the day before. I knew I was lying when I talked about him as though he still took me to watch him play table tennis on Saturdays, but the deception was comforting and no one looked at me as though I had a third eye.
It wasn’t long before I began to wonder: what if ? What if when I said he was fine, he actually was? What if the lies I told by omission and prevarication were true, and what I had believed to be reality – that my father had died in a road traffic accident – was the lie? What if he had been alive all along?
I stopped talking about my father altogether. When a discussion turned to fathers among my classmates, I would tune out or excuse myself. But in my mind, he came alive. I spent hours thinking about where he was and what he was doing, how in that moment he was trying to find his way back home, back to me. I reimagined the road traffic accident that killed him, piecing together all I knew about the event and adding a different ending to it, one where he emerged from the wreckage alive.
I realised during this phase that in order to build a plot that is compelling enough to compete with reality, the details are crucial. That’s where the delusion lies. In my favourite scene, set in a future time when my father came home again, it wasn’t convincing if I imagined that he was wearing a suit. If he was wearing a dark-blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie, things came into focus. If all the clothes were frayed because they were second-hand, then it could all be true.
After all, his certificates were still at home, so he couldn’t have been able to get a job and would have had to depend on charity until he found his way back home…
‘My father is dead.’ The first person
I said those words to was a friend whose father lived abroad. We’d known each other for four years, and she thought that my father, who had now been dead for nearly a decade, was still alive. We were in secondary school, we’d just finished exams and would soon be going on holidays. She was talking about how excited she was to see her father during the holidays when I blurted out, ‘My father is dead.’ She stared at me for a while, then reached out and held my hand. There was no going back to thinking my father might still be alive after that day.
Something strange happened during the holidays: I opened a blank notebook and, before the break was over, filled it with short stories. Why did I suddenly turn to fiction when all I’d written until then was poetry? Perhaps it was just time, or I was bored. It could be that I’d finally admitted the truth and, as painful as it was, it had set me free from the single story that had consumed my imagination until then.
‘HE LIED ABOUT HIS JOB AS A DOCTOR, UNTIL ONE EVENING IN 1983, WHEN, BELIEVING HE WAS ABOUT TO BE EXPOSED, HE MURDERED HIS WIFE’ Emma Flint, author of Little Deaths (Picador)
We all lie. I lie out of laziness and habit, to make stories interesting or more amusing. I lie because I’d rather stay at home and
read a book than venture across London on a damp evening to make conversation with people I don’t know. I lie because, yes, your haircut does look awful, but there’s nothing to be done until it grows back. These are the small lies; the kind lies.
Some of us tell bigger lies because we’ve lost our jobs, or we’re in debt – we no longer love you, or we’re having affairs, and we’re too sad or too scared or too ashamed to tell the truth.
Crime novels are built on these lies. The biggest lie of all is at the core (I didn’t kill her), but this is concealed among the other lies (I came straight home; I was asleep; we never argued). The job of the crime writer is to mete out the truth in careful spoonfuls, sprinkled among the untruths and red herrings, and make the reader work to understand who is lying, and why.
I write stories about murder, and so I write about lies and the people who tell them, and the people who are hurt by them. My novel, Little Deaths, began with a lie. I first read about the real Ruth Malone
[the novel’s real-life protagonist] when
I was 16, and the details stayed with me for 20 years. I remembered the photographs of her two smiling children who vanished from their New York apartment one hot
‘The job of the crime writer is to mete out the truth in careful spoonfuls, and make the reader work to understand who is lying, and why’
July night, and were later found dead. I remembered the photographs of their mother: perfectly dressed and made-up, tiny amid groups of men in suits and police in uniform. And I remembered the discrepancy between what she told the police she’d fed the children for their last meal, and what was discovered at the autopsy – and wondered why, of all the lies she could have told to cover up what happened, she would lie about that detail. I became fascinated with lies and what they can lead to when I read about Jean-Claude Romand, who lied to his family and friends for 18 years. He lied about his job as a doctor, about what he did every day, until one evening in 1993, when, believing he was about to be exposed, he murdered his wife and children, his parents and their dogs.
I find it hard to tell lies, especially in person: I blush, I stammer, I worry that the lie will unravel and become worse than the truth. I can’t imagine the kind of mind that would be able to maintain a lie of Romand’s magnitude for this long – and it intrigues me that it exists. We all think we’re good at spotting lies and liars, yet this man fooled dozens of people for almost 20 years.
In fiction, good writing is built on magic, not on concepts of truth and untruth – and yet, truth is central to its success. Good writing makes the ordinary extraordinary. Think of a group of people on a station platform waiting for a train, and then think of Ezra Pound’s poem, In a Station of the Metro, viewing them as ‘petals on a wet black bough’. Or think of plants in water and the shapes they make – and then read Ernest Hemingway’s description of a ‘great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket’ in his novel, The Old Man and the Sea. Good writing turns something that we’ve seen or tasted or smelled a hundred times before into something that we experience with fresh senses – and yet we have to hold a true memory of a row of pale faces, or the sight of waving seaweed in the ocean, for either of these examples to work. And equally, good writing turns the extraordinary – terror, grief, ecstasy – into something so ordinary, so relatable, that it can be experienced by the reader as true feeling rather than as rational thought. Is that alchemy a lie? A trick? Do you read a piece of writing that you love and feel deceived? Or do you feel transported?
I believe that fiction make us see the truth of the world and the people in it more clearly. Imagine a world where we could only recount exactly what has happened. Fiction and stories would not exist without the concept of lies; imagination would be stifled without the realisation that we do not have to deal only in facts. Once that is accepted, our imagination is limitless. I find telling lies, or the fear of being caught, fairly traumatic. I remember telling a French teacher at primary school that the reason I was making sobbing noises was not, in fact, due to playground politics, but because I’d developed, aged nine, a form of incurable cancer. What kind? A new kind. I wanted her to stop asking questions, and cancer was a word that shut people up. ‘Blue cancer,’ I said. Mademoiselle Sauvage, if you’re reading: I’m so sorry.
