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The Dumb Economy, Post Truth, Fake News & Other Linguistic Confusions

Jan 27, 2017 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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Introduction:  The Twilight Zone

Language is a tool for concealing the truth. - George Carlin.

“Post-truth” has recently been named as the word of 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries. It is one of the concepts that, in our current political environment, seems to embody dislocation from what we have assumed is a logical world: Trumpit time – the age of President Trump and Brexit in surreal conjunction. It is one of those terms, like fake news or the knowledge economy, that bewilders if we stop momentarily to consider what it really means. Linguists like to talk about “families” of languages; post-truth belongs to a dysfunctional family of concepts that subvert the idea of a rational universe.

There is an unholy trinity of current concepts that illustrate semantic dislocation: the knowledge economy, post-truth and fake news move us towards a place described by Rod Serling as “another dimension … a land of both shadow and substance: the Twilight Zone”. [1]

The knowledge economy: a dumb idea?

            Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein

This is not the easiest term to understand. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has a try: “economies which are directly based on the production, distribution and use of knowledge and information.” [2] However, Walter W. Powell and Kaisa Snellman admit that: “our understanding of the purported knowledge economy remains rather hazy.” [3]

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I am not an economist but I wonder if there was ever a time when the “use of knowledge” was not critical for economic development. Before my time, knowing how to produce fire was probably quite significant. Economies have always required some kind of knowledge to do much. Ignorance has rarely proved to be a catalyst for the production of anything other than more ignorance.

Knowledge is also not the same thing as wisdom. We have technologies that give us access to unprecedented sources of knowledge but we would risk the discomfort or our forefathers (spinning in their noble graves) if we were to assume that this meant that we were wiser than them. Socrates (who was no dummy) said that wisdom meant recognizing that we have no knowledge: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” [4]

There is, then, something problematic about the “knowledge economy”. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance. At the other end of a spectrum of variables, there ought, perhaps, to be something called “the dumb (or ignorant) economy”. Closer to the center of that spectrum, we might expect to find “a rather-ill-informed economy” or “hasn’t-a-clue-about-much-economy”.

It may be that you think this is pedantic and perverse because we all sort of understand what is really meant by the term. That may be true but a failure to challenge linguistic distortion is more than just lazy. Reality is defined by the language with which we describe it. The knowledge economy is an ostensibly simple notion but it implies a political environment in which tangible, concrete production of things that people want to buy is no longer valued: the manufacture and sales of desirable objects is no longer a measure of productivity. The skills needed to produce these goods, and the communities who prospered through these activities, are redundant. There is a human cost embedded in the priority given to the “knowledge economy”.

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 The concept of the knowledge economy may be elusive but, whatever it might mean, it is not part of what is sometimes called the “real economy”: “concerned with actually producing goods and service.” [5] The knowledge economy resides more comfortably within what we might call an unreal economy. It also carries a hidden political agenda which obscures individual suffering and communal anguish.

Post-truth: Where is Eden?

            A lie told often enough becomes the truth. - Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin

That thought leads inexorably back to the notion of “post-truth”, a cause for further befuddlement. The prefix “post” means “after” implying, therefore, that, before these mendacious days, there existed a time of truth: a somewhat Edenic notion that suggests we have passed from a state of innocent veracity to our current condition of corruption. When was this golden age when politicians spoke the truth? Not I believe in any of our lifetimes (however old you are) nor, I suspect, in any time in the twentieth century within which propaganda was refined into a political art. Joseph Goebbels, for example, led Hitler’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda: a paradoxical collocation that is both chilling and more remarkable than any that a novelist might invent. George Orwell’s efforts in 1984 are pallid by comparison. [6]

We may well have to go back very far indeed to find this age of truth --perhaps, this is pure speculation -- to Genghis Khan who, one might imagine, really meant it when he said “move out of my way or I’ll slaughter you!”

Post-truth offers a puzzling scenario. It suggests a historical process: a developmental sequence. When a “post” is applied to other concepts such as “modern” or “life”, there are detectable meanings. A literary critic or art historian might make some sense out of the progression from pre-modern, through modern, to post-modern. Notions of pre-life, life, and post-life have some kind of odd semantic logic. Applying the same sequence to truth is far more problematic. A futile, albeit entertaining task, would be to try to allocate dates to these periods in human history: pre-truth; truth, and post-truth. Deciding when we were pre-truth might while away a few hours (or days? years?). It would also meld with the post-truth period in that both of these disturbing times were marked by the absence of “truth”.

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Propaganda is a synonym for “post-truth”; it contains the notion that information can be distorted to endorse or “propagate” a particular point-of-view. A strategic intention is to blur the line between verifiable fact and opinion, and to undermine the status of truth to a malleable element subservient to ideological objectives and priorities. The utility of the concept was defined precisely at Obersalzberg in 1939: “The victor will not be asked later on whether he told the truth or not” (Adolf Hitler).

The ugly sibling of post-truth is fake news. It offers a bizarre oxymoron. The idea of news is based on reportage of some version of external reality, albeit filtered through interpretation. In contrast, fake is something demonstrably false. Fake news defines the external world by that which the reporter wishes were true. The division between ideological preference and the external world is eroded. Reality becomes a malleable fiction.

Without further forays into pedantic surrealism, we can determine that these terms are close cousins to lying or deceit. They belong to a linguistic family of euphemisms that include “economical with the truth” and “terminological inexactitude.” [7]

These concepts reflect paradoxical times. They may make little sense in a semantic context but are critical to a political rhetoric in which evidence is secondary to polemics and reality is reconstructed through ideology.

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Conclusion: Post-upset

I do not want to suggest that as educators we should be merely upset by these linguistic distortions. I do suggest, however, that we should be post-upset; a state of critical, analytical, intelligent calm in which we recognize that certain concepts degrade thought. A key tool in the business of education is the language we use to teach our students; we know that it is not neutral. It is full of hidden deceits, pitfalls and illusions, and embeds any number of assumptions that may or may not stand up to proper scrutiny or to the laws of logic.

I also recognize that an imperative to review everything we say before we say it can only lead towards a lunatic, permanent silence. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” [8] If we cannot say anything without analyzing it first, it might be quite difficult to move around the place, buy groceries, get a haircut, or make nice to friends and strangers.

Nevertheless, we live in an age of bizarre collocations. It would make little difference if we were to describe this as a fake-truth, post-knowledge environment, in which we suppress news of the dumb economy. In this twilight zone, we might be a bit more thoughtful and analytical. As a minimum, we have a responsibility to try and deconstruct the implied meanings of key phrases for our students. After all, they may still believe that we inhabit a rational world and that the purpose of language is to enlighten and inform.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that wasn’t a delusion?

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[1] The classic TV series, “The Twilight Zone, ran from 1959 to 1964.
[2] “The Knowledge-based Economy”, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and development, Paris 1996
[3] Walter W. Powel and Kaisa Snellman, “The Knowledge Economy”, Annual Review of Sociology, 2005, p.199.
[4] Plato, “The Apology of Socrates””, 399 BC.
[5] “The Financial Times Lexicon” from The Longman Business English Dictionary: http://lexicon.ft.com/Term?term=real-economy
[6] The Ministry of Truth is responsible for re-writing history; the Ministry of Love conducts brainwashing and torture; The Ministry of Plenty is responsible for shortage; The Ministry of Peace, of course, conducts war.
[7] The term was first used by Edmund Burke in 1796. It was most famously resurrected by UK Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, during the Australian 'Spycatcher' trial in 1986. Terminological inexactitude was first used by Winston Churchill in 1906.
[8] From “Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama”, 1932.

Thanks Mike!

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Topics: International Education