Wel­come to the post-truth gen­er­a­tion

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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