That was pre-smartphones, before lies could be caught out instantly. In the early days of secondary school (MSN messenger era), I told a classmate who suspected me of being a lesbian that I’d recently kissed a boy. The boy was real, the kiss was not. He was someone I was sure she’d never meet, but it felt more convincing to attach a real name to the lie. Then later, when Facebook colonised our school, the classmate and the boy somehow became ‘Friends’ and I decided I could never speak to either of them again.
Facebook ushered in the social surveillance my generation is now used to, Wikipedia made us fact-checkers and Google made us sleuths. It now seems impossible to lie without being caught.
Blue cancer still haunts me. I’m certain that, as the inventor of this fictitious disease, I’ll become its first victim.
As I wrote my first novel, Sympathy, in 2014, about the deceptive charm of living out our fantasies online, events I made up began to manifest around me. I drew a lot from newspaper articles to contextualise my fictional plot, and, eerily, it was as if that brought some of the fictitious elements to life. Without having read my writing, a boy I was dating started saying things straight out of the mouth of the male character the protagonist begins dating. The first chapter is about one of the main characters having a terrible fever and going to hospital in New York, which happened to me when I went to the city to promote the book. Coincidence? Maybe, or just another example of the fluid relationship between the real and imaginary worlds.
Some people think novelists lie for a living, but it’s a definition that feels alien to me because I’m more interested in telling a kind of truth. By weaving in what my readers will remember from the news at the time my book is set, I wanted all the characters and events in that book to feel as if they might have really happened. Novels aren’t aiming to conceal anything. Except perhaps their author, but even then, I feel exposed by writing.
Fiction writers have an important role now. We need to harness ambiguity and lure our readers into sympathising with people unlike them. Grab them by the plot twist and make them think about reality in a different way. Novels aren’t ‘real’, and they don’t pretend to be, but as philosopher Albert Camus said: ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’
‘FACEBOOK USHERED IN THE SOCIAL SURVEILLANCE MY GENERATION IS NOW USED TO, WIKIPEDIA MADE US FACT-CHECKERS AND GOOGLE MADE US SLEUTHS’ Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy
(One/Pushkin Press), published in May ‘The truth is uglier and more unpopular than ever, which means there is all the more need to tell it’ ‘IT’S HARD TO REMEMBER WHAT WAS WHAT SOMETIMES; EVEN WHAT I NOTED IN DIARIES WAS PART FACT, PRIMARILY FIBS’ Yomi Adegoke, journalist, producer and co-author of Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible (Fourth Estate), published in spring 2018
My childhood memories tend to blur, largely because of my propensity for fudging the truth as a child. It’s hard to remember what was what sometimes; even what I noted in diaries was part fact, primarily fibs. The childhood anecdotes I scrawled consisted of the sleepovers I hadn’t been allowed to attend, like some kind of alternate reality where my strict Nigerian parents were far more laid-back. I’d spend Sundays at church being told specifically not to lie and then, come Monday morning, spin the answer to the question, ‘How did you spend your weekend?’ into a fabulous funday. Prayer in church pews became a trip to a petting zoo, puffy and frilled ‘Sunday best’ mutated into an outfit fresh from a Mis-Teeq video. I didn’t just stick to white lies by any means: mine were a whole rainbow of untruths.
When I was five, I told my little sister that the reason the concoction of rain water, lavender and leaves we mixed in a bucket in our garden had disappeared the next day was because fairies from our garden shed had drank it, making tiny straws out of blades of grass. I hadn’t yet learned what evaporation was, but I knew what I was telling her was a crock of shit. Like most children, I soon tired of imaginary things and became far more fixated on reality.
Fast-forward several years and porkies were replaced by harsh realities. But telling the truth as an adult has brought its own problems. Telling friends what I think of a new hairstyle, a new boyfriend or a life-changing decision has often seen me on the receiving end of sarcastic, ‘Wow, tell us how you really feel,’ type comments from those who really wish I hadn’t. Honesty, while honourable, moral and inherently right, is not always easy.
This has been nowhere more evident than with writing. More specifically, articles about the truth – uncomfortable truths – have never been as easy to write as simply penning whatever it is people want to hear. Pieces on white supremacy and sexism, and how the two combined create a doubly crippling cocktail of fuckery, have won me more enemies than friends on the internet. I’ve been bombarded with racial slurs and insults, and I’ve been trolled on Twitter in a way I could have avoided had I said these problems no longer existed. But that would be lying. And while it may be cute at five, 20 years later, one would like to think that the truth can’t be too difficult to tell nor too difficult to hear. However, as the horrifically prejudiced, offensive comments section on just about any article calling out racism prove, for many, the truth is something they cannot handle.
That’s the thing about lying: it’s easier for all involved. It requires no skill, no hard work and, most of all, no courage. It’s why we do it so much as children – it’s lazy, it’s a shortcut and one that often avoids the discomfort of both parties involved. The recent boom in fake news and post-truth politics proves it: people would rather be coddled with lies than confronted with facts.
I look back and laugh at my childhood fabrications, but the stakes of a cheeky child trying to lie their way out of homework are far less high than the ones we currently face. With ever-increasing xenophobia, the truth is uglier and more unpopular than ever, which means there is all the more need to tell it. Deceptive, scapegoating articles must be combatted with the facts. The terrifying fallout from the lies is far worse than the consequences of the truth, as scary as they can be. The truth right now isn’t simply noble – it’s needed.