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A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

Imagine a country. For over fifty years, it was the dominant economic and military force in the world. Its people were prosperous. Its way of living admired. It led the world in science and art. Its culture admired the world over. It produced a wealth of fabulous artists, writers and thinkers. 

It then got involved with a costly overseas war. That lasted for decades. That it couldn't win. That bankrupt it. The faith of its people in the leaders was tested. They had believed that the country was invincible. Its religion mighty and true. Its army undefeatable. 

The result? Its political class split.

One group believed that the country needed to return to traditional roots. That the new ways of thinking had undermined the country's strength. That a return to the old ways would reinvigorate it. The old faith had to re-emerge. Stronger and more vital than before. 

Another group blamed the establishment. The politicians and the aristocracy. They wanted to suspend democracy. Impose an oligarchy of hard-edged money-makers who would return the country to prosperity. Permanently shut up those that thought and acted differently. Making sure they couldn't stay in the country. Or something worse. 

A third group wanted to move in new directions. To challenge the traditional ways of viewing the world. To question everything. To work out better ways of living. To discover a better morality that can provide the good life to all. 

There was a clash between types of knowledge. One group used stories to emphasise the traditional value of the culture. To create an emotional distrust of newfangled ideas and a deep attachment to a mythological past.

The second group employed professional orators and rhetoricians to persuade people of the worth of their political position. The quality of the idea was irrelevant to these people. It could be self-interested, altruistic, warmongering, peaceful. The only motive was to win the argument.

The third group tried to discover and explain how the world really worked. They distrusted the storytellers and argued with the orators. For them, there was real truth to be discovered and it was being obscured by politicised debate.

Among this cultural split, a fourth group emerged. A group of comic funnymen began to satirically attack those involved in the debates. They parodied people across all the groups, making them look foolish and self-interested.

In this chaotic environment, the great power began to lose its cultural influence. Countries that had relied on its benevolence began to go their own way. Those that had feared its might began to rattle their sabres. Fearful and anxious about the country's future, the political classes got mired in internal infighting, failing to address the real needs of the civilization.

Within a few decades, this once mighty power was forced to accede to the demands of a rival civilization, Philip the Great's Macedonian Empire. Yes, I'm talking about Ancient Athens.

Where did you think I was talking about?

These tensions caused the collapse of Athenian power. A number of dictatorial oligarchies emerged. Blaming a system that allowed anyone to play a role in political life, they believed that only "the best and most qualified men" should deliberate about public affairs and make the laws. For them, that was not decided via meritocratic means, but decided by birth. The nobility were naturally the best. The rest, lacking.

The worst of these? The Thirty Tyrants, who killed 5% of Athenian citizens! Even though they were eventually overthrown, Athens never refound the vigorous democracy for which it was famed. Eventually, shorn of might and power, it became a Roman vassel. And Rome, in its brutalist political outlook, banned philosophical thought. Once great minds reduced to slaves teaching children basic maths.

Alongside this shift in political structure from democracy to oligarchy, and the accompanying violence and social upheaval, many new concepts and ways of thinking emerged.

  1. Rational philosophy (via Plato's concept of the rational part of the soul)
  2. Natural sciences (via Hippocrates and Aristotle)
  3. Comedy as an artform (Aristophanes' comedies played a vital role in Socrates' fate)
  4. Satire (Socrates was a figurehead for the satirical form)
  5. Spin doctoring (or sophistry)
  6. The art of rhetoric (Plato's attempt to separate moral speaking from sophistry)

From them, modern civilization was built. What might emerge in our current post-truth times?

Will a new form of post-human philosophical intelligence arise in AI? Or will it merely be a tool of embedded power?

Will the digital revolution result in widespread sophistry becoming the driving force of social change? Or will rationalist forces reassert themselves?

Will social satirists like Jon Stewart and John Oliver become increasingly influential? Or will their voices be silenced by a new oligarchic power?

Only time will tell.

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Saturday, 04 July 2020

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